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State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan: Azerbaijan goes the other way

Unlike most sovereign wealth funds, the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan is still growing strongly and looking for more foreign risk. Will the country’s experience of the global downturn rob the international capital markets of a new hope? Dominic O’Neill reports from Baku.

AT THE END of the 19th century, Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, was one of the world’s first oil boom towns. Now it is one of the latest. Baku is fast becoming a Moscow by the Caspian: a greed-is-good mentality, a skyline fringed with cranes, black Mercedes cars, swish cafés and Italian designer clothing stores.

Such are the signs of an incipient oil boom. However, Azerbaijan’s most recent windfall is not all being frittered away on speculative real estate and consumer goods. The State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan is building the infrastructure to take on a bigger role, more capital, and more risk. It is taking the opposite route to most other sovereign wealth funds.

In the past 12 months, the State Oil Fund (Sofaz), has gone from being a detail to being a force in the country. From January to December 2008, its assets grew from $2.5 billion to more than $11 billion: a quadruple rise of almost a third of the country’s GDP. In comparison, Morgan Stanley estimates that sovereign wealth funds’ assets globally dropped from $3 trillion to $2.5 trillion during the first 10 months of 2008.

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