After being forced to withdraw at least $15 billion to fund 2017 budget deficits, the $860 billion Norwegian sovereign wealth fund has announced that it will change it's portfolio allocations to try to make up the difference. The change will result in 75% of the fund's capital being allocated to global equities, up from the current 60%. Sure, because funneling another $130 billion to the global equity bubble is just the prudent thing to do for an extra 40bps of "expected average annual real returns."
The central bank’s board, which oversees the fund, on Thursday recommended an increase in the equity share to 75 percent from 60 percent. That will raise the expected average annual real return to 2.5 percent over 10 years and to 3.5 percent over 30 years, compared with 2.1 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively, under the current setup.
The world’s largest sovereign wealth fund said that it expects an annual return of only 0.25 percent on bonds over the next decade and that the expected “equity risk premium,” or return on stocks over government bonds, will be just 3 percentage points in a cautious estimate.
“In our analyses, this is clearly evident in global data: internationally, growth in firms’ cash flows and equity returns are correlated with growth in the global economy,” Deputy Governor Egil Matsen said in a speech Thursday in Oslo. “Global economic growth in the coming years is expected to be below its historical level. This ‘pessimism’ is partly related to the driving forces behind the low level of the real interest rate.”
Of course, the decision comes after the fund has been forced to withdraw capital over the past two years to fund budget deficits that are expected to reach over 8% of GDP.
The withdrawals accelerated just as the heavily oil-dependent economy of Norway started to absorb the impact of lower oil prices.
In a previous interview with Bloomberg, Egil Matsen, the Deputy Governor at Norway’s Central Bank, said the withdrawals were starting to impact the manner in which the fund manages its risk profile.
"Relevant for how we think about the risk-bearing capacity of the fund. Say you have a decline in the equity market, and these returns have been partly funding the government, do you want variations in international financial markets to have a direct impact on fiscal policy?”
But Finance Minister Siv Jensen dismissed criticism of the withdrawals saying that the administration is using the fund as was intended noting that withdrawals remain below the fund's annual return target of 4%.
“Now that we are in an extraordinary situation, hit by the biggest oil price shock in 30 years, it would be crazy if we didn’t have an expansionary fiscal policy,” she told Bloomberg. Jensen rejected suggestions that the fund was “vulnerable.” She described it as “rock solid.”
The fund’s managers have warned it’s getting harder to live up to a real return target of 4 percent. It has returned 3.44 percent over the past 10 years. For now, planned withdrawals aren’t big enough to force the fund to sell assets. It estimates income from dividends, real estate and bonds will reach 207.5 billion kroner next year, almost double the amount the government plans to withdraw.
Meanwhile, as Norway admits that it expects "average annual real returns of 2.5 percent over 10 years," in the U.S., we just wrote about how the largest pension fund, CalPERS, is struggling with whether it's long-term return targets should be 7.5% or 6%. Sure, good luck with that.
In just a couple of months, the largest pension fund in the United States, the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS), will have to decide whether they'll rely on sound financial judgement and math to set their rate of return expectations going forward or whether they'll cave to political pressure to maintain artificially high return hurdles that they'll never meet but help to maintain their ponzi scheme a little longer. The decision faced by CALPERS is whether their long-term assumed rate of return on assets should be lowered from the current 7.5% down to a more reasonable 6%.
As pointed out by Pensions & Investments, the decision has far-reaching consequences. First, a lower rate of return will equate to higher contribution levels for municipalities throughout California, many of which are on the verge of bankruptcy already. Second, given that CALPERS is the largest pension fund in the United States, a move to lower return hurdles could set a precedent that would have to be followed by other funds around the country in even worse shape (yes, we're looking at you Illinois).
While Norway is at least admitting their problem, somehow we suspect that "math/logic" will continue to lose here in the U.S...better to bury your head in the sand for a couple of more years.