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The World’s Biggest Sovereign Wealth Fund Is Now Taking on CEO Pay

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Robert "Bob" Dudley, CEO of BP, lost a shareholder vote on his $20 million pay package. Now that Norway's wealth fund is targeting excess executive pay, more CEOs could suffer the same fate.Photograph by Christophe Morin — Getty Images

Last month, Norway’s $870 billion sovereign wealth fund—the world’s biggest—announced the companies it was going to divest because they used too much coal. Of the about 50 named, 22 were based in the U.S., including American Electric Power (AEP) and Peabody Energy (BTU), which had recently filed for bankruptcy.

Now Norway’s fund is turning from environmental protection to another hot-button issue: executive pay. In an interview with the Financial Times, fund CEO Yngve Slyngstad said that Norway was now planning to target excessively high salaries at companies where it held investments.

“We have so far looked at this in a way that has focused on pay structures rather than pay levels,” Slyngstad told the FT. “We think, due to the way the issue of executive remuneration has developed, that we will have to look at what an appropriate level of executive remuneration is as well.”

To give some idea of how big a deal this could be, it bears noting that Norway’s fund—fueled by oil earnings—owns an average of 1.3% of every listed company on the planet, the FT reports.

The decision comes at a time when stratospheric CEO pay has become a growing issue for angry investors. BP (BP) CEO Bob Dudley suffered a shareholder revolt when investors rejected his $20 million pay package for 2015. Dudley was due to receive a 20% raise, even though shrinking profit margins triggered by collapsing oil prices led to BP’s worst-ever financial loss and more than 5,000 job cuts; 59.11% of shareholders voted against him. (Dudley’s loss could have been worse. Curiously, Norway’s fund, which hadn’t yet begun its executive pay campaign, voted to give Dudley the raise.)

Beyond investor sentiment, Norway is also sensitive to the excess-pay issue for cultural reasons. Executives in the Scandinavian region are paid much less than their counterparts in Britain or the U.S., and the gap between the highest and lowest paid in companies is narrower, according to the FT.

For now, the fund is still deciding which company it would first target on the bad pay issue.

“We are looking at how to approach this issue in the public space,” Slyngstad said. “We will choose the right instance for the right case of voting.”

Chief executives, beware.

Reuters contributed to this report.