Equinor oilfield platform
An Equinor owned and operated oilfield platform in the North Sea. Saudi Arabia is building up strategic stakes in global oil giants, and has pumped in $200 million to raise its exposure in Equinor. Image Credit: Reuters

Riyadh: Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has built up stakes in European oil firms, including about $200 million in Equinor ASA, as the kingdom navigates the coronavirus pandemic and plummeting crude prices.

The Public Investment Fund amassed shares in Norway’s largest producer mostly through the open market last week. But it’s unclear exactly when the fund bought the holding or if it’s still buying.

The ‘Wall Street Journal’ reported that PIF also built up stakes in Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Total SA and Eni SpA, worth about $1 billion combined across all four oil majors.

Saudi Arabia’s $320 billion sovereign wealth fund 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 per cent stake in cruise operator Carnival Corp. after shares slumped due to the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Stem the tide

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 these countries 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 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.

Not the norm

Still, building stakes in some of the largest international oil companies is unusual .

Equinor shares slumped just over 30 per cent 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 per cent compared to earlier plans, in line with moves by rivals such as Shell and Chevron Corp. to counter a downturn in prices.