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Norway looks at riskier assets as wealth fund withdrawals loom

Stavanger
Stavanger

As Norway prepares to make the first withdrawals from its $820 billion wealth fund, the government is considering letting it take on riskier investments.

The Finance Ministry is looking into whether to boost the fund’s stock allocation to beyond 60 percent as the investor struggles with record low bond yields. The government is forming a panel to assess the impact of changing the limit that will report back in 2017.

“Obviously equity has a higher risk premium and gives a higher expected return, but of course with more fluctuations,” Paal Bjoernestad, the state secretary in charge of the fund at the ministry, said in an interview in Oslo Wednesday. “We’re an extremely long-term investor, all this could facilitate that we increase the risk in the fund and also the expected return.”

The potential shift followed the government’s revelation on Wednesday it will for the first time need to withdraw cash from the fund to counter a slump in oil prices and help the economy of western Europe’s biggest crude producer. The minority coalition said it would need to take 3.7 billion kroner ($450 million) out of the fund next year, after inflows of 38 billion kroner this year and 156 billion kroner in 2014.

Maximize Returns

Central bank Governor Oeystein Olsen, who oversees the fund, has previously recommended boosting its equity allocation to about 70 percent. It’s currently mandated to hold 60 percent in stocks, 35 percent in bonds and 5 percent in real estate.

“In order to maximize the long-term return, it could be a good reason to increase the allocation to equity,” said Bjoernestad, the second in command at the Finance Ministry. Any shift would “be at the expense of fixed income,” he said.

Olsen and other managers of the fund, set up to safeguard the wealth of future generations, warn that it faces scant returns amid record-low interest rates. A lack of new inflows will also make managing the fund more difficult. It has typically used inflows from the government to make strategy shifts, such as when it went into real estate or increased its stake in emerging markets. It’s now dealing with potential withdrawals as it targets adding infrastructure to its portfolio of approved asset classes. It also wants to raise its allocation to real estate.

While set to take cash out of the fund, the government is certain it will continue to grow as it uses less than its 4 percent expected return, countering criticism from the opposition that it was “breaking the nation’s piggy bank.”

Bjoernestad said the fund is well-equipped to handle this new reality.

“As long as we just take out the real return — and this year we don’t even take the real return — we’re saving,” he said. “There’s no challenge to any strategies at the fund.”

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