World’s Biggest Wealth Fund Caught Up in Governance Drama

An embarrassing recruitment debacle at Norway’s $1.1 trillion wealth fund has reignited a debate over who controls the world’s largest sovereign investor.

Norges Bank, which oversees the fund, failed to eliminate the risk of conflicts of interest tied to the new CEO’s personal wealth and his firm’s use of tax havens, according to its watchdog. On Friday, Norway’s biggest opposition party, Labor, came out against his appointment.

The government has now acknowledged the time might be ripe to consider some changes to the whole process.

Both Norges Bank and Norway’s government insist the recruitment process didn’t breach the Central Bank Act. But the episode has exposed some glaring weaknesses in the governance structures surrounding a wealth fund that holds significant chunks of global stocks, bonds and real estate.

“It’s obvious that there’s discontent with the process,” said Karin Thorburn, a professor of finance at the Norwegian School of Economics.

Nicolai Tangen, the London-based hedge fund manager selected by Norges Bank to run the wealth fund, is the man at the center of the controversy. The 54-year-old has already agreed to forfeit control of his personal fortune, estimated at around $860 million. But Norges Bank’s watchdog says that should have been dealt with before his appointment was announced. Norges Bank has also had to explain why Tangen’s fund, AKO Capital LLP, uses tax havens, and why his name never appeared on an official list of applicants.

Political Headwinds

A united opposition, which polls suggest is set to gain power in elections next year, has now spoken out against Tangen’s appointment in one form or another. Though it remains unclear whether a majority in parliament will demand government action, the affair has created a rare level of tension between Norway’s most powerful institutions. Parliament’s Finance Committee is due to make its position known by Aug. 21.

Disavowing Norges Bank’s choice of CEO for the wealth fund would mark a “dramatic” departure from the norms of government in the country, Steinar Juel, an economist who sat on Norges Bank’s Executive Board until the end of last year, said on Twitter on Saturday.

Amid all the controversy, Tangen is set to start his new job on Sept. 1. Those who know him, including the founding CEO of the wealth fund, say he’s eminently qualified for the job. Tangen has reduced his stake in AKO to 43% and put his holdings in a blind trust. He’s also said he wouldn’t have taken the job at the Norwegian wealth fund if he’d been forced to relinquish his ownership entirely.

But the government may take a bigger role in future CEO appointments at the fund. And if more lawmakers join Labor in explicitly opposing Tangen’s appointment, he may find himself having to give up his remaining holding in AKO, which he founded, or even walking away from the wealth fund job.

Tangen has referred all questions to Norges Bank, which has defended its handling of his appointment.

“In light of the attention created by this hiring process, I believe it’s natural to see if there’s something that can be learned,” Finance Minister Jan Tore Sanner said in an email to Bloomberg. “It’s too early to say what the outcome of such a review could be.”

Aside from Labor, a rethink is backed by Norway’s Socialist Left Party, which favors boosting “democratic control” of the fund, though it draws the line at politically appointed CEOs.

It’s not the first time questions surrounding governance of Norway’s vast wealth fund have surfaced. An expert commission in 2018 advised moving management of the fund out of Norges Bank, which also handles Norway’s monetary policy. But the Conservative-led administration decided against such a change.

“There are surely some people who regret that” now, Thorburn said. She says Norges Bank is simply “unsuited” to the job of running the fund.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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