Nat Wei: Why Britain needs a sovereign wealth fund now more than ever

Lord Wei is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He is a co-founder of Teach First, a social entrepreneur, and a former government adviser.

The recent furore over National Insurance and social care has once again brought into focus the lack of resilience of our public finances. Putting aside the large National Debt we have and the deficit, or the vast amount of QE driving up asset prices everywhere, we seem to be endlessly stuck in a loop whereby taxes have to rise after global events such as pandemics, war, or financial crises.

Surely if we were to learn the lessons from the last 20 plus years we ought to be prepared for such eventualities, and have some national insurance in place for the nation itself. A number of our international peers have sovereign wealth funds, such as Norway, which they judiciously built up from their natural resource sales. We ought to have our own fund, perhaps by converting our £36 billion in annual R&D investments into the future Teslas or Dysons of Britain into equity or at least a right to licence the IP developed by them in non-competing sectors. What might have happened if we had given workers on furlough the chance to do R&D for their companies as a condition of being put on furlough, and received some of the equity in the ideas they generated instead of their being paid to simply not work at all by the Government?

As we build our own sovereign wealth we ought to be able to use the proceeds from it to smooth the fiscal cycle and keep the tax burden below a certain amount (say 30 per cent) in the three years after a major global event (vs events affecting our country only, to avoid the moral hazard of governments using it to mitigate their poor policy decisions).

If we do not do this, then we will forever be at the mercy of needing international capital just to stay afloat and not truly sovereign, which surely was to be one of the benefits of Brexit. In so doing we can over time also enhance our reputation as a Party of fiscal prudence and harness capital for public and not just private good.

Could such a fund make a dent in issues such as the National Insurance tax rise? And where would we find the capital in these straitened times to launch it, as well as not to be seen to be losing public money on what might be a risky venture? Well to put the recent £12bn raised in annual tax rises in perspective, Apple and Amazon combined are now worth $4.7 trillion as of yesterday  and Apple alone paid out $14 billion in dividends last year. If Britain invested wisely it might be able to absorb part or most of the cost of any tax rises during times when the economy needs support to rebuild using such a sovereign wealth tech fund, and any shortfall could be covered if needed by partial sales of assets.

A fellow Brit from the last century has also given us some potential initial capital, having bequeathed to the nation an amount in a Trust which by Act of Parliament was originally set aside to pay the National Debt in what is called the National Fund. When I first heard about it ten or so years ago it was making the investment house a packet managing these assets and was worth £400 million. In 2020 the value had grown to about £520 million. A tidy sum but it will likely never ever be used to pay down the National Debt, its original mandate, so we should repurpose it by Act of Parliament and turn it into our sovereign wealth fund, to be managed at cost by our most successful tech investors to back and scale up our most promising national champions.

Having missed the chance to create our sovereign wealth fund from natural mineral and gas resources, it is time to use the other resource we still have, which is the wealth of talent now available from our entrepreneurial base, so we can grow our economy, and relieve the burden of tax for those communities especially who are looking to us to help support and empower them to level up.

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