The hunt for the great American trophy asset is on.
The global commodities boom and the dollar’s decline have unleashed a wave of big money buys of prized American assets by newly flush foreign investors.
From $100 million mansions in Palm Beach, Fla., to $23 million modern art confections, to multibillion-dollar stakes in once-venerated Wall Street banks, the number of flashy acquisitions by Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, Qatari sheiks and large government-sponsored funds in the Middle East is growing.
And now Abu Dhabi, which already owns a 4.9 percent stake in Citigroup, has expanded its portfolio of choice American assets to include the Chrysler Building, whose thin spire and Art Deco styling make it an indelible feature of New York City’s skyline.
The government of Abu Dhabi bought a 90 percent stake in the landmark building Tuesday for $800 million from a German real estate fund managed by Prudential Real Estate Investors. The 1,046-foot (319-meter) tower was designed by William Van Alen and completed in 1930 for the Chrysler Corporation and its founder, Walter Chrysler.
The foreign purchases, especially the Chrysler investment and Middle East involvement in the recent sale of the General Motors building in New York, recall a similar financial plunge by Japanese investors into marquee American properties like Rockefeller Center and the Pebble Beach golf course in California in the early 1990s.
That foray ended badly – many of the investments were unprofitable – and a more insular America, just beginning to worry about its stature as a global economic power, reacted with suspicion. Now, with the dollar down more than 40 percent against the euro and the economy hamstrung by a credit crisis, a less-assured America has become increasingly reliant on foreign capital.
While there has been some scrutiny of these investments from Congress, there is also recognition that these funds, which maintain passive investment positions, will perform a crucial petrodollar recycling function.
“This is the natural outgrowth of us exporting a huge amount of dollars through high commodity prices to countries that have to reinvest it somewhere,” said Douglas Rediker, a sovereign fund expert at the New America Foundation, a research and advocacy organization. “These countries have to extend beyond Treasury bills, and that means equities and real estate.”
Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and other gulf countries rich with oil revenue have taken advantage of falling prices to invest in real estate and financial companies around the world. Middle Eastern investors have spent $1.8 billion this year on American commercial property, according to Real Capital Analytics, a New York property research firm.
As with the Japanese, much has been said about the losses incurred so far by these funds. Abu Dhabi’s main fund, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, or A.D.I.A., invested $7.9 billion in Citigroup last year when the stock was trading at $31. Now Citigroup trades at $17, and while the fund still has more than two years before its bond converts into stock, Citigroup’s troubles cast doubt on whether the investment will ever be profitable.
Unlike pension funds, hedge funds or mutual funds, however, sovereign funds, and in particular Abu Dhabi’s, do not face any claims on their assets in the form of liabilities, redemptions or domestic investment requirements. As a result, their investment outlook is very long term in nature.
With oil hovering near $140 a barrel, analysts expect countries in the gulf to generate yearly cash surpluses of $300 billion – Abu Dhabi’s share is said to be more than $50 billion – with sovereign funds in this area forecast to reach a size of $15 trillion by 2020.
Abu Dhabi, a producer of oil, can invest only a small portion of this surplus in its tiny economy, already plagued by inflation from aggressive government spending, and as a result has set up a series of investment funds to redeploy these assets overseas.
Traditionally the main vehicle for these investments has been the authority, a 30-year-old fund with a size that is said to be $600 billion to $700 billion.
To handle its surplus, Abu Dhabi has set up two smaller investment funds, the Mubadala Development Company and the Abu Dhabi Investment Council, or A.D.I.C., which bought the Chrysler Building stake.
Like the authority, the investment council operates behind a veil of secrecy. It does not disclose the amount it manages and gives scant detail of its investment holdings. People who follow the fund say its size could be $5 billion to $15 billion. Set up by a former executive of the authority, Khalifa al-Kindi, the fund has deployed a more nimble investment approach.
While the Chrysler Building and other assets like art may bring a form of prestige, they also appear to be holding their value better than financial institutions and the broader stock market.
In the art market, this relative strength has been tied to foreign buying. Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian steel magnate, recently bought the sculpture “Hanging Heart” by Jeff Koons for $23 million. In another trophy purchase, a Russian fertilizer billionaire, Dmitry Rybolovlev, bought Donald Trump’s Palm Beach mansion for about $100 million.
Abu Dhabi’s investment in Chrysler may have a more sober investment thesis, but it still makes for quite a bang. And for the publicity shy Al Nahyan ruling family, which for years has operated in the shadow of its more brazen neighboring emirate Dubai, the investment may signal its willingness to strut.
“This fits the broader pattern of them looking to increase their profile,” said Brad W. Setser, a sovereign funds analyst at the Council of Foreign Relations. “Buying an iconic building is the most visible of visible things to do.”