Greasing the Wheels: How Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund Ended Up Financing Russian Corruption

Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG) is one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world. Established in 1990 to diversify Norway’s oil wealth and minimize negative consequences associated with fluctuations in commodities markets, GPFG has amassed close to $1.3 trillion in assets. In keeping with Norway’s sterling reputation for integrity, GPFG has embraced anticorruption as one of the fund’s guiding principles. In fact, GPFG requires the companies in which it invests “to identify and manage corruption risk, and to report publicly on their anti-corruption efforts.” The fund’s Council of Ethics has also declared that the fund will keep “gross corruption” out of its portfolio, and GPFG has been widely praised for its social responsibility (see here and here).

Yet despite all this, GPFG has not avoided corruption-related scandals, particularly with respect to its investments in Russia. Understanding how things went wrong offers more general lessons for how sovereign wealth funds can strengthen their safeguards against investing in corrupt companies and supporting corrupt regimes. Continue reading

London Anticorruption Summit–Country Commitment Scorecard, Part 2

This post is the second half of my attempt to summarize the commitments (or lack thereof) in the country statements of the 41 countries that attended last week’s London Anticorruption Summit, in four areas highlighted by the Summit’s final Communique:

  1. Increasing access to information on the true beneficial owners of companies, and possibly other legal entities, perhaps through central registers;
  2. Increasing transparency in public procurement;
  3. Strengthening the independence and capacity of national audit institutions, and publicizing audit results (and, more generally, increasing fiscal transparency in other ways); and
  4. Encouraging whistleblowers, strengthening their protection from various forms or retaliation, and developing systems to ensure that law enforcement takes prompt action in response to whistleblower complaints.

These are not the only subjects covered by the Communique and discussed in the country statements. (Other topics include improving asset recovery mechanisms, facilitating more international cooperation and information sharing, joining new initiatives to fight corruption in sports, improving transparency in the extractive sector through initiatives like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, additional measures to fight tax evasion, and several others.) I chose these four partly because they seemed to me of particular importance, and partly because the Communique’s discussion of these four areas seemed particularly focused on prompting substantive legal changes, rather than general improvements in existing mechanisms.

Plenty of others have already provided useful comprehensive assessments of what the country commitments did and did not achieve. My hope is that presenting the results of the rather tedious exercise of going through each country statement one by one for the language on these four issues, and presenting the results in summary form, will be helpful to others out there who want to try to get a sense of how the individual country commitments do or don’t match up against the recommendations in the Communique. My last post covered Afghanistan–Malta; today’s post covers the remaining country statements, Mexico–United States: Continue reading

Norway Divests Shares in Telecom Giant ZTE Over Gross Corruption: Will Others Follow?

On January 7 the manager of Norway’s sovereign wealth fund announced the fund would sell its $15 million holdings in Chinese telecom giant ZTE and make no future investment in the company because of the risk the company would become involved in corruption scandals.  The decision to divest for reasons of corruption is a significant advance in the battle to curb global corruption.  For while the investment community can be a powerful voice for change in corporate behavior, to now its efforts has been confined almost exclusively to entreaties to corporate management to make corruption prevention a priority (see pp. 1127-1130 of this article for a summary of recent efforts).  Divestment puts teeth in these entreaties, particularly when wielded by an investor of the size and influence of the Norwegian fund.

The Government Pension Fund Global, the fund’s formal name, was established in 1990 to invest the nation’s petroleum wealth for the benefit of future generations.  Its current holdings of roughly $825 billion make it not only the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund but one of the largest pools of investment capital in existence.  For comparison, Pimco Total Return, which Forbes ranks as the world’s largest mutual fund, has assets of $263 billion while UK Business Insider reports that Millenium Partners $181 billion in assets make it the globe’s biggest hedge fund.

It is not only the fund’s size that makes it influential, but the careful process it follows to ensure its investments reflect the values of beneficiaries, the citizens of Norway.  The fund’s investment guidelines provide that it may exclude any company where “there is an unacceptable risk that the company contributes to or is responsible for” activities that result in the violation of human rights, lead to severe environmental damage, or further “gross corruption.”  To decide whether disinvestment is appropriate, the fund’s five member Council on Ethics reviews a company’s conduct and issues a recommendation to fund managers. In the case of ZTE, the Council’s June 2015 divestment recommendation was based on an extraordinarily damning report it prepared recounting ZTE’s conduct over the past decade, a report that leaves no doubt the company was responsible for an enormous amount of “gross corruption.”

The only question the report left open is why other investors aren’t fleeing the company’s stock as well.  If not for social reasons — because the company’s repeated, flagrant violations of the corruption laws of so many countries has done so much harm to so many — for economic reasons.   A business model seemingly bottomed on the wholesale corruption of public officials is sure to crash soon in this heightened era of anticorruption enforcement.

Just look at what the Council’s report says about ZTE activities — Continue reading

The Scandal of Corruption in Development Aid

For all the effort development agencies invest to help developing states combat corruption, recent reports of corruption in Japanese and Norwegian development aid projects along with an earlier paper on corruption in World Bank projects remind that the development community does little to attack corruption in the one area where it has the most control: the projects it funds. Continue reading