Sunday, May 31, 2015

Is Norway Divesting--or not?

Given the magnitude of the global energy sector, things are not always what they seem. Take Norway, and its sovereign wealth fund, the proceeds of its windfall oil boom, invested soberly to benefit Norwegians for generations to come. It's the largest sovereign fund in the world, amounting to a whopping 1.3% of ALL equity shares worldwide--a market-mover for sure.  In the Scandinavian tradition Norway, despite its current right-center government, stands for progressivism and a certain global responsibility, so it was not surprising when its pension fund managers announced last February, with much fanfare, that they were divesting from coal, that is, withdrawing $9-10 billion in stock holdings in some 50 large coal companies. The previous fall, Greenpeace Norway and two other environmental groups had published a carefully researched report showing that the sovereign fund was heavily invested in coal companies, and drew up a list of such public corporations it wanted the fund to withdraw from.

Alas, when the three groups looked back at the results of this 'divestment' this spring, what they saw was not what they hoped: in a follow-up report, they noted that the fund had largely reinvested in coal-related companies, many of them electric companies burning coal, instead of mining companies that produce it. The environmentalists cried foul, and on Wednesday the Norwegian parliament prepared to instruct the sovereign fund managers to try again. Once again, this new law was met with great applause in the Guardian, from Bill McKibben, and in general from a divestment movement that has accelerated rapidly since last winter. This Norwegian divestment 2.0 is seen as a major step with the possibility of drawing other large investors with it, as it pulls down the value of coal industry stocks. The change in context--the maturity of the movement which may be able to leverage this new Norwegian step in ways that weren't possible even in February--also known as a shift in 'market psychology' or 'mood,' may indeed be big news in the way Norway's first divestment effort wasn't.

Or maybe not. The shifting field of capital investments, of conglomerates with divisions that cover all bases of the energy field, makes it hard to know what divestment is real or 'fake'--as Norway's critics accused. But the growing prominence of the movement, in advance of the Paris agreements, may indeed make coal companies less able to maintain their reckless level of exploitation. The effective loss of value may translate as diminished working capital. But I still suspect that where there is a market for coal, there will be an incentive to produce it--not with Norway's capital but with someone else's. Helping India, China, and the other big coal users to replace their consumption of coal will be the long-term solution. But the frontal attack on its production--if such a thing turns out to be possible--may indeed advance that cause.

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