Wealth gets wealthier

Grangemouth Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption China has already invested in some Scottish businesses including Grangemouth oil refinery

Up to five trillion pounds - five thousand thousand million, with 12 zeros - is now swilling around the world on the books of sovereign wealth funds. It's an unimaginably large sum, but it could easily get very much bigger.

That's according to research at Edinburgh University business school, set out at a seminar on the impact of these vast government-controlled assets.

Gavin Kretzschmar, an expert in the sector, has looked at those governments that run their own oil and gas corporations, which is the sector behind most sovereign wealth.

That only includes those that are open about their accounts, which is far from all of them.

Comparing those national oil corporations with international oil corporations, the academic and former investment banker found the government-controlled sector is far less efficient in the revenue it extracts per barrel.

Governments are also far less efficient in leveraging value from the oil and gas assets they hold, and they are the ones sitting on around three-quarters of the world's reserves.

So it's reckoned that bringing national oil corporations up to the efficiency level of international oil corporations, and adding in the possibility of oil prices heading towards $150 per barrel, and Kretzschmar says you could see the value of these wealth funds increasing as much as ten-fold.

The headiness of this upward surge is explained by the disproportionate link between the oil price and the value to owners of reserves. Because the margins made on oil production matter more than the actual cost of it, a three-fold increase in oil prices, up from $50 where it was quite recently, can see its valuation rise by a factor of eight.

Economic supercycle

That's just one of the mind-boggling figures to come out of a "dialogue" I attended yesterday at Edinburgh University business school on the implications of sovereign wealth funds for the world economy.

What it underlined was the radical shift in wealth and economic power. This was described by one participant as a "supercycle", as significant as the post-war boom or the late 19th century industrial revolution and rise of the USA.

That analysis suggests we're already ten years into the cycle, with 20 years or so for it to run, as the emerging economies rise to the same economic and financial status as developed nations.

The themes were of oil-rich nations, and those building up huge trade surpluses - notably, of course, China - reversing the established flow of investment out of Europe.

As John Swinney, Scotland's finance secretary, showed with his pitch, there is an explicit appeal to those who control this rapid growth in wealth to look to Scotland as a good place to invest in infrastructure.

We're already seeing the impact of inward investment in existing assets, with a Chinese state-owned enterprises buying a half share of Grangemouth oil refinery and the Korean National Oil Corporation buying Dana Petroleum.

The trend was characterised by one senior bank economist saying the past 20 or so years have been defined by the words "made in China", the next 20 and more will be defined by "bought by China".

Luxury goods

The new areas of wealth are underpinning growth in new trade routes - what used to be known as south-south trade. (In my younger day studying economics, that was a euphemism for inferior quality goods, as poorer nations made substitutes for superior European and North American goods and services.)

That's most obvious in China's purchase of assets in Africa, to fuel its economy with minerals and food. But the links are much more extensive and complex than that, and one of the seminar contributors highlighted the extent to which long-neglected Africa in particular has become hot property.

There are, of course, opportunities for business close to home in this rise of the new wealthy and the middle class across Asia and South America. They're buying UK luxury goods, from Range Rovers to single malt whisky, with Mulberry handbags being the latest to report on the Asian boost to business.

That also explains the success of those Scottish companies selling capital goods into the infrastructure boom around the world, including Weir Group, Clyde Union and Aggreko.

But there are really big questions about what place the Scottish, UK and European economies will take in this new world order.

Relatively poorer, for sure. We can already see that as UK wages are far outstripped by inflation, making the economy more competitive?

But how to sustain competitiveness? It's argued that the future will be shaped by cash, commodities and creativity. Of those, creativity is where the UK excels.

So how to make that thrive? Are creative industries and universities getting the support they'll need to address that challenge?