Scotland, famed for its whisky, the Edinburgh Fringe and being a world-class financial hub, is also home to most of the UK’s remaining oil reserves – set to become a major point of contention as the Scots get to vote on independence later this year.
The current devolved government, led by the Scottish National Party’s Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon, has proposed that some of the country’s oil wealth, upon independence, be put into a sovereign wealth fund (SWF).
Whenever asked, the pro-independence party evokes Norway’s NOK5trn (€600bn) Government Pension Fund Global as the approach to copy.
However, there appear to be inherent conflicts within the proposals, never more apparent than when Sturgeon spoke yesterday at London’s UCL.
Questioned how a Scottish SWF would look – a savings pot the SNP estimates would be worth approximately £110bn (€134bn) by now had it been put in place back in 1980 – she outlined that it would have the dual objectives of acting as a nest egg and a stabilisation fund.
“It’s a good thing Scotland’s got massive oil reserves, but, clearly, we need to make sure we are operating and stewarding those reserves in a way that is stable and sustainable,” the deputy first minister said.
She outlined that the surplus of a “cautious estimate” of the country’s oil revenue would be put aside each year, “so, in years when the revenues were undershooting the estimate, we’d have something to draw on and stabilise our finances”.
So far, so common. The idea of tapping the wealth for stability’s sake, to avoid a budget deficit, is a tactic employed by a number of sovereign savers – from Russia to Mongolia – but it seems at odds with the stated goal of emulating the Norwegian model.
Sturgeon is quick to say that the savings would be put aside as the state’s finances allowed “to save for the future in the way that Norway has done”.
“But any fund like that,” she continues, “if it’s going to meet those objectives, there has to be discipline agreed and written into the rules of the operation of the fund, that meant it didn’t become something that became a political football at elections, and we spent money before we saved it, if you like.
“And that’s what Norway has done very successfully – it doesn’t draw down to meet the short-term commitments, and that’s the kind of model we should emulate.”
The acknowledgement that there should not be drawdowns to meet “short-term commitments” seems to be an out, as it excuses a myriad of future attempts to forego payments, or even to raid the fund when it is deemed expedient – for example, to avoid cuts to state pension expenditure, if the independent country were to struggle with a population ageing.
Norway’s sovereign fund has managed to build up its wealth for two reasons – its fiscal rule limiting drawdowns to 4%, and the oil price over the last decade.
However, the recently elected conservative government has indicated that some of the country’s wealth should be redeployed to aid the domestic economy, signaling an end to nearly two decades of political consensus.
Elsewhere, one need only look at bailout recipient Ireland to see how quickly good intentions to save can fall by the wayside when faced with the grim reality of bank collapse.
What remains of its National Pensions Reserve Fund will soon be deployed to stimulate its slowly recovering domestic economy, seemingly instead of its previous aim of pre-funding state liabilities.
In short, the Scots’ noble attempt to save for future generations is well-intentioned, but to commit to the creation of a nest egg, when so many questions about an independent country’s finances remain unanswered, could quickly risk backfiring as a cash-strapped future government raids the tills.