The political management of Norway’s $720bn oil fund, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, has been defined by one word: consensus.
Despite all the temptations that come from the fund, Government Pension Fund Global, having more assets than the equivalent of one year’s economic output from the Nordic country, politicians of all colours have been careful to act together and cautiously over Norway’s oil wealth.
But with Norway on course to change government for the first time in eight years, the centre-right favourites to win the poll are signalling there could be some big changes both in how the fund is run and how its enormous reserves are spent.
Jan Tore Sanner, deputy leader and finance spokesman for the Conservatives, the biggest party in the latest opinion polls, does stress the importance of consensus: “From our point of view it’s important to have a consensus on these issues. With so much oil money it’s important not to make politics out of this. To save money for future generations is important but also difficult because there is always something we can spend the money on.”
However, in almost the next breath he floats what would amount to the biggest shift since the fund was set up in 1990: possibly splitting the fund in two. He believes the fund’s increasing size – it owns, on average, about 2.5 per cent of every listed company in Europe – make now the moment to have the discussion about having two funds. That way they could compete against each other.
The Conservatives may have looked across the border for inspiration – Sweden split its national pension fund up in 2001 and now has four funds competing against each other with a fifth investing in unlisted companies.
But inside Norway’s central bank – Norges Bank, which manages the oil fund – some believe having multiple funds could only increase costs. A government-appointed commission in Sweden last year suggested consolidating its funds, possibly into one, ironically citing Norway as an example.
But it is not just size where Mr Sanner has new policies. He is also open to allowing the oil fund to invest in infrastructure projects. Currently, the fund – which only invests outside Norway – is restricted to equities, bonds and property, to the frustration of Yngve Slyngstad, chief executive of the fund, who is keen to invest in infrastructure, feeling it better reflects the long-term nature of the fund.
Mr Sanner says: “We are open to that discussion [on infrastructure]. But it is very important that it is supported by experts. It is very difficult for political parties [to know whether] it’s the right time to go into this asset class or not.”
The Conservatives would also like to see more oversight of the fund, perhaps reflecting a distrust of large state bodies also seen in the break-up discussions. Mr Sanner says the board of the central bank should only oversee the oil fund while a separate committee should be introduced for monetary policy; currently, the bank’s executive board under chairman Øystein Olsen is dominated by interest rate experts, while Norges Bank Investment Management, where Mr Slyngstad is CEO, oversees the fund.
Unsurprisingly, Sigbjørn Johnsen, finance minister in the current centre-left government, is less keen on change. Speaking before Mr Sanner’s comments on a possible break-up, he nonetheless praises the management of the fund: “The competence and quality of the management in the central bank is very high. It is regarded by [most] standards to be well-functioning.”
He dismisses the idea of infrastructure being added to the lists of assets, especially as property is still new and only represents 1 per cent of the total currently against a target of 5 per cent. “We have a tradition for the fund to be rather cautious. We have to move in small steps into new fields. It’s important that we spend some time in grounding the real estate investments,” he says.
Politically, however, the biggest debate in Norway is over the so-called spending rule, which says the government cannot use more than 4 per cent of the fund a year in the national budget, supposedly equivalent to the fund’s real return. The ruling Labour party are using just 3.3 per cent this year, NKr125bn ($21bn), something Mr Sanner backs. But the Conservatives’ likely coalition partner, the populist Progress party, want to spend the full 4 per cent, particularly on infrastructure, a sore point in so rich a country.
Mr Sanner acknowledges the difference but says the opposition is united on what the money from the oil fund should be spent on: education and research, infrastructure, and tax cuts. He accuses the current government of using the money unwisely.
“It’s important to avoid that the oil money will reduce the productivity in the economy. If we are just pushing a lot of money into the economy we will increase the costs. That is what we have seen in the past four or five years. The costs in Norway are very high and we have lost a lot of competitiveness,” he says.