‘There can be shocks’: Yngve Slyngstad, Norway’s $1tn man

‘There will be shocks’: Yngve Slyngstad, Norway’s $1tn man

Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is a fairytale of worldwide finance. In lower than 25 years investing the power riches of the North Sea, it has grown right into a $1.2tn large; it owns 1.5 per cent of the world’s publicly traded corporations. Who extra stimulating for me to have my first formal lunch with in six months, I believe, than the person who for greater than a decade presided over this behemoth — and used its heft to carry firm boards to account for his or her environmental and social influence?

Yngve Slyngstad, who stepped down this summer time, has proposed we meet at FishWorks in Marylebone, central London. From the skin, FishWorks appears like a small unadorned fishmonger. He leads me previous crates of contemporary fish into the restaurant space within the again. He likes it, he says, as a result of it’s “one of many few locations the place you already know they really obtain their very own catch”. 

He additionally selected it, he says, for the cryptic motive that “we may in concept name the fund the ‘fish fund’”. What he means, it seems, is that the “oil” fund — which commonly covers a sixth of public expenditure — is unrelated to grease per se. What Norway has finished is save its export surplus, which could as properly have come from the nation’s different bountiful North Sea useful resource. A lot of the fund’s worth comes from collected beneficial properties on bonds, shares and property. As he observes wryly: “We haven’t even began spending any of the oil cash.”

I’m assembly my compatriot earlier than London descends into the second lockdown. For a cut up second I remorse venturing out, for whereas the fish appears impeccably contemporary, the place is just not superb for social distancing. The waiters all put on face coverings, besides, it’s an eerie feeling to be indoors at what’s going to change into a really busy lunchtime, with tables lower than a metre throughout.

Slyngstad notes with approval that FishWorks presents entire grilled fish to share. I counsel the Cornish monkfish. Slyngstad walks again to the entrance of the restaurant to examine the fish himself and has already put within the order when he returns to the desk.

I point out that fish names are the toughest to be taught throughout languages — he has to remind me that monkfish is breiflabb in Norwegian. Along with English, the 58-year-old is aware of French and a few Japanese, having studied in each international locations in addition to the US, and German from learning existentialist philosophy. 

For 4 years, he took benefit of lectures being non-compulsory to journey the world together with his books — “I had the concept that philosophy is just not one thing you be taught on the college desk.” His odyssey ended with six months studying Heidegger within the splendid isolation of a cabin in northern Norway.

Our waiter has come to ask if we wish starters. Slyngstad chooses scallops, I plump for the fish soup.

Are we going to have wine? “For me it’s simple”, says Slyngstad; as a authorities worker he could not drink throughout working hours. “However you completely ought to have some.” I agree however determine to attend till the primary course.

I tease Slyngstad that he has practically at all times had a spartan model. In a uncommon scandal, it was revealed this spring that he had flown again from a US convention on a constitution flight paid for by Nicolai Tangen, a billionaire hedge fund supervisor who in March was introduced as Slyngstad’s successor. That mis-step — the central financial institution, which homes the fund, rapidly repaid the prices of the journey — was overshadowed by a lot higher turmoil round Tangen’s phrases of appointment, which initially allowed him to retain possession in his personal hedge fund. However it was a scratch in Slyngstad’s in any other case polished file.

He doesn’t take the bait, simply factors to his printed correspondence with Tangen, which reveals they’ve had no untoward contact. Then he shifts the topic to the that means of the fund itself, which he sees as an expression of egalitarianism.


89 Marylebone Excessive St, Marylebone, London W1U 4QW

Fish soup £7

Scallops starter £13

Monkfish entire £65.28

New potatoes £4

Tenderstem broccoli £5

Espresso panna cotta £6.50

Apple raspberry crumble £6.75

Glowing water x2 £7.50

Glass Pouilly-Fuissé £12.50

Espresso £3.50

Contemporary mint tea £3.50

Complete (inc eat-out promotion and repair) £130.78

“I believe it pertains to allemannsretten,” he says, referring to Norwegians’ authorized proper to roam. “We by no means questioned whether or not we owned the oil collectively,” Slyngstad factors out. This egalitarian premise means the financial savings coverage “must be frugal”, and since the fund is “democratically anchored it has been vital for me to take a cautious line”. 

Can that line be maintained, I ask? He hesitates — my impression is that he’s pondering how a lot he ought to weigh in on a job that’s not his — earlier than answering: “Sure, it has to. It has to.

