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Norway moves to sell some oil and gas shares from wealth fund
[LONDON] The Norwegian government has recommended that the country's US$1 trillion wealth fund sell its holdings in a group of companies that focus on finding and producing oil and gas.
The decision, the result of a two-year review of the giant fund's investments in fossil fuels, is a compromise that stops short of divestment in major energy companies like Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell. But the fund's activities are closely watched, and the move seems likely to increase concern among investors about the risks of holding such stocks.
"It clearly will send a signal to the fund industry and the investment community," said Jan Erik Saugestad, chief executive of Storebrand Asset Management, a Norwegian financial services firm.
The Norwegian finance minister, Siv Jensen, said Friday that the government aimed to "reduce the vulnerability of our common wealth to a permanent oil price decline."
The stocks to be sold are from a group of 134 companies labeled exploration and production firms by the London-based index provider FTSE Russell, a list that includes US oil producer Occidental Petroleum and shale driller Pioneer Natural Resources. A fund spokeswoman pegged the value of those holdings at 66 billion kroner, about US$7.6 billion.
The fund, called the Government Pension Fund Global, was created with revenue from the country's oil and gas operations and is invested in securities and real estate outside of Norway with the intention of providing for an aging population and for when oil revenues begin to decline. The government also draws on the fund for current needs.
Its managers and other experts have argued that because Norway, a large oil and gas producer, already has large petroleum holdings, the fund should not invest in oil and gas stocks. The fund is managed by the Norwegian central bank.
The move, which will need ratification from Parliament, appears to mark at least a temporary end of a debate that began in late 2017 when the fund's manager, Yngve Slyngstad, recommended exiting oil stocks to hedge against "the vulnerability of government wealth to a permanent drop in oil and gas prices."
The companies the fund would divest would be phased out gradually, once the policy is approved, the government said.
Some analysts said the Norwegian government's move signaled fears about the future of the oil business, as concerns grow about the industry's role in climate change.
"Obviously, oil and gas will be around for some time, but being too dependent on oil and gas is risky, whether it be for a nation or an oil company," said Bard V. Solhjell, chief executive of the WWF-Norway, an environmental group.
While Norway has a strong environmental movement, its economy is heavily dependent on the oil and gas industry, which contributed about 21 per cent of government revenues last year.
Explaining why it was not excluding giant oil companies from the fund, the finance ministry said it anticipated that almost all the growth in renewable energy over the next decade would come from diversified companies that did not focus exclusively on renewables.
Analysts said the ministry was probably referring to oil giants like BP and Royal Dutch Shell, which are among the top 20 equity holdings of the fund. (At the end of last year, oil and gas stocks made up about 6 per cent of the fund's stock portfolio.) These companies are making investments in renewables that, while sizable, are modest compared with the amounts of cash they continue to pump into oil and gas.
"The reason they are keeping them is because they think they might increase their renewables, which are of course a direct competitor to oil and gas," said Andrew Grant, a senior analyst at Carbon Tracker, a research organisation that warns investors about potential climate risks.
Grant and others said the Norwegian government, perhaps as a political compromise, was dumping the oil companies in the fund that had the greatest perceived risk because they were focused on fossil fuels, while encouraging those that remained to invest more in renewables.