McCreath: U.S. bank stocks stalling
The world’s biggest owner of listed equities, Norway’s US$1.3 trillion wealth fund, says financial firms have displaced tech stocks as the main drivers of returns.
Norges Bank Investment Management, which owns about 1.5 per cent of global stocks, beat its benchmark index in the first quarter, and also outperformed the MSCI World Index.
“Over time, and especially last year, it was technology and green stocks” that drove returns, Trond Grande, the fund’s deputy chief executive, said by phone. “What we’ve seen in the first quarter has been a bit different,” with the best returns coming from finance and energy.
For finance, “we should see this in the context of rising long rates,” which means banks can “lend at higher margins,” Grande said.
Financial stocks make up 14.6 per cent of the fund’s investments. Public records show JPMorgan Chase & Co. is its biggest bank holding, worth about US$3.5 billion. The investor owns roughly US$2.9 billion of Bank of America Corp. and US$2.5 billion in UBS Group AG. Its exposure to the financial sector last year delivered a loss of almost US$12 billion.
The rise in interest rates that Grande says is behind the financial industry’s outperformance comes amid speculation that inflation might be making a comeback, fed in part by record stimulus packages in the U.S. and Europe.
Asked whether he’s worried about inflation, Grande referred to it as a “ghost.” The “important” issue, he said, is the extent to which a return of inflation might be “unexpected and strong,” in which case investors would have to put up with “some volatility.”
“In the long run, equities are an asset class that provides some protection against inflation,” Grande said.
The fund’s equity portfolio returned 6.6 per cent last quarter. Bonds lost 3.2 per cent while real estate was up 1.4 per cent. Overall, it generated a 4 per cent return. Rising raw material and oil prices propped up the fund’s portfolio of energy stocks, Grande said.
But it’s now important “to be prepared for the fact that things can turn, and turn quickly,” he said.
To prepare itself for the future, the fund has said it wants to be a global leader in sustainable investing. That includes delving deeper into an asset class it only recently won political approval to start buying: renewable energy infrastructure. After a debut purchase earlier this year, Grande said it’s not possible to predict how soon the entire US$14 billion set aside for such deals will be invested.
“These assets tend to arrive in clusters, and not that often,” he said. “The team is in place and they’re working on potential investments. It’s an ongoing process.”
Created in the 1990s to invest Norway’s oil and gas revenues abroad, the fund delved into renewable infrastructure for the first time earlier this year, as it expands the list of asset classes it holds from stocks, bonds and real estate. Norway’s government also wants the fund to shed more than 2,000 companies out of roughly 9,000 as part of a proposal designed to ensure it’s not exposed to climate or social risks, particularly in emerging markets.