Amid budget gloom, analyst gives reason for fiscal optimism

JUNEAU — If you factor in the sizes of their respective budgets, Alaska’s $50 billion Permanent Fund leaves the state in a better financial position than Norway’s $820 billion savings account.

So declared Malan Rietveld, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of government, testifying before the Alaska Senate’s State Affairs Committee Tuesday morning. Rietveld was invited by the administration of Gov. Bill Walker to give lawmakers a global look at savings accounts used by governments around the world. More detailed analysis of Walker’s specific proposal by the State Affairs Committee was expected this week.

The Walker administration has proposed using the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund to partially fund state government, an approach already used by nations around the world. Most of those nations, said Rietveld, a specialist in sovereign wealth funds around the world, aren’t as dependent upon oil as Alaska is.

“I think there is no doubt that Alaska is in the highest category of oil dependence worldwide,” Rietveld told lawmakers. “The only places that are comparable are the Middle Eastern states.”

To balance its budget, Alaska would need oil at $109 per barrel. According to figures from the Energy Information Administration, Saudi Arabia needs oil at $106 per barrel, Iran and Algeria needs oil at $131 per barrel, and Venezuela (the world leader) needs $160 per-barrel oil.

Countries like Norway, which has the world’s largest national savings account, and Australia and the Western Canadian province of Alberta, all found their oil reserves after developing an industrialized economy. They have wide tax bases that mean they don’t rely on oil to the extent that Alaska does. 

Alaska’s state budget is 90 percent dependent upon oil. Norway, which has high personal income tax rates, is about 30 percent dependent upon oil. It needs oil at just $40 per barrel, according to EIA statistics.

It is possible for Alaska to reach Norwegian levels of dependence, Rietveld said. 

The Alaska Permanent Fund is the state’s big advantage, Rietveld said. While smaller than other national savings accounts, the picture changes if you take into the amount the state spends on government each year. The Permanent Fund is 10.8 times bigger than the state’s annual contribution to its budget, the largest such ratio in the world. Kuwait is No. 2 at 8.7. Norway’s colossal fund is only 6.3 times bigger than its annual budget.

“Alaska is the richest country in the world based on sovereign wealth assets,” Rietveld said.

Alaska’s situation is different from that of a national government — it receives ample support from the U.S. federal government, for example — but Rietveld said that Alaska’s assets mean it is in a good position if it decides to follow the governor’s proposal or a similar approach that uses earnings from the Permanent Fund.

“Alaska is better placed than almost any place that I’ve been to,” Rietveld said. “Alaska has no reason to think that it doesn’t have a stable and sustainable fiscal future.”