The global campaign to divest from fossil fuels may have just picked up its most significant ally to date – the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world.
Norway’s trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund has proposed dropping investment for oil and gas companies. The plan, backed by the central bank, still needs approval by the finance ministry, but it would see the fund gradually divesting itself of oil and gas stocks over time. Currently, fossil fuel investments account for about 6 percent of the fund’s assets, or $37 billion.
“Our advice is to simply remove the oil and gas sector, as it is defined in the FTSE reference index, from the fund’s reference index,” Deputy Central Bank Governor Egil Matsen told Reuters in an interview. “That would mean all companies that the FTSE has classified with the sector, should be removed from our reference index.”
The global movement for fossil fuel divestment has been one of the fastest growing divestment campaigns ever witnessed. According to Fossil Free, a project of 350.org, an estimated 808 institutions from around the world have committed to divestment, totaling $5.57 trillion in assets. The type of groups are varied – about 27 percent of them are faith-based, another 20 percent are philanthropic foundations, 18 percent are government, 16 percent are education institutions, and 10 percent are pension funds.
But the potential move by Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is one of the most significant pledges yet, for a few reasons. First, the size of the fund, with $1 trillion in assets, is obviously notable. Second, the fund was built on oil and gas money, so a diversification away from fossil fuels has symbolic importance. But third, the justification for divestment, according to the fund, is not because of concerns over climate change, which is the usual reason why most other institutions have opted to divest.
Norway’s sovereign wealth fund wants out of fossil fuels in order to avoid exposure to oil price fluctuations.
The sovereign wealth fund is a massive investor in oil and gas, so the news of a shift in investment strategy is significant. According to Reuters, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund holds a 2.3 percent stake in Royal Dutch Shell, 1.7 percent stake in BP, 0.9 percent stake in Chevron and 0.8 percent of ExxonMobil.
But, as any energy investor would know, oil and gas stocks have been poor performers for the past few years. “It clearly stands out, perhaps not surprisingly, but not obviously, that indeed there is a substantial difference … in return between the oil and gas sector and the broad stock market in periods when the oil price changes substantially,” Matsen said. “Oil price exposure of the government’s wealth position can be reduced by not having the fund invested in oil and gas stocks.” The sovereign wealth fund, like other investors, would have been better off putting their money in other sectors of the global economy.
It isn’t just the most recent downturn that Norway is worried about. Over the long-term, peak oil demand looms. Pulling out of companies like Royal Dutch Shell and BP would make Norway’s wealth “less vulnerable to a permanent drop in oil and gas prices,” according to the country’s central bank, the FT reported.Related: Why Saudi Arabia Should Fear U.S. Oil Dominance
The sovereign wealth fund is seeded with revenues generated from oil and gas sales, so it is already vulnerable to oil price fluctuations. Moreover, the Norwegian government owns a substantial portion of Statoil, making the country even more dependent on oil and gas revenues. One way to reduce the country’s financial risk would be for the sovereign wealth fund to get out of the oil business.
Critics of the divestment campaign often note that liquidating one’s assets does very little to influence the actions of the oil and gas industry. After all, even if divestment dragged down the valuation of an oil company, its share price would merely be discounted for opportunistic investors to scoop up the asset on the cheap. But that was never the overarching goal. The objective of the divestment movement was to make fossil fuels so toxic in the minds of the public that it forces governments to change policies to force a transition towards cleaner energy. That fight is ongoing.
However, the proposal from the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund opens up an entirely new front on the oil and gas industry. Hard-headed central bankers are concerned about the long-term investment case for fossil fuels…unrelated from climate change. The largest sovereign wealth fund in the world simply doesn’t think it makes sense to hold onto oil and gas assets anymore.
By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com