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What's so funny about $1 trillion? The Norwegians who manage it

What's so funny about $1 trillion? The Norwegians who manage it
Thomas Gullestad, left, and Kathrine Thorborg Johansen in a scene from "The Oil Fund." (Wild Bunch TV)

It’s like “The Office,” but with a $1-trillion problem.

That’s how director Harald Zwart describes his new sitcom that takes place at Norway’s wealth fund. “The Oil Fund” revels in the clash between the opulence of high finance and the Nordic country’s culture of moderation and strict bureaucracy, but also brings in the debate of how to responsibly invest wealth amassed from decades of oil and gas production.

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“When you’re familiar with Norway’s political correctness, our social democratic principles, a country where people leave work at 4 p.m. to pick up their kids at kindergarten, you understand that this has the potential to be very funny,” Zwart said by phone from Los Angeles. The show premiered online this weekend and will be shown on Discovery Inc.’s TVNorge in January.

Set up in the 1990s, the wealth fund invests oil income abroad to avoid stoking inflation at home. Now at $1 trillion, it owns about 1.4% of global stocks, large holdings of bonds and properties across the globe.

The nation of 5.3 million punches above its weight in international markets. At the same time, its investments are tightly regulated and it follows strict ethics and transparency rules, representing a unique experiment in national wealth management.

The show co-created by Zwart, the Hollywood-based director of movies such as “The Karate Kid,” and Tom Gulbrandsen, explores this contrast.

Comedy is found in so-called fat-finger trades causing billion-dollar errors and what to do with a crate of cash from a Chinese casino. The fund is briefly put under administration by a wool-sweater-clad representative from the independent Ethics Council, before she’s paid off with a job, becoming the day-to-day nemesis of the fund’s star investment manager. They do deals with a Russian oligarch and taunt Swedish businessmen with piles of cash.

While over the top, the schisms can be seen as a parable for Norway as a whole, according to Zwart.

“Norway projects an image of being very aware of the environment,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re the ones making the most money from the most polluting product. So we have a dilemma there.”

Daily newspapers Dagbladet and Stavanger Aftenblad gave the show a score of 4 out of 6 in reviews over the weekend, while the more highbrow weekly, Morgenbladet, thought of it as a little too shallow.

The series comes as the fund faces a series of milestone decisions. Norway’s politicians, who have already instructed the fund to dump most of its coal holdings, will soon choose whether to also divest oil and gas stocks.

Zwart declined to weigh in on those issues, but said he had great faith his country would have a healthy debate. A big lesson from working on the show over the last two years is that Norway has clout, he said.

“You think of the oil fund as just a bunch of Norwegians and some money that we have lying around,” he said. “But I’ve learned along the way how important we are on a global scale.”

Zwart’s team met with Norges Bank Investment Management and got a tour of the offices of the central bank unit that manages the fund in Oslo. But his team based its research mostly on conversations with contacts elsewhere in the finance industry, the director said.

Although the sitcom’s characters are almost exclusively Norwegian, the fund itself has 34 nationalities on its staff and offices in London, New York, Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo. Its top management is all Norwegian.

NBIM welcomed the series and said it hopes it will generate more interest in the fund from the general public. As for some of the high jinks, spokesman Thomas Sevang said, “Viewers are probably able to tell the difference between TV entertainment and reality.”

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Zwart screened three episodes for the fund’s staff — including Chief Executive Yngve Slyngstad — a couple of months ago. “It was like meeting a rock star,” Zwart said.

Slyngstad’s verdict: “It was very funny,” he said, before quickly running off, according to Zwart.

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