City Life, Dili

Sleepy Dili, capital of East Timor, doesn’t have much going for it.

Its tallest building is just three storeys. The most obvious economic activity is the purveying of SIM cards and pirate CDs of ‘jiggy-jig’.

The harbour is full of ships, but only because some dopey official misordered an import of rice. When a dozen boats arrived from Bangkok laden with the stuff, there weren’t enough warehouses. So it stayed on the ships. Expensively. All year.

But East Timor, one of the ten poorest places in the world, does have one thing going for it; a parliament so dysfunctional that it can’t agree how best to invest the growing stash flowing in from oil and gas fields off its south coast. And because few East Timorese politicians can bear the sight of each other, let alone decide what to do with nature’s bounty, the $5 billion in royalties East Timor has saved up since the Timor Sea fields came onstream in 2004 is automatically shunted into boring old US Treasuries throwing off a guaranteed 1.35 per cent.

That may not seem like much, but after the global catastrophes of the last 18 months, it makes the clerks who file the paperwork of the East Timor Petroleum Fund the smartest guys in the room. At least they haven’t lost money, which is more than the self-regarding smarties of the big-name sovereign funds in Singapore, Norway and the Gulf can boast.

‘Aren’t we clever?’ says fund adviser Kevin Bailey, a former Australian soldier who is also East Timor’s honorary consul in Melbourne. He describes the fund as the ‘Steven Bradbury’ of sovereign wealth investors, citing the unlikely gold medal won by an Australian skater at the 2002 Winter Olympics after all his opponents fell over in a manic sprint to the finish, leaving Bradbury the last man standing.

Dili’s unlikely master of the universe is a 39-year-old Timorese called Venancio Alves Maria. A graduate of an Indonesian university when Jakarta brutally ruled this half-island, Alves Maria’s job is a little like logging on to an online bank account. He makes sure the millions in royalties thrown off by US petro-giant ConocoPhillips‘ Bayu Undan gasfields roll into the fund on the appointed date every month, then makes sure an automatic purchase of bonds also happens. And that’s about it, save for quarterly reporting to parliament. Every quarter he uses the same template. The most recent posting, for the quarter ended 30 September 2009, shows gross cash inflows of $332 million for the period, with the fund totalling $5.3 billion and throwing off a return of $68 million.

And there’s another area where the East Timorese could teach Wall Street a thing or two: transparency. Anyone can see how the fund is doing simply by visiting its website or coming by Alves Maria’s ramshackle office behind the central bank building, after shooing away the chickens and goats by the door.

Warren Buffett, eat your heart out.