Sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) enjoy many advantages, but among the keenest is their sheer power.
These are some of the world’s wealthiest and smartest investors. If they offer a warning it carries weight, given the (usually implicit) threat that they can use their assets to punish.
It’s an advantage most choose to use discretely. But on October 18, Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM), operator of the world’s largest wealth fund, decided to go a little louder. It publicly declared its opposition to plans for the London Stock Exchange to loosen listing rules for the state oil company of Saudi Arabia, Aramco.
The SWF was responding to a consultation by the Financial Conduct Authority, regulator of the LSE, over letting state-affiliated firms enjoy a less intrusive touch when it came to governance requirements. Quite rightly, NBIM said that introducing exceptions to the UK’s corporate governance framework was a slippery slope that would undermine minority shareholder interests.
In doing so, it underscored one of the potential advantages of SWFs. They are somewhat controversial, scorned by many as lacking sufficient governance and transparency themselves, or for being a pot of resources that could be better utilised in country economies.
But at their best, SWFs can offer clarion calls for positive market change.
Unlike state pension funds, SWFs tend to be left largely alone to invest as they wish over long periods, only offering their governments periodic updates. They usually get much more freedom to spend money on high quality professionals too, unlike the penny-pinching bureaucracy that consumes pension fund operators. But this power also confers responsibility. SWFs need to justify their existence, and this should extend beyond annual returns alone. The funds are meant to be a tool of progress for their local economies, which includes supporting capital market development and better standards of operation.
As NBIM demonstrated, the opinion of SWFs can be delivered to help prevent the erosion of market practices, but the voice of SWFs can also be employed to extol better standards.
New Zealand Super is one example of this. Under chief investment officer Adrian Orr, the fund has opted to act as a powerful advocate to address climate change. In October 2016 it declared its intention to make its passive equity investments carbon neutral and is looking at how to extend this into active equities and other assets. Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund is attempting to extend environmental, social and governance standards in its home country, and in July added three ESG indexes into its equity portfolio, into which it invested ¥3 trillion ($26.5 billion).
Other institutional investors should emulate such efforts as best they can. Calling for better corporate governance, improving environmental and social expectations and punishing companies and governments alike for malign or abusive actions should be a basic requirement of any institutional investor.
Unfortunately, the efforts of a lot of regional investors (including SWFs) remains subpar. The transparency of many listed companies in Asia is inadequate, yet too many institutional investors are effectively mute when it comes to poor behaviour by leading local corporates—even when they are substantial shareholders in them.
There are many areas where the views of these investors could be important. The apparent desire of bourses in Singapore and Hong Kong to introduce dual share listing standards deserves a level of public investor reaction that it is failing to receive, what with its attendant impact on shareholder rights. The need for China to emphasise governance as much as it has been pushing for more green financing is another area in which major investors could offer an opinion.
As Asia’s capital markets continue to flourish, more examples of bad behaviour, corruption or incompetent decision-making will surface. SWFs should take a lead role in offering unflinching views of this, but they need to be supported to the region’s growing institutional peers too.
Purses can be fearsome weapons, if wielded effectively.