Saudi Arabia withdraws $70b from global funds

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia has withdrawn $70 billion from global asset managers as Opec’s largest oil producer seeks to plug its budget deficit, according to financial services market intelligence company Insight Discovery.

“Fund managers we’ve spoken to estimate Sama has pulled out between $50 billion to $70 billion from global asset managers over the past six months,” Nigel Sillitoe, chief executive officer (CEO) of the Dubai-based firm, said on Monday. “Saudi Arabia is withdrawing funds because it’s trying to cut its widening deficit,” he said.

Saudi Arabia is seeking to halt the erosion of its finances after oil prices halved in the past year. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority’s (Sama) reserves held in foreign securities have fallen about 10 per cent from a peak of $737 billion in August 2014, to $661 billion in July, according to central bank data. The government is accelerating bond sales to help sustain spending.

“Foreign-exchange reserve depletion, rather than accumulation, is the new reality for Saudi Arabia,” Jason Tuvey, Middle East economist at Capital Economics, said on Monday. “None of this should come as much surprise,” given the current-account deficit and risk of capital flight, he said.

Saudi Arabia’s attempts to bolster its fiscal position contrast with the scene in Qatar. The world’s richest nation on a per capita basis plans to channel about $35 billion of investment into the US over the next five years as it seeks to move away from European deals. That’s on top of plans to set up a $10 billion investment venture with China’s Citic Group.

With income from oil accounting for about 80 per cent of revenue, Saudi Arabia’s budget deficit may widen to 20 per cent of gross domestic product this year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Sama plans to raise between 90 billion riyals ($24 billion) and 100 billion riyals in bonds before the end of the year as it seeks to diversify its $752 billion economy, people familiar with the matter said in August.

While foreign-exchange reserves could sustain the country for years, analysts have said that using them to avoid further cost-cutting could put its credit rating at risk. The Saudi government, so far, has been short on specifics on how it will reduce spending, though planners are said to be considering measures long viewed as off-limits or unnecessary, including phasing out fuel subsidies and investing in renewable energy.

The country has a population about 30 million people, with spending forecast to reach 1,082 billion riyals this year according to Riyadh-based Jadwa Investment. The kingdom’s finances are depleted by continued subsidies and hand-outs to public sector workers. The IMF predicts the budget deficit will exceed 400 billion riyals this year. 

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