Is Norway’s Pension Fund Adequately Diversified?

Retirement planning in NorwayAs a regular visitor to Norway, it is hard not to be impressed by the wealth generation in the country. Even more impressive is the discipline of the government and population to accept that the majority of the vast oil windfall of the country should be invested for the future (in a pension fund) and not spent today (high tax rates and price levels being one testament to that).

In this blog I allow myself some raw speculation as to whether holistic risk management thinking is being adequately applied when it comes to the government’s management of the wealth generated by this windfall.

In the spring of 1997, the Ministry of Finance decided that the Government Pension Fund–Global (previously known as the Government Petroleum Fund) should invest parts of its portfolio in equities. In January 1998 the fund consisted of bond investments worth NOK 113 billion (about USD 15 billion at current exchange rates). Since then inflows of new capital into the fund (also boosted by the high oil price) have been significant; in 2007, capital inflows averaged more than USD 300 million per trading day. By January 2008 the fund was worth over NOK 2000 billion (about USD 300 billion) and it is forecast to be worth over NOK 4000 billion (about USD 600 billion) by 2015 (according to the National Budget 2009)—the ultimate in retirement planning. Over time the fund’s investment guidelines have been relaxed, with the fund currently consisting of about 50% equities and 50% bonds, including government, corporate, securitized and inflation linked bonds.

To some extent there is a natural diversification in the fund. For example, to the extent that it is believed that global equities in aggregate are negatively affected by high oil prices, then there is a natural hedge in the portfolio, as increases in the oil price will reduce the equity value but lead to increased capital inflows (although the balance of this will change as the equity portfolio becomes larger). Similarly, oil-related new inflows and the investment in inflation-linked bonds could also provide some protection against long-term inflation (arguably, equities may or may not be a good long term inflation hedge). In addition, the fund of course also uses advanced tools of portfolio management, which are surely applied with rigor. However, as we know from the credit crisis, such tools can lead one to a false sense of confidence if they miss the big picture (deckchairs on the Titanic, etc!).

In this context, I allow myself to speculate (hypothesise?!) as to whether the fund should be devoting far more significant efforts to invest in non-traditional assets. (The fund’s performance is essentially currently measured against a benchmark portfolio of bonds and equities and so such efforts or investments would be hard to justify against these objectives).

The most obvious scenario in which the fund could lose out significantly would be a shift in the world’s energy sources (over the many decades of pension obligations), which could create an environment that is simultaneously largely unfavorable for most asset classes in the fund. Conceivably the potentially massive costs associated with creating a low-carbon global economy could produce a situation that is unfavorable for most global equity investments, that could unleash inflationary forces that reduce the value of many bond investments, and potentially reduce demand for oil (and its price). Such a “nightmare” scenario for the fund does not seem beyond the realms of reality. 

The most obvious strategy to mitigate the effects of this scenario would be for the fund to proactively take very large positions in alternative energy technologies. Such positions would presumably need to be very large (and possibly require the fund to itself create and support the development of new innovative companies in this area, not just to passively invest in existing ones). The costs and risks in doing so would be large (particularly as the scenario may never materialize), but it could be a prudent one, given the already very large fund that already exists for a small population base of about 5m people. Could it be so bad if 5%-10% of that fund were invested in such technologies? (Such investments would arguably support, or at least relate to, some of the fund’s other goals—such as ethical or social investments). A risk assessment would be a good idea. Now, back to the real world!

Dr. Michael Rees
Director of Training and Consulting

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