Annual EBHS Conference, 39th Annual Economic and Business History Society Conference

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State ownership in Norway after 1945
Einar Lie

Last modified: 2014-05-07


Today, theNorwegian State is a very large owner of business enterprises. Five of theseven largest companies listed on Oslo Stock Exchange are partially owned bythe State, with ownerships shares from 34 to 64 per cent. Depending on dailychanges in stock prices, the State’s controls around 40 per cent of the totalvalues on OSE. The investments held by the Norwegian States Pension Fund – theworld largest sovereign wealth fund, with the accumulated savings of thegovernment’s surplus from the petroleum activity – is not a part of thesevalues, as all the fund’s asset are invested abroad. Until thelate 1980s, state ownership in Norway broadly followed the same pattern as wefind in a number of west European countries. The State emerged as an owner ofbusiness enterprise after WWII, partly by establishing new firms and partly byacquiring shares in existing companies in the Norwegian economy. Stateownership was used to a larger extent in Norway than in the neighbouringcountries Sweden and Denmark. Still, State enterprises’ share of employment andGDP was somewhat lower than in countries like Germany and Great Britain, andconsiderably below leading nations like Italy, France and Austria (Toninellied. 2000). In a numberof countries, privatisations and closures reduced State ownership in a numberof countries. Liberal doctrines in economics and politics worked against Stateownership, so did strained State finances and poor financial results from anumber of large enterprises in heavy industry, mining shipyards and othersectors with a large share of State ownership in the post war years. Again, Norway followed a similar pattern. State owned and State run companies were soldto private interests or closed down. The reduction of State ownership was managedby subsequent governments from the Labour party and centre/right coalitions,without creating any systematic cleavage among political parties. Government retained its large ownership in the major Norwegian conglomerate Norsk Hydro. This company had never been run bygovernment, nor did government have any representatives in the company’s board,and this firm’s commercial and technological success was to a large degreeascribed to the passive character of State ownership. The present State ownership is based on a transfer of the ‘Hydro-model’ to a number of othercompanies. In the paper, State enterprises before and after 1990 will becontrasted in an analysis of the nature and causes of State ownership. The expanding oil sector and financial strength of the Norwegian State hasundoubtedly contributed to the present situation. Still, the paper will arguedthat both post war and present State ownership is a product of relatively persistent characteristics of Norwegian political and economic life. An introductory part of the paper will present the national context of Stateenterprise from the late 19th Century, as well as discuss potentialsand pitfalls of the use of ‘context’ as an explanatory resource in history.