Norway’s US$1-trillion fund—the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund—sent shockwaves through global markets nearly two years ago when it said in November 2017 that it recommended the removal of oil and gas stocks—around US$35 billion worth of shares—from the fund’s equity benchmark index to make Norway’s wealth and economy less vulnerable to a permanent drop in oil and gas prices.
The initial proposal of the fund—which has amassed its vast wealth from none other than Norway’s oil and gas revenues and is therefore commonly referred to as ‘the oil fund’--was to dump all oil stocks from its portfolio, including significant stakes in Big Oil worth billions of U.S. dollars each.
Nearly two years later, after compromises and subsector changes in the index provider FTSE Russell that Norway uses as a reference, the initial proposal of dumping more than US$35 billion of oil stocks has been now narrowed down to stakes in purely exploration and production companies worth a total of less than US$6 billion—and also worth less than the fund’s stake in Shell alone.
Norwegian economists tell Bloomberg that the heavily reduced (not final yet) list of oil stocks for sale will likely have a very small effect and is reduced to a “symbolic” divestment, while Greenpeace’s finance campaign director for the Nordics, Martin Norman, described to Bloomberg the whittled-down proposal as “completely scandalous.”
The initial proposal shocked the markets as investors started questioning whether other major funds would follow suit and opt out of fossil fuels at a time when shareholders, investors, and environmentalists are increasingly pressing major oil companies to start taking climate change seriously and to prepare their business portfolios for a world of peak oil demand, whenever that may come.
After months of deliberations, Norway’s government proposed in March 2019 that the fund divest from 134 companies classified by the index provider FTSE Russell as belonging to the exploration and production subsector. Related: Big Oil Profits Lag Despite Rising Production
As at the end of 2018, the Norwegian fund held stakes in E&P companies—under FTSE Russell’s classification for such—with an approximate value of US$7.8 billion (66 billion Norwegian crowns).
To compare, as of the end of 2018, the fund’s total equity holdings in oil and gas firms had a value of US$37 billion, spread in investments in 341 companies, including just below 1 percent in each of Exxon and Chevron, 2.45 percent in Shell, 2 percent in Total, 2.31 percent in BP, and 1.59 percent in Eni. The stake in Shell alone was worth US$5.9 billion.
Now almost two years after the initial proposal, Norway is close to making the final decision on which companies it will dump from its sovereign wealth fund, but along the way, it has whittled the initial list down to a much smaller list of pure exploration and production companies, sparing all major integrated oil firms from divestment. A change in the categories of the FTSE Russell index provider as of July 1, 2019, further drops some of the oil companies from the ‘exploration and production’ category and moves them to ‘refining and marketing’, leaving the new category ‘crude producers’ as the companies Norway will likely target to divest.
According to Bloomberg calculations, the Norwegian fund held shares in the ‘crude producers’ category worth US$5.7 billion as of end-2018—less than the fund’s US$5.9-billion stake in Shell alone.
As per the ‘crude producers’ category in FTSE Russell, the fund may divest stakes in a number of U.S. oil producers, including Anadarko, Apache Corp, Chesapeake Energy, Concho Resources, Continental Resources, Devon Energy, Diamondback Energy, EOG Resources, Marathon Oil Corp, Murphy Oil, Occidental Petroleum, Pioneer Natural Resources—to name just a few of the drillers in the U.S. shale patch. As a whole, the ‘crude producers’ list is heavy on U.S. shale firms, Canadian oil producers with major oil sands operations, and companies exploring for oil in Africa.
While Norway’s currently planned divestment will likely have a negligible effect on global oil stock indexes, it will have an effect on those U.S. oil firms that will end up on the final list of stake sales.
While the overall effect of the world’s largest fund ditching oil stocks is likely to be insignificant for stock markets, it could be a significant step toward institutional investors increasingly reviewing their participation in the fossil fuel sector, as calls for divesting from oil and gas are set to only grow louder.
By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com
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When the fund said in November 2017 that it recommended divesting oil and gas stocks from its portfolio, I said then on the pages of oilprice.com that it is possible that the Norwegian sovereign fund is trying to cosy up with the environmental lobby or is receiving environmental rather than sound financial advice.
I also said that the fact that a country whose Fund was built on oil riches is trying to dump oil and gas stocks beggars belief when oil and gas are the biggest earning commodities in the world. Moreover, if oil is the fuel for the global economy, then oil’s value, importance and financial rewards are assured well through the 21st century and far beyond.
I recommended then that the Fund should reconsider its decision and seek wider advice from international oil experts.
It is just possible that the Governing Body of the Fund listed to my advice.
Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
International Oil Economist
Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London