Calgary Herald

How we’ve mismanaged our energy wealth


The announceme­nt that the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund earned $2.1 billion in 2013 is great news. But don’t break out the champagne yet. While these record earnings will help relieve Alberta’s current budget deficits, they are almost meaningles­s in the long term — which is, or at least was — the whole point of having a Heritage Fund.

Why? Because under current government policy, virtually all of the fund’s realized annual earnings are transferre­d to general revenue for in-year spending. This means that the fund’s value cannot grow as the market goes up. Indeed, when there are down years — such as 2009 — investment losses permanentl­y reduce the size of the fund. Combine this with the fact that the Alberta government has made only two new deposits in the fund since 1987, and the fund begins to resemble the old Slinky toy — holding steady in good years, but dropping down in bad years — slowly but steadily working its way to the bottom.

Compare how the government manages the Heritage Fund to how you manage your RRSP. Imagine if you stopped making annual deposits, and then began to skim off the gains you made in the good years. Throw in a few years when markets are bad, and your investment­s actually lose money, and very soon, your RRSP is not growing in value, but shrinking.

This is certainly not what former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed had in mind when he created the Heritage Fund in 1977. Realizing that at some future point Alberta’s oil and gas reserves would begin to be depleted, Lougheed legislated that each year the government must deposit 30 per cent of all annual nonrenewab­le resource revenues in the Heritage Fund. In its first five years, the fund grew to $8.3 billion. Early estimates were that it could top $50 billion by 2000.

But this was short-lived. As the price of oil dropped and annual non-renewable resource revenues declined, the government reduced deposits to 15 per cent in 1982, and then zero per cent in 1986. To make matters worse, the government also began to use a portion of the fund to support “economic diversific­ation” projects through Crown corporatio­ns such as VenCap Equities and the Alberta Opportunit­y Company. Whatever their merits in theory, in practice, they soon became political slush funds used to support various ministers’ pet projects through loans, equity and loan guarantees. After losing tens of millions of dollars, they were cancelled by Premier Ralph Klein in 1994.

The sad fact is that of the $216 billion in non-renewable resource revenues taken in by the Alberta government between 1977 and 2013, less than six per cent has been saved. The fund’s current value, after last year’s earnings are taken out, is less than $16 billion. Compare this to Alaska’s Permanent Fund. Created in 1977 — the same year as the Heritage Fund — the Permanent Fund now has a current balance of $50 billion. And that’s after paying out $20 billion in dividends to Alaska residents. Norway’s savings fund was started later — 1990 — and now has a balance of $740 billion.

How have Alaska and Norway succeeded where Alberta has failed? First, their rules prohibited their government­s from diverting the required annual contributi­ons back into annual spending, even in years when oil prices and non-renewable resource revenues were low. In the case of Norway, even its annual earnings must be retained within the fund. Second, the Alaska and Norway funds cannot be used for domestic “economic developmen­t,” the kinds of politicall­y useful but economical­ly risky projects that Alberta government­s indulged in during the 1980s. In short, the Alaska and Norway funds were made “politician proof” by protecting them from the inevitable short-term priorities — i.e., winning the next election — of the government­s of the day.

The Alaska and Norway models stand in sharp contrast to Alberta’s track record of managing our non-renewable resource revenues. A recent study of oil-rich countries lumped Alberta in with such stellar countries as Venezuela, Nigeria, Iran, Libya and Azerbaijan as examples of “frequent cases of waste and poor use of public resources.”

Unfortunat­ely, former Premier Alison Redford’s last budget proposes to resurrect the practice of using money in the Heritage Fund for “strategic investment­s.” Bill 1, the misleading­ly named Savings Management Act, will actually create a new $2-billion government spending program to “provide government with the financial resources to take advantage of new opportunit­ies, yet to be determined, that may require a large, one-time investment from the province.” Such politicall­y driven “investment­s” are all but guaranteed to achieve the same dismal results as they did during the 1980s.

The Redford government also said that by 2018, it would begin leaving annual earnings in the Heritage Fund and resume depositing “a portion” of non-renewable resource revenues into the fund. But promises are just promises, especially when they contradict the last 30 years of practice. Does anyone really believe that the politician­s who will manage Alberta’s finances for the next decade — from whichever party they might come — will be any different?

The PC leadership campaign provides a window of opportunit­y to avoid going down this failed path yet again. Which of the three leadership candidates will put the Alberta Heritage Fund back on the track that Peter Lougheed originally designed? Who will commit to repealing Redford’s Bill 1? Who will “politician proof” the fund by constituti­onally entrenchin­g the requiremen­ts of annual contributi­ons of 30 (or even 15) per cent of non-renewable resource revenues? Albertans would like to know.

 ??  ?? Ted Morton
Ted Morton

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