Norway’s sovereign wealth fund scrutinizes its oil holdings

By Lars Erik Taraldsen and Ott Ummelas on 2/4/2021

(Bloomberg) –Norway’s $1.3 trillion wealth fund is set to take a critical look at the stakes it holds in national oil companies, as its ethics council expands scrutiny of corruption in its latest set of guidelines.

The Oslo-based fund, the world’s biggest of its kind, has already steered away from areas such as tobacco, weapons, coal and palm oil following recommendations from the ethics council. The investor last year excluded PetroChina Co. for gross corruption on the council’s recommendation, although the advice focused mainly on human rights violations and excessive emissions.

The council’s latest list suggests a broader approach will be applied going forward. “If accusations are made against many companies in a particular sector, the Council on Ethics often reviews the sector as a whole and examines the companies that are the subject of the most serious accusations,” according to a business plan by the council seen by Bloomberg News. “As there are many corruption cases related to national oil companies, this is a sector the Council on Ethics will look into in 2021.”

Norway’s sovereign wealth fund returned $123 billion on its investments last year. Its biggest gains came from technology stocks, while it lost money on its U.K. and oil investments. The fund revealed last month in an interview that its portfolio of oil exploration and production companies, valued at around $6 billion in 2019, was sold last year.

Before providing guidelines to the fund, the council focuses its review on companies that have been involved in “very serious” or several cases. It collects information on the company’s compliance systems and assesses the future risk of corruption based on the company’s response to previous corruption cases.

A list of companies under observation will be published next month as part of the council’s next report. Norges Bank publishes exclusions and observations continuously throughout the year. There are currently companies being investigated under the corruption criterion in the industrial services, transport, construction and oil and gas sectors.

According to the plan seen by Bloomberg, the ethics council also plans to look into human rights breaches among shoe manufacturers. Other areas include investigations to identify environmental and worker rights risks at companies involved in ship dismantling and a review of the mining sector. It will “probably” continue probing “several companies” amid reports they are using endangered species in the production of medicines.

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