Nicolai Tangen
Nicolai Tangen Photographer: Hakon Mosvold Larsen/AFP via Getty Images

By August 14, 2020, 7:00 PM GMT-3

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 the 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 Central Bank Act wasn’t breached. But the episode has exposed some glaring weaknesses in the governance structures surrounding an investor 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 the 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.

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 opposing his 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.”

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.

In a letter to lawmakers, Sanner pledged to review the process surrounding the fund’s CEO appointments. 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.

Parliament’s Finance Committee now has until Aug. 21 to decide whether to ask the government to intervene in the process.


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