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Libya's Wealth, Like Gaddafi, Still in Hiding

Stocks in this article: CVX GS


By the Financial Times ( Financial Times) -- The Tripoli seafront headquarters of Libya's $65 billion sovereign wealth fund lay empty and unguarded on Thursday, the only sign of recent human activity a giant torn poster of Muammer Gaddafi in the foyer.

Perched high in a tower overlooking the southern Mediterranean, the offices of an institution that was once courted by some of the world's leading banks lay open to visits from rebel fighters and looters -- even if its most interesting doors remain locked for now.

Before the Libyan leader found himself under siege from this year's popular uprising and, quickly, a pariah once again, no institution symbolised Col Gaddafi's return to the international fold more than the Libyan Investment Authority.

Created in 2006 by the leader's son and cosmopolitan heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, the LIA found itself courted by the likes of Goldman Sachs and Société Générale and took stakes in companies including UniCredit, Italy's largest bank by assets, and Pearson, owner of the Financial Times, in which it has a 3% shareholding.

It also built a reputation as a chaotic and sometimes untrustworthy body where investment professionals jostled with regime placemen, epitomising a broader national struggle between competent professionals and servants of the Gaddafi family fiefdom. And in recent months it has drawn heavy scrutiny over the extent to which it enriched the Gaddafi clan and why it made a series of poorly performing investments through big banks.

Beyond the immediate priority of securing control of the LIA assets frozen as a result of international sanctions, the challenge confronting Libya's new leadership is how to reform an institution that, if it survives in one form or another, ought to oversee the country's vast oil wealth.

Mahmoud Badi, the former regime technocrat charged by the national transitional council with overseeing the beginning of that transformation, argues that Libya's income from the 1.6 million barrels a day of oil it is expected to eventually produce again means it will always need a sovereign wealth fund. Like many, he sees the funds of Norway and Singapore as good models.

While the LIA had a reputation for opacity, any new fund will have to be transparent in everything it does, Badi said.

The first steps will be to determine what mysteries the LIA's books hold and the current state of its investments. If the information that has surfaced in recent months is anything to go by, Badi may be in for a rude awakening.

An internal LIA management report, obtained by the campaign group Global Witness earlier this year, indicated that it had suffered heavy losses despite the many billions it had invested around the world.

Badi blames many of the western banks and hedge funds who were managing these investments, as well as the low calibre of employees at the LIA, many of which were friends and associates of the Gaddafi family.

He is adamant that such mismanagement of the Libyan people's wealth will not happen again. He plans to recruit a professional team of bankers and advisers to oversee the funds. But, he says, "we will give priority to those financial institutions which supported us during our six-month battle to topple the regime ".

Sorting through the maze of funds, and sub-funds, many of which had overlapping investment remits, will also be challenging, but Badi is optimistic that the job can be done relatively quickly.

For now, many details of the LIA's investments remain behind locked doors. Entry to the fund's headquarters on Thursday came through the smashed window of a travel agency on the ground floor of its tower.

Then it was a 22-floor climb up the emergency stairs, past floor after floor of empty offices of organisations ranging from ChevronTexaco, the oil company, to the British embassy.

While there has been a good deal of looting in the electronics shops on the tower's ground floor, and the doors of some offices have been kicked in, the LIA does not appear to have been attacked.

There was no damage apart from the ripped-down Gaddafi poster, while the presence of a still intact image of the colonel on another wall suggested any rebel visitors had not lingered.

The doors to individual offices within the fund's headquarters were all locked, suggesting executives may have anticipated the advance by rebels to the heart of the capital on Sunday night. And the LIA's main archive, accessible by a fingerprint scan, remained secure, along with details of investments.

The question is how long - in a city where the regime has been all but destroyed and a fragile authority put in its place - this treasure trove will remain untouched and its secrets hidden.

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