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Germany

What's Driving Gulf Cash To European Holdings

Taking a sizable stake in Deutsche Bank, Qatari investors are once again showing a strategy that is single-minded by definition.

After German cars, Qatari sheikhs are starting to invest in German banks.
After German cars, Qatari sheikhs are starting to invest in German banks.
Simone Boehringer and Thomas Fromm

FRANKFURT — Once upon a time, buying an expensive German car was enough to make a rich sheikh happy. Lately it seems a car doesn't quite cut it, though a sizeable stake in an entire German car company may do nicely, thank you.

Four years ago, for example, at a Volkswagen general assembly, a man was sitting up on the stage who didn’t look like the others there from the VW family dynasty. The man's name was Hussain Ali Al-Abdulla, and he was a board member of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) that owns 17% of VW after acquiring most of Porsche’s share options.

Seventeen percent of the common stock of one of the world’s largest automakers is a great deal. But since the Porsche and Piëch families (via Porsche Holding) own over half of VW stocks and the state of Lower Saxony holds a further 20%, this 17% gives the QIA a strategic right to make its voice heard quite clearly — if not direct power.

Still, it seems that direct power is not necessarily what Gulf investors are after. They want one thing above all: to see their investments multiply. That appears to be the strategy driving the 1.75 billion euro investment in Deutsche Bank this week that shook financial markets.

At Volkswagen competitor Daimler, which unlike VW is not a company with large family shareholdings, the Kuwait Investment Authority holds some 7% of shares. Again that doesn’t sound like a lot, except that it means that they are Daimler’s single biggest shareholder.

The amount of money involved is indeed formidable. QIA boasts an estimated $200 billion, which means they’re not too choosy with their investments as long as they bring in high returns. The firms on the Qatari shopping list include the Merck Fink, Credit Suisse and Barclays banks, the Paris Saint-Germain soccer club, Siemens, the beleaguered manufacturer of photovoltaic products Solarworld, Royal Dutch Shell — but also Tiffany's, Louis Vuitton, the London stock exchange, Lagardère and German construction company Hochtief.

What such portfolios show is that Gulf investors tend not to limit themselves to specific kinds of companies, and certainly not to individual countries.

The investors from the Emirates are welcome guests in business circles: they have a reputation for being reserved and discrete — unlike hedge fund folks, for example. Sometimes they arrive as a figurative white knight to rescue companies, as was the case with Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, which now owns 29.2% of German’s second largest airline company, Air Berlin. As a large shareholder, it helped out to the tune of 300 million euros and is betting on long-term recovery of the airline.

Sometimes the Arab investors court Western companies in their quest to acquire shares; these state investment funds have billions to manage, and the market for high-yield investments is limited.

And so this is the context in which the recent Qatari investment in Deutsche Bank arrive. The Arabs are keen on investing in Germany in general and investing in German firms in particular. In any case, international investors tend to go for German stocks when the financial markets are in crisis. And German shares are comparatively popular tangible assets when the objective is profiting from growth prospects.

According to a recent study by professional services firm Ernst & Young, over the past 10 years the number of foreign investors in the 30 large companies listed on the Frankfurt-based Dax stock index had grown from 44% to 54% by the end of 2013. Most of the investors were European, followed by North American funds. Asian and Arab investors were still a minority, but rising sharply.

Unlike Chinese

When some of the European Union's peripheral countries were strongly affected by the crisis two years ago, there were even more foreign asset managers focused on Germany. At the height of the crisis they accounted for 58% of foreign Dax investors. The largest shareholder in Dax-quoted companies is still BlackRock. Through various funds, the American asset manager holds 3% or more of all Dax company shares, and BlackRock is often listed as the largest shareholder in individual companies.

Unlike Qatar, at Volkswagen BlackRock holds over 5% of preferential stock and is thus the largest shareholder. It only holds 0.15% of the strategically important common shares which are mostly in the hands of the Porsche families and not on the Dax.

In October 2012 Daimler boss Dieter Zetsche learned just how fast-moving business with foreign investors can sometimes be. When it began in March 2009, the alliance with the Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments was supposed to last for decades — the sheikhs had bought a 9% share for two billion euros.

But after only three and a half years, they sold. Eastern investors are anything but romantic when it comes to their Western investments. And unlike Chinese investors, they’re not overly interested in technology. They mainly just want to take their petro-billions, and make billions more.

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