Norway’s sovereign wealth fund sold all its Irish and Portuguese government bonds after rejecting the Greek debt swap and warned that Europe faces considerable challenges.
The $610 billion Government Pension Fund Global returned 7.1 per cent, or 234 billion kroner ($41 billion), as measured by a basket of currencies, in the first quarter, the Oslo-based investor said today. Its equity holdings gained 11 per cent while its fixed-income investments rose 1.6 per cent.
The fund, which voted against Greece’s debt swap this year because it disagreed with being subordinated to the European Central Bank, also said it reduced debt holdings in Italy and Spain amid a broader strategy to cut investments in Europe. The fund added government bonds from emerging markets such as Brazil, Mexico and India.
“Predictability is important for a long-term investor and the euro-area faces considerable structural and monetary challenges,” Yngve Slyngstad, chief executive officer of Norges Bank Investment Management, said in a statement.
Stocks jumped globally in the quarter after the European Central Bank stepped in with more than $1 trillion in three-year loans to the region’s banks. The rally was tempered toward the end after Spain announced in March it would miss a deficit target and as austerity measures dragged euro-region economies into a recession and boosted unemployment to a 15-year high.
Greece pushed through the biggest sovereign debt restructuring in history in the period, with private investors writing off more than euro 100 billion of debt. That decision spurred European finance ministers to approve a second bailout package for the nation of euro 130 billion.
The fund said that it held 1.3 billion kroner in Greek bonds before the debt swap. Its holdings in Italian government debt fell to 26.6 billion kroner from 33 billion kroner at the end of 2011, while Spanish debt declined to 15.6 billion kroner from 18 billion kroner.
“It is not only those five countries but in addition we are looking at the situation as a whole,” Slyngstad said in an interview. “We are concerned about the situation in the euro area,” he said. “In many countries there are macroeconomic challenges.”
The fund’s investments in euro-denominated government bonds declined to 39 per cent of the fund at the end of March from 43 per cent at the end of last year. The holdings returned 2.9 per cent in local currency in the quarter, the fund said.
“We have sold proportionally more of government bonds in southern Europe than in other countries,” he said. “This has been a process that has been going on for two years.”
Irish bonds have returned 11.55 per cent so far this year, while Portuguese bonds have gained 19 per cent, according to broad market indexes compiled by Bloomberg and the European Federation of Financial Analysts Societies. All euro-area bonds returned 3.9 per cent, according to Bloomberg indexes.
The yield spread on Ireland’s benchmark 10-year bond over German debt narrowed two basis points 520 basis points today, while the Portuguese equivalent was little changed at 913 basis points. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point. Spain’s widened one basis point to 419 basis points.
The investor, which is managed by the central bank and gets guidelines from the government, has started a strategy shift that will reduce its bond and stock holdings in Europe to capture more of global growth as it struggles to meet a 4 per cent return target.
At the end of March, the fund held 60.7 per cent of its assets in stocks, 39 per cent in bonds and 0.3 per cent in real estate. It’s mandated to hold 60 per cent in stocks, 35 per cent in bonds and 5 per cent in real estate.
The fund’s largest stock holding at the end of the quarter was Royal Dutch Shell Plc, while its biggest bond holding was U.S. Treasury bonds, followed by the U.K. and France.
Norway’s government deposited 60 billion kroner of oil revenue into the fund in the quarter. The return beat by 0.3 percentage point the benchmark set by the Finance Ministry.
The investor lost 86 billion kroner, or 2.5 per cent, last year as stock markets slumped on concern the region’s debt crisis might tip the global economy into recession.
The fund got its first capital infusion in 1996 and has been taking on more risk as it expands globally, raising its stock portfolio from 40 per cent in 2007. It first added stocks in 1998, emerging markets in 2000 and this year real estate to boost returns and safeguard wealth.
Norway, a nation of 5 million people, generates money for the fund from taxes on oil and gas, ownership of petroleum fields and dividends from its 67 per cent stake in Statoil ASA (STL), the country’s largest energy company. The Nordic nation is the world’s second-largest gas exporter and the seventh-biggest oil exporter. The oil fund invests outside Norway to avoid stoking domestic inflation.