Critics rail against new Oil Fund boss

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Questions are still flying over whether Norwegian billionaire hedge fund manger Nicolai Tangen will actually take over, on September 1, as chief executive of Norway’s huge sovereign wealth fund known as the Oil Fund. Several top politicians don’t support him as the manager of one of the world’s largest pension funds, and commentators claim Tangen doesn’t have the general public’s support either.

Nicolai Tangen is a brilliant Norwegian billionaire who’s made his own fortune and is now keen to manage his homeland’s huge Oil Fund. Others, including several MPs and not least media commentators, remain highly skeptical. PHOTO: NBIM/Tony Colli

It’s an extremely poor starting point for Tangen, the highly successful native of Kristiansand who’s made a fortune of his own in London in recent years. Many admire his brilliance at making lots of money for his hedge fund empire Ako Capital, and his generosity in giving much of his money away. Others are skeptical, especially after learning of a lavish seminar and social gathering he hosted last year, and fear conflicts of interest when Tangen manages Norway’s pension fortunes while still retaining ownership over Ako.

“SV (the Socialist Left party) has no confidence in Nicolai Tangen as Oil Fund chief,” Kari Elisabeth Kaski,  Member of Parliament for SV, bluntly told state broadcaster NRK and other media after this week’s hearing on Tangen’s hiring before the Parliament’s finance committee.

The hearing was held to hear in more detail why the Parliament’s own supervisory committee for the central bank, which is responsible for the Oil Fund, is so critical of the process behind Tangen’s employment. Its leader, Julie Brodtkorb, thinks the potential for conflicts of interest should have been eliminated instead of limited. She also claims Norway’s central bank (Norges Bank, which is responsible for the Oil Fund) and its leader, Øystein Olsen, broke the law when they kept Tangen’s candidacy for the job secret. His name was not on the list of applicants for the job, which is supposed to be made public.

‘Worrisome’ secrecy
“It was very worrisome to hear the leader for the supervisory committee say that they view (the secrecy) as a violation of guidelines, laws and regulations,” said Hadia Tajik, an MP for the Labour Party who led Monday’s hearing at the Parliament. Sigbjørn Gjelsvik, an MP for the Center Party, was also critical, and doesn’t think the committee can reconcile such differences between the supervisory committee and Olsen, who denies he and the central bank’s board have broken any laws in the hiring process. Gjelsvik later said he thinks Tangen must sell out of his business interests, especially those involving tax havens. Tangen has so far refused to do so.

Olsen conceded, meanwhile, that Finance Minister Jan Tore Sanner has expressed reservations about the choice of Tangen for the post. Kaski has flat out asked Sanner to intervene and make sure Tangen doesn’t become Oil Fund boss. Even Prime Minister Erna Solberg has since told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that she was “surprised” by the central bank’s choice of Tangen, noting that “there are many dilemmas tied to people who have high financial activity in the international finance world.”

Plot thickens
On Wednesday the plot seemed to thicken when a member of the central bank’s supervisory committee that Brodtkorb leads claimed she wasn’t speaking for the entire committee when she suggested the central bank had violated laws and regulations. Her stongly worded remarks before the finance committee were “not handled or discussed” by the full committee, claimed dissident member Morten Søberg, a former state secretary in the finance ministry and member of the Center Party.

Søberg further claimed Brodtkorb’s claim of law violations came as a surprise, “and I feel uncomfortable by indirectly being viewed as agreeing with that,” he wrote in a commentary in DN on Wednesday. He also told DN that he felt compelled towards “civil disobedience” in challenging Brodtkorb’s claims.

Søberg was quickly challenged himself by several other members of the supervisory committee. They claimed Brodtkorb had correctly expressed the committee’s concerns about Tangen and the employment process that resulted in a job contract currently allowing him to retain ownership over AKO Capital also while managing Norway’s oil fortunes.

Sanner can object or accept Tangen
The question now is whether Finance Minister Sanner will object to and challenge Olsen’s hiring of Tangen, which could put Olsen’s job in jeopardy as well. Olsen admitted he hadn’t informed Sanner that Tangen would remain owner of AKO while also serving as Oil Fund boss.

Even though the central bank remains independent of both the government and Parliament, several law professors told news service E24 that Sanner does have some say over Oil Fund business since it’s not, under the law, part of monetary policy or traditional central bank operations. “In my opinion, the finance ministry can instruct Norges Bank if they support the supervisory committee’s view that every risk of conflict of interest must be eliminated,” Professor Hans Peter Graver at the University of Oslo told E24.

The finance ministry itself, however, still claims Sanner has no say in decisions made by the central bank’s executive board led by Olsen.

‘Damaging’ secrecy
DN editorialized on Wednesday that the central bank’s secrecy about Tangen’s candidacy for the job has “damaged” the entire process. The bank’s supervisory board, which acts on behalf of Parliament, is critical, several MPs are uncertain about or opposed to Tangen, and even the finance minister expressed concern. Tangen himself can feel his integrity is being questioned and may simply withdraw, even though he clearly wants to lead the Oil Fund and keep it growing to fund Norwegians’ pensions for years to come.

If Olsen and the bank had made Tangen’s candidacy public long before they announced his hiring, DN wrote, many of the concerns around Tangen and potential conflicts of interest could have been addressed. “Norges Bank now looks like amateurs in one of the most important employment processes they have,” DN editorialized. That, in turn, could scare off not only Tangen but other qualified applicants as well, and leave the Oil Fund with less than top-rank management.

While commentators at both newspaper Klassekampen and Dagsavisen claim Tangen simply can’t become Norway’s new Oil Fund boss at this point, commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim in Aftenposten presented another scenario: that a majority in Parliament will criticize the process and the violation of public information rules, that the same majority plus Finance Minister Sanner will make clear demands that the central bank closely monitor the system now set up to avoid conflicts of interests, that they also call for sharper rules against use of tax havens, and that Nicolai Tangen takes over his new job on September 1 as planned.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund