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Big tech faces a reckoning, $41 billion Swedish pension fund CEO warns

AP3 CEO Kerstin Hessius

A lot of "unpleasant things" could be revealed as the tide of easy central bank money rolls out, one of Sweden's most powerful pension fund executives warned.

And chief among those could be the trouble brewing for the big technology companies, now under close scrutiny over how they handle personal data.

"A risk that is becoming substantial is how companies handle their customer data and how data can be taken advantage of," said Kerstin Hessius, CEO of AP3, one of the five buffer funds in the Swedish public pension system. "It's the consequence of big data and personal integrity. You have to start thinking in terms of future restrictions on companies."

Heavyweight U.S. technology stocks, collectively called FAANG, have fallen hard since mid-March, with the NYSE FANG+ index down by as much as 19% after a series of stock-specific hits including President Donald Trump's attack on Amazon to Facebook's user data scandal involving political-advertising firm Cambridge Analytica.

"Markets are beginning to worry about new regulations and the uncertainty around big tech companies business models," said Ms. Hessius, voted Sweden's most powerful business woman by magazine Veckans Affarer. "This sector is going to see tougher times after having been a driver of the U.S. stock market."

Ms. Hessius, a former deputy governor of the Riksbank and head of the Stockholm Stock Exchange, now sees the market as a "minefield," where the tech sector could weigh as heavily as the banking industry did in 2008.

To deal with increased volatility in a normalizing rate environment her priority right now is to build up the robustness of her $41 billion portfolio.

"In our property companies we are extending duration on the debt side," she said. "We do more projects. We're not as aggressive buyers and not chasing yield in these companies as much."

Over the past five years, AP3's average annual return has been 10.5%. It's equity share is close to 50%, it holds about 35% in bonds, and the rest is invested in private equity, real estate and infrastructure.

Next year Swedish law makers are expected to give the country's state pension funds more flexibility to hold a bigger portion in non-listed assets, such as infrastructure.

But those opportunities may not be so easy to come by, according to Ms. Hessius.

"We would like to do more, but there is a supply shortage," she said. "And we don't want to invest in funds as it erodes profits too much. We are looking for safer brownfield type of investments rather than greenfield investments."

That would exclude investments in a proposed and debated Swedish high-speed rail network since it would be sensitive to the economic cycle and also include a lot of project risk.

"It would be too similar to investing in the stock market and therefore doesn't add much diversification to our portfolio," she said.

With her experience from the Riksbank's governing board, she is now a harsh critic of its current experimental negative rate policy and says that the focus on spot inflation is misguided.

"I'm worried this has resulted in both the ECB and the Riksbank being much too behind the curve in raising the interest rates," she said.

She pointed to the fact that the U.S. has been in a hiking cycle for some time while neither the Riksbank nor the ECB have begun.

"You have to have a long-term perspective," she said. "What are the risks with slowly beginning to normalize rates? I think waiting is linked to larger risks."