Norway faces up to prospect of North Sea slowdown
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Norway’s economic model has long been much-admired.
The Scandinavian country is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, thanks to 40 years of North Sea oil production. The global financial crisis barely registered amid decades of almost nonstop growth.
But after a plunge in oil prices, policy makers and analysts in Oslo are now cautioning that this gilded era is coming to an end.
“We cannot expect to grow continuously as we have over the past 10-15 years,” Øystein Olsen, Norway’s central bank governor, told the Financial Times. “We are going to be more in the same boat as our neighbouring countries.”
Siv Jensen, Norwegian finance minister, added: “The past couple of decades are not to be continued.”
Western Europe’s biggest oil producer is still a long way from crisis, the same policy makers note. The economy grew 3 per cent last year, according to Eurostat — faster than any eurozone country. Even amid the collapse in oil prices in the fourth quarter, growth of 0.9 per cent was exceeded in the EU only by Estonia. The unemployment rate, at 3.7 per cent, is among the lowest in the world.
But the problem for Norway is that the slump in oil prices has come at the same time as investment in the petroleum industry has peaked. Wood Mackenzie, the energy consultancy, said it expected investment in the Norwegian oil industry to drop by about a quarter this year to NKr136bn ($18bn). Forecasts for gross domestic product growth in 2015 have been pared, with Statistics Norway expecting about a 1 per cent increase.
“It is serious. About 50 per cent of export income comes from oil and 20 per cent of investments. In the short run it creates turbulence,” said Thina Saltvedt, oil analyst at Nordea bank. “Norwegians and politicians have started to think about reorganising the economy, but they did not expect it would come so fast.”
For some, the slide in oil prices is like a dry run for when the petroleum does finally run out. Norway’s oil production is less than half its peak around 2000, although recent discoveries mean it is forecast to stabilise near its current level for the next decade.
“This oil bubble we’ve been living in has hidden the fact that oil production has gone down,” Ms Saltvedt said. “Now the bubble has burst and we have to reduce our dependence and face reality.”
Authorities are sanguine. One of the biggest discoveries in Norway, the Johan Sverdrup field, is due to start producing by the end of the decade. It is expected to provide a quarter of the country’s oil production by 2025.
Mr Olsen said: “The era where oil is very important — is an engine for the Norwegian economy — is not over at all. We have half of all our resources still in the ground”.
But the government is conscious of the need to boost the competitiveness of its non-oil industries. While the recent drop in the krone has helped, manufacturing wages are still double those in the US, Japan or the UK, while productivity growth has stalled.
“We are facing a shift that we have been well aware of for a long time,” Ms Jensen said. “We do not have a crisis.”
And the warning signs are there. House prices have been rising for the past 20 years and many foreign economists believe there is a bubble in the market. Norwegians work the third-fewest hours in the developed world and have the highest rates of sick leave. More than one in five children above the age of 16 drops out of school, double the average for the Nordic region, while school results are below average internationally despite high spending.
“We have been on autopilot for too long. We have some big problems,” said one Norwegian chief executive, who argued that oil has squeezed out other industries, making it difficult to reform the economy.
An $870bn sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, gives Norway a valuable smoothing mechanism. The government has proposed spending 3 per cent of the fund this year — less than it is allowed to but still a record amount in krone terms — and some expect it to boost that further in its spring budget.
Ms Jensen believes Norway is lucky to face such a turning point in its economy at a time when its finances are strong. “Our fortune is that we can reform . . . without having a shock to the economy. We have low unemployment and growth — that is a perfect [position] to start reforming your economy from.”