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Norwegian National Oil Fund: A sovereign wealth fund to emulate

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Pragmatic economic management of Norway’s oil wealth has ensured that future generations will benefit from the wisdom and incorruptibility of their ancestors, writes Benedict Lopez.

Stavanger is perhaps the epitome of the economic transformation of Norway.

A sleepy fishing town, Stavanger once had good times, a decades-long boom in herring fishing, which ended suddenly with plunging catches after 1870.

Like the rest of Norway, the town collapsed, with a huge fleet of wooden sailing ships and an agricultural economy. And in comparison to its industrialising neighbours, Norway was being left behind.

But everything changed with the discovery oil in 1969. Wealth from oil is conspicuous all around Stavanger, which has grown from a town of 90,000 people in the 1960s to its current population of more than 200,000.

Stavanger today is the heartland of the oil and gas industry in Norway, and a global hive of activity for the industry, along with its peers Aberdeen and Houston.

The wealth derived from oil has catapulted the living standards of Norway’s five million people.

In 1960, the standard of living in Norway was about 30 or 40 per cent lower than in Sweden or in Denmark. But now the standard of living in Norway is substantially higher than both countries.

Norway has been embracing state capitalism for quite some time now, and this has been driven by oil. Today, Norway is the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter. Petroleum accounts for 30 per cent of government’s revenues as well as a quarter of the country’s value added.

Upon the discovery of oil in the Norwegian continental shelf in 1969, the country realised the limited nature of petroleum and wasted no time legislating policies to manage the new-found resource in a way that would give Norwegians long-term wealth and sustain their competitiveness beyond just being an exporter of commodities.

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Norway’s oil wealth is prudently managed through the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global.

Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM) manages the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global. NBIM administers the fund on behalf of the Ministry of Finance, which owns the fund on behalf of the Norwegian people. The ministry determines the fund’s investment strategy, following advice from, among others, NBIM and discussions in Parliament.

Propelling national prosperity

Based on a report released on 1 March 2014, the Norwegian government Pension Fund Global was valued at NOK5 trillion or US$818bn, 17 years after the finance department deposited the NOK2bn in the fund in 1996. The fund is currently valued at US$900bn.

The ministry regularly transfers petroleum revenue to the fund and the capital is invested abroad, to avoid overheating the Norwegian economy and to shield it from the fluctuations of oil prices.

The fund invests in international equity, fixed-income markets and real estate. The aim is to have a diversified investment mix that will give the highest possible risk-adjusted return within the guidelines set by the ministry.

The Government Pension Fund Global, also called the Norwegian National Oil Fund, returned 15.9 per cent in 2013, due principally to strong stock markets, based on the annual report for 2013.

Equity investments returned 26.3 per cent, fixed-income investments produced a zero return, and real estate investments returned 11.8 per cent. The return was 1.0 percentage point higher than on the benchmark indices the fund is measured against.

“The year’s results were driven by equity investments,” says Yngve Slyngstad, CEO of Norway’s Bank Investment Management, which manages the fund. “Despite various sources of uncertainty in the global economy, stock markets made broad gains in 2013.”

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The fund’s market value grew by more than NOK1.2tn in 2013 to NOK5.0tn. The return for the year was NOK692bn, NOK239bn in new capital was transferred from the government, and a weaker krone increased the value of the fund in krone terms by NOK291bn.

Pragmatic economic management of Norway’s oil wealth has ensured that future generations will benefit from the wisdom and incorruptibility of their ancestors. What a remarkable legacy for a country!

If state-owned oil companies in the developing world had imitated Norway, a country where corruption, cronyism and nepotism is virtually extinct, the oil wealth would have filtered down to the masses and transformed the economies of these countries and lifted millions out of poverty.

Regrettably, corruption was the stumbling block in many of these countries.


The Norwegian National Oil Fund/The Government Pension Fund Global, Annual Report for 2013, 1 March 2014

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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