Truth be told, my knowledge of Norway prior to this article basically amounted to this paltry list. Keep these facts in mind -- we'll return to them later:
- Norway has an independent streak, twice declining membership in the European Union.
- Cross-country skiing is popular.
- It's cold there.
- The Norwegian people have a reputation as earnest and hardworking.
- It's the home of the Nobel Peace Prize.
- It fosters great Scandinavian design.
- Painter Edvard Munch, best known for "The Scream," was Norwegian.
- The Vikings came from Norway and other Scandinavian countries.
- Norway harbors an unexplained fondness for herring.
I decided to learn more after reading an article in The Miami Herald concerning the corporate blacklist imposed by a Norwegian state pension fund. According to the newspaper, the Norwegian Pension Fund-Global will not invest in companies such as Wal-Mart
These directives are aimed to ensure that money does not flow to companies linked to weapons production, human rights abuses, environmental damage, corruption, or other misdeeds. The article quoted the leader of the country's Council of Ethics as saying, ''The main reason is not to contribute to unethical investments, so the Norwegian people can sleep better at night.''
I need to sleep better at night, too, so I set out to learn more about Norway's investing policy. Here's what I learned:
- Norway is the leading contributor to foreign aid on a per capita basis.
- Norway is the world's third-largest oil exporter.
- Norway invests surplus oil wealth abroad through the $263 billion Global Pension Fund, which invests 30% to 50% in equities.
- The Global Pension Fund's investments must comply with the Ministry of Finance's ethical guidelines. If a company is excluded, Norway announces the ban and its rationale after the shares are sold.
- Boeing, Honeywell, Northrop Grumman
(NYSE:NOC), and United Technologies (NYSE:UTX)are banned for allegedly producing nuclear weapons. Alliant Techsystems (NYSE:ATK), General Dynamics, L3 Communications, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon are allegedly contributing to the manufacturing of cluster bombs; and Wal-Mart is blacklisted for alleged human rights and labor abuses.
- Kerr-McGee, banned for six months, was reinstated as an acceptable company after it ceased exploration of the continental shelf off the shores of the Western Sahara.
Nobody likes to be named to anyone's blacklist. The U.S. ambassador to Norway blasted the guidelines after Wal-Mart's exclusion, citing the hypocrisy of banning the world's largest retailer for supposedly discouraging unions while permitting firms from countries that forbid them, or allow only state-operated unions.
It's hardly shocking to find a flexible application of ethics, especially where politics are concerned. For example, while Norway may take the ethical high road in its investment guidelines, the folks at Greenpeace have some strong opinions about the country's whaling policies.
Still, don't take the country's socially responsible stance lightly. The Global Pension Fund has significant assets available to invest, and official state criticism can harm a banned company's reputation and affect foreign relations.
Although I knew Europe led the U.S. in applying social responsibility to investing, I didn't know its governments' policies could be so strict. The concept may be gaining popularity, too; an executive at Norway's Central Bank claimed in the same newspaper article that another foreign "major player" has copied the country's rules verbatim.
In this country, the imposition of investment bans by large institutions, including some states and cities, really took shape during the South African divestment campaign of the 1970s and 80s. The idea of governmentally imposed ethical investment guidelines continues to grow. Recently, California passed legislation to divest its public pension funds of companies doing business with Sudan. Fifteen other states are expected to introduce similar legislation at the start of 2007.
At this point, I can't imagine the U.S. crafting such investment standards as broad and mandatory as Norway's. But if socially responsible investing becomes more of a national concern, that day might come.
After all, hearkening back to the facts I listed at the beginning of this piece, Norway's known for its independent streak (No. 1). It may travel rough terrain (No. 2) that leaves it out in the cold (No. 3), but it's earnestly working (No. 4) toward a better world (No. 5). While its innovative designs (No. 6) might make some investors scream (No. 7), others will surely applaud its pioneering spirit (No. 8).
I still can't explain the herring (No. 9).
For invaluable international investing ideas, try a free 30-day subscription to Motley Fool Global Gains .
Fool contributor S.J. Caplan will not be serving herring this holiday season, but may try some gravlax. She does not own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.