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Wealth of nations: Sovereign wealth funds decoded

While investing for oneself is one thing, can governments also invest? Yes, that’s correct—by a SWF. SWF’s full form is a sovereign wealth fund. A sovereign wealth fund is an investment fund owned by a country’s government. It allows nations to invest their extra funds wisely for the future.

These funds buy all kinds of assets – bonds, company stocks, properties, and more. The goal is to have a financial reserve to support the economy if needed. Countries with large export revenues or budget surpluses often use sovereign wealth funds. 

Keep reading to get the complete picture of these strategic investment funds, their objectives, pros, cons, and more.

What is a sovereign wealth fund?

A SWF is an investment vehicle in which the central government has a majority stake. Standard investments for these funds include bonds, equities, gold, and property. However, not all SWFs invest the government’s excess funds; others put the funds generated from commodities and crude oil trades into investment.

Sources of funding usually include a country’s surplus in government spending. Instead of storing it in the bank or reinvesting it in the economy, a sovereign wealth fund allows a country to invest its surplus funds. 

By investing in equities, bonds, real estate, and other growth-oriented industries, SWFs aim to improve a nation’s economy.

In what kind of assets do SWFs invest?

Originally, sovereign wealth funds invested passively over the long term. Sovereign wealth funds invest in diverse asset classes, but they rarely disclose their entire portfolios. Some of these classes include government bonds, equities, and the investment of foreign capital.

Consider SWFs in the same way as an individual’s reliance on savings and investments during times of crisis. Having an SWF is similar to having emergency funds; it may help a country withstand economic crises or provide a financial boost when required.

While each country has the legal right to establish a sovereign wealth fund, not all will find it practical. Countries like China, which has a trade surplus (total value of exports – total value of imports), and Saudi Arabia and Norway, which have substantial oil exports, are typical locations to look for SWFs.

Sovereign wealth fund objectives

In most countries, the central bank oversees the country’s foreign exchange reserves and strives to provide liquidity during emergencies and market interventions. It isn’t specifically designed to generate profits over the long run.

On the contrary, the main goal of an SWF is to provide strong returns over an extended period. In addition, when exports and revenues tend to be unpredictable, SWFs are established to safeguard and balance the economy and budget. Thanks to SWFs, the capital will expand over time and non-renewable commodity exports will be diversified.

Pros and cons of SWFs

Among the benefits of SWF is its ability to help stabilise the economy during recessions and boost government expenditure. Aside from tax revenue, it might help generate income. The economy benefits from the promotion of diverse fund management.

One drawback of SWF is that, although expected, returns are not guaranteed. Exchange rates might be negatively impacted by a decline in SWF as well. Mismanagement of assets might happen due to the lack of transparency in some SWFs. Transparency has been prioritised since 2008 to ease protectionist concerns.

India’s sovereign wealth fund: NIIF

One example of a sovereign wealth fund is the National Infrastructure and Investment Fund (NIIF), which is India’s first SWF. The government of India established the state-owned fund in 2015. One of the main reasons for establishing NIIF was to maximise the fund’s economic effect by funding infrastructure improvements.

All three funds—the Master, the Fund of Funds, and the Strategic Fund—are under the NIIF’s management. 

A master fund is an infra-related fund that has the objective of developing highways, ports, and airports. A fund of funds, on the other hand, makes investments in funds run by fund managers with a strong track record in the infrastructure sector. A strategic fund’s objective is to make investments in equity-linked instruments and is registered with SEBI under the name Alternative Investment Fund II.

By pooling the resources of both local and foreign investors, NIIF funds can finance infrastructure projects nationwide.

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) and the National Investment and Investment Fund (NIIF) inked a $1 billion first-ever foreign investment agreement in October 2017. In the NIIF, the Indian government has 49% ownership. Several prominent Indian financial institutions have also invested, including ICICI, HDFC, Axis, and Kotak Mahindra Life.


So in essence, sovereign wealth funds serve as a strategic reserve for countries to invest surplus assets and grow that capital over time. By investing across different sectors, the funds can deliver returns to support economic priorities while also hedging against future financial shocks. 

While not without some concerns around transparency and governance, these funds offer a way for nations to leverage wealth today for gains tomorrow. India’s NIIF exemplifies this forward-looking approach.


What is the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund?

The Norway Government Pension Fund Global stands as the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, with assets well over $1 trillion. It strategically invests the surplus revenues from Norway’s oil and gas sector, ensuring the nation’s prosperity for the long haul. The fund’s extensive portfolio spans a multitude of sectors and includes stakes in more than 9,000 companies globally, making it a heavyweight in the international investment arena.

What are the four types of sovereign wealth funds?

Sovereign wealth funds are broadly classified into four types: 
Stabilisation funds, designed to shield economies from volatile commodity prices,
Savings or future generation funds, earmarked to secure wealth for future generations,
Public benefit pension reserve funds, which underpin social and economic goals,
Reserve investment funds are focused on optimising long-term returns on a country’s reserves. 
Each type serves a distinct strategic purpose, reflecting the diverse economic objectives of their respective nations.

Who manages a sovereign wealth fund?

Sovereign wealth funds are managed by specialised government bodies or central banks, equipped with a high level of financial acumen. These entities are tasked with overseeing the fund’s investment strategies and operations, ensuring that the fund’s goals—such as economic stabilisation, intergenerational savings, or policy support—are achieved effectively and responsibly.

How do sovereign wealth funds invest?

Sovereign wealth funds deploy a variety of investment strategies, balancing short-term and long-term objectives. They diversify their portfolios across equities, bonds, real estate, infrastructure, and occasionally delve into alternative investments like private equity and hedge funds. The investment approach is meticulously designed to preserve wealth, foster growth, and contribute to the economic diversification of the home country.

What is the difference between SWF and PPF?

In the Indian context, a Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) is a government-owned investment vehicle that channels national reserves into global investments, targeting a broad spectrum of assets for national economic enhancement. 
Conversely, the Public Provident Fund (PPF) is a long-term savings scheme available to Indian citizens, offering tax benefits and focusing on individual retirement savings. While SWFs serve broader economic strategies, PPFs cater to personal financial security.

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