Nicolai Tangen, cleared on Thursday to take over as chief executive of Norway’s enormous sovereign wealth fund, has proven one thing so far: he’s not scared off by a storm. A rough one has been raging around Tangen, whose large personal fortune has posed conflicts of interest and unleashed controversy, but he called all the public debate both “healthy” and natural, given the importance of the job he’s keen to take on at considerable personal expense.
“I have never considered withdrawing my candidacy” from the job, Tangen said at a lengthy press conference in Oslo after signing an employment contract with the Norwegian central bank chief Øystein Olsen. Tangen is due to take over as CEO of Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM) from September 1.
“That’s not the way I’m screwed together,” Tangen added when questioned repeatedly about all the issues and criticism that have swirled since Olsen first announced hiring him two months ago. Tangen claimed he was looking forward “more than ever” to take on the “task of managing the funds of current and future generations” of his fellow Norwegians.
The native of Kristiansand on Norway’s southern coast has spent the last few decades living and working in London, where he built up a fortune estimated at around GBP 700 million (NOK 7 billion). More than half of it is linked to the fund management firm AKO Capital that he established in 2005, and may well be invested in the same companies that Norway’s so-called Oil Fund is. Potential conflicts of interest, along with holdings based in tax havens and unusual secrecy tied to Tangen’s employment process, have generated lots of headlines in Norway as politicians, professors, legal experts and the media sounded alarms.
Olsen has also come under fire, for allegedly violating transparency laws tied to the employment process by keeping Tangen’s candidacy for the top Oil Fund job under wraps. Olsen and the central bank’s board have been criticized by a parliamentary committee and he acknowledged that “there were some things we could have done differently.” Olsen vigorously defended the process to employ a new Oil Fund boss, though, repeatedly calling it “good and extremely thorough,” and resulting in “the right person” for the job.
Neither Olsen nor Tangen shied away from more than 90 minutes of questions from the Norwegian press corps, acknowledging all the public concern. They were also subjected to a reprimand of sorts from an Oslo-based correspondent for the Financial Times, who complained about an embargo on the terms and conditions of Tangen’s employment that didn’t offer enough time to read through it before the press session began. It was also suggested that Norges Bank should re-think its communications policy.
Read the details of Tangen’s employment contract, which Olsen claims “creates sufficient distance” between Tangen’s private finances, the AKO system and the job he’ll carry out as Oil Fund chief, here (external link to Norges Bank’s website).
Tangen said it was always intended that he’d revert to passive ownership of his personal financial holdings, through a form of “blind trust,” upon taking over as Oil Fund boss. Asked whether he feels he’ll have the confidence of top politicians in Norway, several of whom have criticized his ties to tax havens and potential conflicts of interest, Tangen replied by saying he aimed to win the public’s trust by doing a good job. As to whether he can claim such confidence upon entry, he said others would need to answer that. He stressed, though, that “I will only have one hat, and that will be the Oil Fund hat.”
Things got so hostile at one point during the press conference that Olsen felt a need to tell the assembly of reporters that “this is really a wonderful day, a great day,” because the central bank would be getting “a very strong and professional” person to manage Norway’s oil wealth, who also comes to a highly competent organization.
Olsen conceded to state broadcaster NRK after the lengthy session that the past few months of controversy over Tangen, combined with the economic downturn from the Corona virus crisis, had been “difficult for the bank, and for me.” He insisted, though, that he has steadfastly believed that hiring Tangen was “the right thing to do.” He stressed that he had a unifed board of directors behind him and that he remained optimistic Nicolai Tangen would further lift an already competent organization to new levels.
“This storm will have been worth it,” Olsen said.