165. Eugene O’Callaghan: Under the Hood at a State Fund and How it Charts the Economic Heartbeat of a Nation

Eugene O’Callaghan is a business and investment advisor based in Dublin, where he advises a range of asset managers and sovereign wealth funds on strategic initiatives. He was formerly director of the Irish Strategic Investment Fund and prior to that Director of the National Pensions Reserve Fund of Ireland. He started his career as an accountant.

Our conversation starts with Eugene’s early career and an adventure that took him to New Zealand for a period of time. We compare the Irish and the New Zealand economies as they stood at that time and trace then his move back to Ireland and his early years with the National Pensions Reserve Fund of Ireland.  Eugene charts his time at the fund by reference to the economic backdrop that prevailed in the country at the time, and as such, what follows is a fascinating insider’s view into the country’s economic history.

One of the aspects of Eugene’s career that I have most admired is his ability to pivot as the macro backdrop and governmental policy has dictated, this occurred after the financial crisis in 2008 when the NPRF fell in value and pivoted towards investing domestically via the Irish Strategic Investment Fund. We speak about the opportunity set in investing in Ireland and some of the limitations that come with size.

The need for the state fund to reflect the state’s policy around sustainability was another pivot, and this saw sustainability be integrated across the entire fund portfolio during Eugene’s time in leadership.  We speak about what this meant in terms of the investment opportunity. The pandemic saw yet another need to pivot, this time towards investing in companies affected by the pandemic, via a Pandemic Response Fund.  The need for this fund was, thankfully, time bound, but we speak about what that kind of investment necessitated.

Now retired from ISIF and a strategic advisor to a number of entities, including other Sovereign Wealth Funds, we speak about the unique nature of many of these funds and the way investments are approached. We discuss then some of the inspiring figures in his career, and how he learned the importance of “getting points on the board” early.  This is a rich and fascinating discussion that spans many decades of economic ups and downs and never failing to fashion a response that works.

Series 5 is sponsored by Astarte Capital Partners, an asset management firm focused on sustainable real asset sectors, acting as anchor investor and partner to specialist emerging managers. Astarte is headquartered in London with a presence in Sydney and Toronto.