May 31, 2017
Public wealth for public good
Occasionally we cast envious eyes towards those countries who had the vision and foresight to create a sovereign wealth fund. One reason we don’t have one is because we view finance in binary terms – it is either for private consumption or it comes to the public purse for government to spend as it sees fit. But there is a third way – one which seeks to capture public revenues for long term social good. Locked away from the sticky fingers of government, a wealth fund could underpin any number of social investments. Interesting blog on this from NEF.
Last week’s Conservative Party manifesto launch was dominated by social care. But it also included proposals for “Future Britain Funds”, a new approach to capture public revenue for social interests.
Implemented correctly, a sovereign wealth fund could have a hugely positive impact on our economy, as seen in other countries around the world – from improved intergenerational fairness to much needed infrastructure investment.
To be a success in Britain, such a fund would need to follow seven principles:
1. PROVIDE PLANNING AND INVESTMENT FOR THE LONG TERM
It is vital that we start to think long term. Britain has historically not been good at long term investment and planning, and a wealth fund must be geared towards improving the lives of current and future generations.
2. THE FUND SHOULD BE PERMANENT
The principal should always be protected and maintained in line with inflation. Norway, owner of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, has a strict rule that a maximum of 4% of the total can be spent in any one year. Checks such as this protect against governments using the fund for short term political gain.
3. THE FUND MUST HAVE A SOCIAL FUNCTION
A wealth fund must come with clear criteria about the societal challenges it is designed to address.
Alaska, for example, uses their fund to tackle inequality, distributing dividends directly to all residents. As a result, it has one of the lowest levels of inequality among US states.
Britain’s fund could tackle collective social problems like adult social care, the housing crisis or climate change, all of which require large quantities of stable and patient capital.
4. THE FUND MUST BE ETHICAL
Investment decisions must be taken using strict ethical guidelines, focusing on the overall impact to society as well as economic returns.
A large scale consultation should be conducted to understand how this should be applied in the UK, similarly to the process followed by Norway. After a multi-year consultation to develop the criteria, the country now has an Ethics Council which decides which industries and companies should be excluded. As a result, the fund avoids companies responsible for human rights abuses and environmental destruction.
5. THE FUND MUST BE TRANSPARENT AND ACCOUNTABLE
Appointments to the board, investment decisions, annual reports should all be transparent in order to ensure accountability.
The board should be a mixture of appointed people with specific skills coupled with citizen representatives, who could be elected. The board would be accountable to us all as collective owners and would be required to act at all times in line with governance structures and rules that had been set up.
6. OWNED BY BRITISH PEOPLE, COLLECTIVELY – NOT BY THE STATE
The fund needs to be owned by those whose interests it has been set up to serve – the British people. This means setting up a new ownership structure outside the traditional public/private dichotomy.
One example of this can again be found in Alaska. Its Permanent Fund has shown remarkable endurance and stability in the face of hostile moves by the state government. The courts there ruled in favour of the people and prevented the state government from accessing the fund. Attempts to close the fund were also rebuffed by a referendum.
7. THE FUND SHOULD MAKE BEST USE OF THE PUBLIC ASSETS WE ALREADY OWN
The UK public sector currently owns about £360billion worth of land and property which is managed sub-optimally and could be actively used to solve our pressing housing crisis. Rather than flogging the land off in a counterproductive firesale – often abandoning valuable assets to big property developers – we could take control of this public land portfolio and use it as the starter investment for a wealth fund.
The Crown Estate provides a useful model for how this can be done. It manages a property portfolio of over £12bn and generates surplus profits of £300million through active management while maximising their total contribution to society and not just their bottom line.
Plans for shale gas funds may follow similar rationale, but it is vital that proceeds are not used simply as part of efforts to encourage local people to tolerate potentially dangerous activity.
Orkney and Shetland have shown it is possible to recoup money from industries for disturbances caused by extracting natural resources. These funds are then best used as part of efforts to mitigate the future impacts of climate change – not simply to offset a continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels, for which we will all eventually pay a heavy price.