Nicolai Tangen will pay millions in wealth tax to swap London for Oslo to manage Norway’s oil wealth

Most people expect a hefty pay rise when they become chief executive. Nicolai Tangen will have to pay his employer to take the job.
Mr Tangen, a successful hedge fund manager in London, will move back to his native Norway in September to become chief executive of its $930bn oil fund, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. In doing so he estimates he will have to pay as much as NKr70m ($6.8m) in wealth tax to the Norwegian government, significantly more than his expected salary of about NKr7m.
“This isn’t only my dream job, this is my childhood dream,” he said last month, revealing how he had dabbled in equity markets since he was a child, investing money he earned selling newspapers and flowers as well as recycling bottles after football matches.
Timothy Warrington, chief executive of Norwegian fund manager Skagen Funds, said the lack of financial reward showed the “real commitment” Mr Tangen was making. “It’s admirable, it shows he’s a patriot. He will be there for the right reasons.”
Mr Tangen’s surprise appointment — he was not on the official list of applicants released by Norway’s central bank — has divided opinion in the Scandinavian country. Investment professionals are delighted, hailing him as one of Norway’s most gifted and intellectually curious fund managers. But some politicians are suspicious of putting an independent-minded hedge fund manager — whose funds at AKO Capital are registered in a tax haven — in charge of their sovereign wealth fund.
“The role is extremely political. You need to have the trust of both politicians and the public,” said Kari Elisabeth Kaski, an MP from the Socialist Left party who sits on the parliamentary finance committee that ultimately controls the fund. “The sovereign wealth fund is something we can all support and how we’re investing and saving the money is important. You can’t gamble with that.”
Mr Tangen, 54, will become the fund’s third chief executive at a crucial time. It has just recorded the worst quarterly performance in its 24-year history with a return of minus 14.6 per cent in the first three months of the year. Some economists worry that a recent increase in the fund’s exposure to equities from 60 per cent to 70 per cent, combined with heightened use of the fund by Norway’s government to boost its spending on coronavirus measures, could lead to a bigger fall in its assets than expected.
When his appointment was announced last month Mr Tangen, who has an estimated fortune of about NKr7bn, talked about his outside interests from cooking — “you’re never better than your last pancake” — to his love of art, which spurred a masters in history of art from London’s Courtauld Institute. He has been keen to leave his comfort zone, recently completing another masters in social psychology from the London School of Economics.
But if Mr Tangen wanted a demonstration of the difference between the hedge fund world and life as a public servant, it came in off-the-cuff remarks backing a 100 per cent inheritance tax so all children started life at the same level.
That sparked a minor backlash, with some politicians telling Mr Tangen to keep such views to himself. Three days later he apologised, saying his comments reflected how he wanted his children to live and were not meant to be “political”.
“It is good to step on a couple of banana skins early,” said Mr Warrington, adding that it took time to adjust to “very exposed roles”.
The oil fund is also a different beast when it comes to investment. Many economists see it as little more than a giant index fund that passively tracks the values of stock and bond markets globally. 
It is huge in scale. On average, it owns almost 1.5 per cent of every listed company on Earth. But its most important decisions — including what to invest in and how much to place in each asset class — are taken by the government and parliament, which give a strict mandate to Norges Bank Investment Management, the arm of the central bank that manages the fund and that Mr Tangen will head.
Mr Tangen told the Financial Times that most of what the fund did was nevertheless “active”, and that through some “fine-tuning” it should be able to achieve excess returns.
Nicolai Tangen’s appointment comes as Norway’s oil fund faces some important decisions © Bloomberg
People close to some of the oil fund’s managers said they were worried Mr Tangen had not fully appreciated how the fund worked, with little flexibility in deviating from benchmark indices set by Norway’s finance ministry. “He is obviously super smart but he seems to have the impression that he’ll have more degrees of freedom,” one of the people said.
Mr Tangen’s focus will also be on the organisation of NBIM and the motivation of its 540 workers. At AKO he has worked with the British Olympic sailing team and sports psychologists on issues such as mental resilience, and has spoken to former Bank of England governor Mark Carney as well as the dean of the Wharton School of business — where he sits on the board — about how to approach his new job.
Mr Tangen said AKO had a structured system where reasons were recorded “for everything we do” so they could be analysed afterwards. “It’s using business analytics and data analytics on all aspects of the decision-making process. And then it has to do with building teams and getting the motivation in place,” he said, adding that working for the fund was “a higher purpose” than a job at a normal bank.
Norway’s government is still figuring out what kind of investor its oil fund should be. It initially stuck to publicly listed securities but in recent years has added unlisted property and will soon start investing in infrastructure assets. NBIM itself gives advice to the government on whether to expand into other asset classes such as private equity.
Mr Tangen has a military background, having trained in Norway’s intelligence services in the 1980s where he learnt Russian and interrogation techniques. AKO employees are similarly trained in “conversation management”.
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 with both long-short and long-only funds.
Its flagship European fund has returned 10.1 per cent a year since launching in 2005, against 3.4 per cent for the market, and in the first quarter of this year it eked out a positive return of 0.9 per cent versus minus 21.8 per cent for the broader market, according to Mr Tangen.
Ms Kaski, the MP, said she was not worried about the inheritance tax spat but was concerned about AKO’s funds being based in the Cayman Islands. “It’s not illegal to be in the Cayman Islands but it’s immoral, and it’s a problem for the global economy. It’s something that he needs to step away from,” she said, adding that the oil fund needed to be leading the fight against tax havens. Mr Tangen said such structures were common among UK hedge funds.
Irrespective of his background, outsiders spy a big opportunity for him to shake things up after 12 years of leadership from his predecessor at the fund, Yngve Slyngstad.
“My sense is that in AKO they are used to challenging existing practices,” said Mr Warrington. “Bringing that energy to the team in Norges Bank will be good for them. With one chief executive for the last decade, the change of view will be invigorating.”