Nicolai Tangen: Norway’s sovereign wealth fund changes hands

Nicolai Tangen, a risk-loving, jet-setting financier and hedge-fund manager, has been made head of the sovereign-wealth fund. Is he the right man for the job? Some Norwegians have their doubts. Jane Lewis reports

Until last month, Nicolai Tangen, the Norwegian-born hedge-fund manager, was best-known outside the world of finance for holding the world’s largest private collection of modern Nordic art – his AKO Foundation sponsored last year’s Munch exhibition at the British Museum.

Now, Tangen’s surprise elevation to head Norway’s giant $930bn oil fund, the world’s largest sovereign-wealth fund, has plunged him into a full-blown “morality play” in his home country, says Bloomberg, with union leaders and left-leaning politicians “voicing their outrage” that a risk-loving, jet-setting financier – whose firm, AKO Capital, is registered in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands – should have been made “guardian” of their national savings pot. 

A breath of fresh air

The situation hasn’t been helped by the somewhat murky circumstances surrounding Tangen’s appointment as boss of Norges Bank Investment Management, which runs the fund. Suspicions aroused by his absence from the official short-list of candidates turned to “furore” when a tabloid newspaper revealed details of the hospitality he’d showered on the current head, Yngve Slyngstad, says The Economist. Tangen, who is due to take up the post in September, treated Slyngstad to “concerts by Sting and Gregory Porter, meals cooked by Jamie Oliver and a ride on a private jet”. Shocking stuff given the strict code of conduct that usually prevails at the fund where, as one insider recalls, “we even had to pay for our cup of coffee in meetings”. 

There are, nonetheless, plenty of people in Norway prepared to welcome Tangen, 54, as a breath of fresh air, says the Financial Times. “Investment professionals are delighted, hailing him as one of Norway’s most gifted and intellectually curious fund managers”, whose record speaks for itself: AKO’s flagship European fund has returned 10.1% annually since launching in 2005. Compare that to the mess he’s inheriting. Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund has just recorded the worst quarterly performance in its 24-year history, returning –14.6% in the first quarter. 

Renaissance man 

Born in 1966 in Kristiansand, Tangen began dabbling in equities as a child – investing money he earned selling newspapers and flowers, or recycling bottles after football matches. But he also had military interests. In the 1980s, he trained with Norway’s intelligence services. Then, after taking a degree at Wharton, he entered finance in the 1990s, becoming head of the Nordic region for Cazenove and then a partner at hedge fund Egerton Capital. In 2005, he set up AKO, which now manages more than $16bn of assets. 

Tangen’s muscular background is apparent in the way he manages. AKO employees are trained in “conversation management” and how to build “mental resilience”. And he has a Renaissance man roster of outside interests, from cooking to studying for a masters in history of art at London’s Courtauld Institute and another in social psychology from the London School of Economics. 

The big question, given all the trouble stirred up in Norway, is whether Tangen “still wants” to quit his charmed life in London for the icy north – with a substantial pay cut, says The Economist. There’s not much doubt about that. “This isn’t only my dream job, this is my childhood dream,” he outlined last month. Admirers reckon “it’s good to step on a few banana skins early”, says the FT. The question troubling some of Norway’s more conservative citizens is whether Tangen plans to make a habit of it. 

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