Everyone wants to talk to the man with the money

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 April, 2007, 12:00am

Lou Jiwei, a former deputy minister of finance who was appointed last month to head what will be one of the world's biggest investment funds, has remained conspicuously absent from public view despite intense media interest at home and abroad ... and with good reason.

As a deputy secretary-general of the State Council, Mr Lou, a trained economist-turned-technocrat, will oversee the creation and management of a government agency to manage up to US$200 billion, allocated from the mainland's foreign exchange reserves. His agency is likely to take over even more as the reserves, which reached more than US$1 trillion at the end of last year, are continuing to rise strongly.

Understandably, he has become the most sought-after mainland official among the largest US, European and mainland banks and fund managers hoping to win lucrative contracts to manage the funds.

But Mr Lou's mind is elsewhere, according to the bankers who have met him. With eyes watching him everywhere, Mr Lou will have a tough battle ahead, with his mandate not just to set up the agency but also help restructure the mainland's financial assets.

Over the coming months, Mr Lou's political will and wisdom will be put to the test as he tries to resist lobbying from interest groups over how the investment agency should be structured and what its investment philosophy will be.

Mr Lou's first test will be whether he can manage to centralise the management and investment of the mainland's financial assets, which are controlled by government ministries.

For instance, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange manages the country's foreign exchange reserves, the China Securities Regulatory Commission oversees the assets of the state-owned brokerages and China Insurance Regulatory Commission has the final say over the asset management of the state insurers. A centralised structure will help improve management and generate higher returns, but this is bound to find heavy resistance.

His second test will be over the mission of the newly created investment agency, whether to invest at home or overseas. Less than one month into his job, Mr Lou has already received a long list of projects from central government ministries and the provinces, urging the new agency to invest first in projects on the mainland.

But it's his intention to invest in high-quality assets abroad as investments in domestic projects would only inject more liquidity into the economy and so defeat the purpose of creating the agency to diversify the reserves.

The third test is whether the agency should make direct investments or leave this to the professionals. Mr Lou appears to favour the second option because, as a senior mainland financial official for many years, he has had an intimate knowledge of the limits and confines of mainland bureaucrats acting as fund managers.

Although the agency is modelled after Singapore's Temasek Holdings, it will not operate like Temasek. One big difference is that Temasek operates entirely according to market forces, paying highly competitive salaries for first-rate professionals to work in-house, whereas Mr Lou's agency will be manned mainly by government officials.

One official from the World Bank, which advises Mr Lou's agency, reportedly told him and other mainland officials the key to the success of the agency is: manager, manager, and manager.