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Banks' crimes fail to repulse top fund managers in the Nordics

Norway's US$1 trillion sovereign fund, along with other pension funds, intend to stay invested despite scandals

Danske Bank's Estonian branch (above) and Swedbank AB are being probed in Europe and the US for allegedly handling dirty money from the former Soviet Union via their Estonian units.


THE biggest Nordic asset managers are either holding on to, or increasing, stakes in banks dragged down by vast money laundering scandals.

In a region where the concept of ethical investing is regularly held up as a goal, none of the big institutional investors contacted by Bloomberg said they would consider divesting shares of banks under investigation for laundering. A number have taken advantage of share-price declines to add to existing stakes.

At the top of the list is Norway's US$1 trillion sovereign wealth fund, which this month underlined its intention to remain a long-term investor in Nordic banks caught up in "dirty money" affairs. The biggest pension funds in Denmark and Sweden have made similar statements. The funds Bloomberg spoke to said it was their intention to stay invested in order to take on a more activist role.

"Of course, we take it very seriously," said Eva Halvarsson, the chief executive officer of one of Sweden's biggest pension funds, AP2. "We have shares in all the banks and are also cooperating with them in our role as asset managers. We follow the developments closely and have contacts at various levels."

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Danske Bank A/S and Swedbank AB are being investigated in Europe and the US amid allegations they handled billions of dollars in dirty money from the former Soviet Union via their Estonian units. Those who reportedly benefited from the transactions include convicted felon Paul Manafort and ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, among others. Nordea Bank ABP is also under investigation for laundering, though allegations against it are on a much smaller scale.

Preliminary charges have already been brought against a number of former Danske executives, including its ousted CEO, Thomas Borgen. Swedbank fired its CEO, Birgitte Bonnesen, amid allegations she misled the public about the severity of the bank's laundering scandal. "I have a great understanding for the complexity of it but of course the banks need to take it seriously in order to regain trust," Ms Halvarsson said.

The pension industry's commitment to scandal-hit banks may raise questions around the principles of responsible investing based on environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns. ESG investing guidelines aren't standardised, making it hard to know what distinctions money managers are making. At the same time, there's a school of thought that says staying invested in companies involved in unethical behaviour is a better way to wield influence than divesting.

John Howchin, the secretary-general of the Council on Ethics that sets guidelines for a number of Sweden's AP pension funds, said "that's the way we work," in an interview. "We stay and work together with the companies, as long as we think it gives results." He said that the ethics council has a global focus, while it's up to the individual funds to take a stance on local investments.

In Norway, the CEO of the wealth fund, Yngve Slyngstad, says they "have a good dialogue" with the banks under investigation for money laundering. "Even so, we will remain long-term investors and it goes without saying that, as an investor in these banks, we have an expectation that the board will address these issues."

Some of the biggest funds in the Nordic region are adding to their stakes in the banks. ATP and PFA, Denmark's two biggest pension firms with a combined portfolio of about US$210 billion, have both bought up shares of Danske Bank since the scandal broke. Allan Polack, the CEO of PFA, points to the bank's ability to make money as a key consideration. He says PFA is "very pleased" with Danske's commitment to its dividend. Finland's Varma Mutual Pension Insurance Co, which manages more than US$50 billion, sold its Danske shares in 2018 but tripled its Swedbank stake. Ilmarinen Mutual Pension Insurance Co, another big Finnish fund, also added to its Swedbank holding.

Institutional investors have mostly stuck around as others have fled. Danske's share price plunged almost 50 per cent last year, while Swedbank is this year's worst-performing financial stock in Europe, having lost roughly a quarter of its value. Nordea fell about 25 per cent last year. BLOOMBERG

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