“Your first job if you lead the fund is to make sure the mannequin is accepted.”

This should constrain what the fund can do, I say. Each funding is listed on its web site, each end result potential fodder for political bickering. “Sure, however not essentially in a nasty means . . . We meet the democracy-capitalism nexus on a regular basis — that has been probably the most fascinating issues [about the job].”

It’s not apparent how a younger hermit reader of Heidegger ended up working one of many world’s greatest funding funds. Slyngstad credit his curiosity in finance with how it’s “the place the whole lot comes collectively . . . like a gravitational discipline”, and the way monetary markets are “by definition forward-looking”. He provides that “the final era working in finance has had a privileged position [and] a central position in society’s growth.”

None extra privileged than him, one may say. He has adopted the oil fund’s meteoric trajectory nearly from the beginning. His tenure as chief government is bookended by the worldwide monetary disaster and the pandemic.

Our starters arrive. Slyngstad’s three scallops are superbly organized on their shells, and he asks for an additional plate to present me one. I apologise that I can’t reciprocate; the scallop is in any case way more satisfying than the soup, which is enough however as unmemorable as it’s unshareable.

I ask Slyngstad what the job of working the fund truly entails, provided that it’s sure by a decent funding mandate, aiming for “index-like” investing “with low prices and with out huge errors resulting in debate”, as Slyngstad places it. “Ninety-nine per cent of the chance” comes from the specification of asset lessons, geographic shares and permitted deviations from a reference index. That limits the scope for stockpicking.

Line chart of Assets of Norwegian Government Pension Fund-Global ($bn) showing The rise in Norway’s oil fund since inception

By way of the fund’s advisory position, nonetheless, Slyngstad and his colleagues have argued for and largely been permitted to shift into riskier belongings. From first solely investing within the most secure sovereign bonds, opening as much as equities was “with out comparability a very powerful resolution” within the fund’s historical past, says Slyngstad, who constructed up the fairness staff when he first joined. Growing the fairness share from 40 to 60 per cent within the mid-2000s got here in helpful through the international monetary disaster, when throughout just a few hectic months “a small nation of 5m individuals purchased 0.5 per cent of the world’s shares.” (The fairness share has since been raised to 70 per cent.)

Earlier than snapping up bargains within the crash, nonetheless, the fund’s market worth fell by a couple of quarter. That was “an unlimited stress on the system”, Slyngstad says, as a result of no one knew if politicians may reside with such huge nominal losses.

Because it turned out, the fund thrived each financially and politically. I joke that it’s sensible to step down with monetary markets at file highs. Simply then the waitress brings the monkfish and proceeds to chop it on the desk. She wonders if we want it higher finished. It emerges Slyngstad has given strict directions to not overcook the fish — “monkfish can in a short time get too dry.” He discharges the waitress with a “that is actually good”, shifts one half of the fish on to my plate, then serves himself. I can barely skim the wine listing earlier than he says “I guess you need to go for that Pouilly-Fuissé.” If he has not bought to select shares, he clearly is aware of how to decide on a wine.

Choosing up on my quip, he recounts an occasion final yr to mark 50 years since Norway’s first oil was discovered. Three minutes earlier than the ceremonial second at 11am, he obtained a message: the oil fund had ticked above the symbolic NKr10tn mark. “The identical day, I handed in my resignation.”

In investing, nonetheless, he doesn’t imagine in market timing. I press him; absolutely the velocity at which the fund loaded up on shares after 2008 should have been a call made on the high — a nerve-racking one, I surmise, given how transparently the nation’s wealth would depend upon it.

Once more, he deflects: “There’s a want to not have a construction the place one particular person has that a lot affect . . . We have now to make sure that the position I’ve had doesn’t flip into a job with the big underlying energy it may have.”

I don’t suppose that is false modesty. The necessity to design self-managing, adaptive governance constructions recurs all through our dialog. It’s on the coronary heart of what Slyngstad believes management is about. It additionally smacks of a philosophical survival technique for high-pressure moments. When the 2008 crash slashed the fund’s fairness holdings, it fell to Slyngstad to determine whether or not and how briskly to purchase extra shares to revive the mandated share.

Slyngstad admits this was a tough name, however says: “So long as you’re fairly positive you have got finished the correct factor, it’s not so tough to be in a disaster.” The democratic course of, it seems, might be an asset in onerous instances if it makes dangers understood and accepted among the many inhabitants.

