Saudi wealth fund builds $200 Million stake in Norway’s state oil company

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Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund built a stake worth about $200 million in Equinor ASA as the kingdom navigates the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and plummeting crude prices.

The Public Investment Fund amassed its holding in Norway’s largest crude producer mostly through the open market some time last week, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Though it’s not clear exactly when the PIF bought the holding and if the fund is still buying shares, the people said, asking not to be identified as the matter is private.

Saudi Arabia’s $320 billion sovereign wealth fund, run by Yasir Al-Rumayyan and controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is taking advantage of a slump in stock market valuations as it steps up deal-making to become the world’s biggest manager of sovereign capital. The fund last month built an 8.2% stake in cruise operator Carnival Corp. after shares slumped due to the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Representatives for the PIF and Equinor declined to comment.

On top of the collapse of oil prices and a meltdown in global markets, Gulf sovereign wealth funds are channeling some of their billions back home to counter slowing economic growth triggered by the coronavirus. The decline in assets from funds in countries such as Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia could exceed $300 billion this year, according to the Institute of International Finance, the industry’s global association.

In contrast to 2015, the last time crude prices collapsed, Saudi Arabia will likely focus on borrowing rather than drawing down PIF funds, according to the IIF. Last month, Finance Minister Mohammed Al Jadaan said the kingdom would fund an expected larger deficit through borrowing more rather than drawing down reserves.

The PIF -- a key part of the crown prince’s efforts to diversify the Saudi economy away from its dependence on oil -- has made a series of high-profile investments in recent years, amassing holdings in Uber Technologies Inc. and Tesla Inc. It’s also committed giant sums to Softbank Group Corp.’s Vision Fund.

Still, building a stake in one of the largest international oil companies is unusual, especially as Al-Rumayyan also heads up state-owned crude producer Saudi Aramco. He’s also a close adviser to the crown prince, who sets the kingdom’s oil production policy and influences prices globally.

Equinor shares slumped just over 30% this year before rising 18% last week, amid a broad recovery for European energy majors, giving the company a current market value of about $44 billion.

The company has said it will cut capital expenditure by about 20% compared to earlier plans, in line with moves by rivals such as Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Chevron Corp. to counter a downturn in prices.

Norwegian daily Finansavisen this week reported that JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s unit in Saudi Arabia had bought 14.5 million shares in Equinor on behalf of an unnamed client, followed by another 6.4 million shares.

Bloomberg News