Norway's trillion-dollar oil problem

  @FortuneMagazine January 16, 2014: 7:14 AM ET
NOR03 oil rig

A Statoil platform in the North Sea southwest of Norway


Norway's Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, is contemplating her country's far-off future. She is sitting in her Oslo office, just three months after Norwegians swept her Conservative Party into power (ousting the more leftist Labor government), and talking about the fate of her country -- specifically, when the oil that has brought huge benefits to this nation runs dry. "Long-term revenues are important to us," Solberg, 52, tells Fortune. "We are harvesting a natural resource, and it is not sustainable, even if it lasts for a long time. We have to survive [beyond] the oil age."

Solberg isn't being alarmist. Indeed, she's quite measured as she lays out her concerns about a Norwegian economy that's overly dependent on oil, and whose productivity and competitiveness, she says, lags those of other rich countries. But such comments, and the changes Solberg is seeking, are sure to reverberate loudly around the world, especially in financial centers such as New York, London, and Hong Kong. You see, Solberg isn't just plotting a course for her relatively small country (pop. 5 million); she's also signaling how she may spend the proceeds of nearly a trillion U.S. dollars (yes, trillion with a t) held by Norway's Government Pension Fund Global, widely known as the oil fund.

The fund was established in 1990 to hold Norway's surplus oil income, which comes from the high taxes on oil and gas companies drilling off the coast, and the government's 67% stake in petroleum giant Statoil. It is now the world's largest sovereign wealth fund, with assets around $830 billion -- 20% more than Saudi Arabia's SAMA Foreign Holdings. But with the booming oil industry continuing to supply the state with surpluses, plus the fund's own steady returns, Government Pension Fund Global could close in on $1 trillion.

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