It might additionally assist anchor the fund’s method to accountable investing — although Slyngstad says this has not but been “examined” by any severe political fallout. Nearly from the beginning, an exterior ethics council has excluded corporations judged to violate primary moral ideas. The fund has additionally been a pioneer in taking environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues when fascinated about monetary returns.

Slyngstad explains that the fund believes environmental unsustainability can also be financially dangerous in the long term. It has divested from 300 corporations it deems to have unfavourable environmental “externalities” (comparable to palm oil producers) and directed some cash actively to ones judged constructive. These selections have turned out worthwhile — “so no one can say we haven’t succeeded in that sense” due to ESG. 

However the fund’s major instrument for investing responsibly is asserting its affect as an proprietor. Underneath Slyngstad the fund has printed quite a lot of “expectation paperwork” setting out the way it needs corporations to be managed. The primary, in 2008, involved youngster labour. Extra have adopted on points from local weather change and water administration to corruption and tax transparency. He thinks they offer boards a “means in” to taking ESG significantly: “if we ask you to measure your water consumption, possibly you change into extra conscious and say, we will do that in another way.” 

The beneficiant fish parts have cooled earlier than we will end them, however they’re tasty sufficient that we do anyway. For dessert, Slyngstad orders the apple crumble, I the espresso panna cotta. 

Can different traders be taught from the oil fund’s method? The query, Slyngstad replies, is who they’re accountable to. “The massive index managers — BlackRock, Vanguard, State Road . . . clearly have an enormous and growing affect and share of worldwide investments. However they’ve 1000’s of consumers. The way to take care of that is unbelievably tough.” 

However he thinks “they’re all there now” in accepting the necessity for some type of accountable investing. “You’ll be able to’t handle different individuals’s cash immediately with out answering these questions.” 

However his level about doing properly whereas doing good, Slyngstad is unafraid of straightforwardly ethical arguments. “As shareholders we’ve got rights, however we even have duties,” he says. “If you happen to personal an condominium you’ll have duties to the co-op; for those who personal a constructing it’s important to forestall fireplace hazards.” His first rent for the fund’s possession division was an ethical thinker, tasked with understanding from first ideas the best way to use the fund’s rising heft.

That was not the one time Slyngstad acted as an in-house entrepreneur. For the fund’s buying and selling operations, he says he employed no merchants, opting as an alternative for mathematicians, which allowed the fund to leapfrog into digital buying and selling. His first fairness analysts got here “straight from college” as a result of skilled ones “wouldn’t settle for our salaries”. (Slyngstad himself was paid a grand complete of £600,000 final yr.) Exterior index managers have been rapidly changed by taking the job in-house.

Because the desserts arrive, I say this jogs my memory of how Norway constructed up home knowhow in pumping oil out of the North Sea within the Nineteen Seventies. He agrees: the fund realised “this may change into so vital we’ve got to be taught it for ourselves.” 

As we end up (espresso for him, contemporary mint tea for me) I ask him in regards to the huge questions dealing with traders sooner or later. In a 50-year perspective, he believes technological change will drive continued globalisation and make the carbon transition worthwhile. 

The larger lesson he has to impart is about resilience. “There can be shocks,” he says, which might be good “as a result of it forces individuals to suppose issues by once more”. However since we will’t predict them, we should ask: “If the whole lot stops, what then? We want further safety buffers.” He informed Bloomberg in 2014 that markets undervalued the chance of pandemics. So “when this disaster got here, we may proceed to commerce for equally giant quantities the very subsequent day, with everybody working from dwelling.”

He’s coy about his personal future. The official line has been that he’ll transfer to London to go up renewable power investments for the fund. However it’s unclear how that matches together with his successor’s plans. For now his position as “international head of fund technique” includes producing a sequence of studies about how the fund bought to the place it’s. It appears uncannily like getting to put in writing his personal legacy.

I attempt to get him to open up by asking what he would advise a youthful model of himself to do immediately. His reply surprises me. “If I have been 22,” he says, “I might go into biomimicry” — the sphere of designing know-how from fashions of pure behaviour. 

I’m shocked, too, to listen to him say that immediately’s younger “have to be the luckiest era of all time”, as a result of they enter a society which is altering ever sooner — “and it is going to be crucial modifications, huge modifications”. Then it strikes me that this pleasure about change is what offers an in any other case stern philosopher-investor his aura of optimism. “Some individuals don’t like change. [But] change has extra upsides than downsides.”

Martin Sandbu is an FT economics commentator

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