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Europeans ‘less hard-working’ than Americans, says Norway oil fund boss

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Europe is less hard-working, less ambitious, more regulated and more risk-averse than the US, according to the boss of Norway’s giant oil fund, with the gap between the two continents only getting wider.

Nicolai Tangen, chief executive of the $1.6tn fund, told the Financial Times it was “worrisome” that American companies were outpacing their European rivals on innovation and technology, leading to vast outperformance of US shares in the past decade.

“There’s a mindset issue in terms of acceptance of mistakes and risks. You go bust in America, you get another chance. In Europe, you’re dead,” he said, adding that there was also a difference in “the general level of ambition. We are not very ambitious. I should be careful about talking about work-life balance, but the Americans just work harder.”

His views are significant as the oil fund is one of the largest single investors in the world, owning on average 1.5 per cent of every listed company globally and 2.5 per cent of every European equity.

Its US holdings have increased in the past decade while its European ones have declined. US shares account for almost half of all its equities compared with 32 per cent in 2013. The leading European country — the UK — represented 15 per cent of its equity portfolio a decade ago but just 6 per cent last year.

Asked if people at the oil fund were concerned about the outcome of this year’s US presidential elections, where Donald Trump is seeking to oust incumbent Joe Biden, Tangen replied: “Yes.”

He added: “But I probably shouldn’t say too much about that. We just invest in America in great companies for the long term. It won’t have any implications for how we allocate our capital. We have nearly half the assets in America; we will stay invested in America.”

The fund is invested in about 9,000 companies worldwide, but seven US technology companies — Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta, Microsoft, Nvidia and Tesla — account for about 12 per cent of its equity portfolio.

Tangen said there was “an argument for the big getting bigger [and] the winner taking it all” as developments such as artificial intelligence took hold. He added that in recent discussions with US chief executives, they had complained about the difficulty of doing business in Europe because of tough regulations and red tape.

“I’m not saying it’s good but in America you have a lot of AI and no regulation, in Europe you have no AI and a lot of regulation. It’s interesting,” he added.

The Norwegian fund has taken an increasingly active stance supporting environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, voting against many of its largest holdings at annual meetings including Big Tech groups last year.

Tangen said he was worried about the potential for the fund to be caught in the current ESG backlash in the US, which has led to BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, more than tripling its spending on security for chief executive Larry Fink.

“You need to be very careful. You need to pick your fights. You want to be less vocal on some things,” he said, adding that the fund anchored all its stances in extensive position papers and expectation documents on topics such as pay and women on boards.

He said the oil fund was becoming “the only company left having an opinion here” as US investors faced sceptical clients and political pressure while “we have a client that is very socially conscious”.

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