British pension funds are ramping up their investment in Chinese companies despite growing tensions between the West and the Communist state.
According to a new report by Hong Kong Watch, a pro-democracy advocacy group, the amount of cash invested by Western pension funds and other institutional investors in China has hit a record high in recent months.
It comes amid rising criticism in the West about China’s human rights record, including its brutal treatment of Uighur Muslims and its suppression of democracy campaigners in Hong Kong.
The report cites the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), one of the UK’s largest private pension schemes, and Legal & General, Britain’s biggest pensions manager, as two British firms with “problematic” investments in China.
It found that L&G’s China fund was previously investing UK pensions in Zhejiang Dahua Technology, which is alleged to produce facial recognition software for the Communist Party that detects the race of individuals and alerts the police when it identifies Uighur Muslims.
L&G has since divested from Zhejiang Dahua Technology.
After state pension debt grew to more than $1.4 trillion last year, two new reports estimate that gap between the total amount states have promised to retirees and what they’ve actually set aside in their pension investment funds will shrink dramatically. A recent analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts says the gap could dip below $1 trillion this year. And a report released today by the Equable Institute estimates that 2021 returns will shrink state pension debt to $1.08 trillion.
The gains in the stock market played a big role. Equable’s report calculates that preliminary 2021 investment returns averaged an astounding 20.7% return. That’s nearly triple the average assumed rate of return in any given year. Those gains will boost the average pension plan to about 80% funded, the highest funding ratio since 2008.
However, Modern Portfolio Theory may have a problem going forward. Don’t worry, we are not going to hack on bonds based on a fear that yields may rise in the future, creating a portfolio drag. There are already enough bond haters out there. The issue we are seeing goes beyond just the bond argument – correlations have been rising just about everywhere. In today’s world, correlations have been changing, with more and more asset classes becoming increasingly correlated. The problem: when the correlations between investments are higher, it becomes harder to diversify risk in a portfolio.
Let’s start with the big one, global bonds and global equities. Combining equities and bonds has benefitted from a generally negative correlation for much of the past few decades. However, this correlation has turned positive of late (chart 1), implying reduced diversification benefits when combining bonds and equities. This isn’t too much of a concern, given that the long-term average is slightly positive.
But don’t throw out your bonds just yet. This correlation tends to return to be strongly negative during risk-off periods in the equity markets. This reflex action during corrections helps maintain bonds in portfolios, even if they experience periods of low or even negative performance.
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak will urge UK pension schemes to back Britain’s “entrepreneurial spirit” with billions of pounds of savers’ funds to fuel the economy’s post-pandemic recovery in a message to investment bosses.
The prime minister and chancellor will issue a joint call to action on Thursday aimed at “igniting an investment big bang” that would “unlock the hundreds of billions of pounds sitting in UK institutions”.
Citing the success of long-term investment programmes by Australian and Canadian pension schemes, Sunak and Johnson will say that British pensioners are missing out on “better retirements” after investors focused too heavily on the returns from stock market listed companies.
Critics warned that pension schemes would become riskier and more expensive to run and accused the prime minister of failing to understand how they worked.
John Ralfe, an independent pensions consultant, said: “This is 90% hot air from the prime minister.
“Defined benefit pension schemes need assets that generate a guaranteed inflation linked return to pay guaranteed pensions. Most of the things the PM is banging the drum for don’t do this.
State treasurers in New Jersey and Arizona are divesting approximately $325 million in investments from consumer goods giant Unilever after subsidiary Ben & Jerry said it will stop selling its ice cream in Israeli-occupied territories.
In July, the company said in a statement that it was “inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” It said it has informed the licensee that manufacturers the ice cream in the region that it will not renew its license when it expires at the end of 2022. Despite leaving the Palestinian territories, Ben & Jerry’s said it will stay in Israel through a different arrangement that has not yet been determined.
A New Jersey law enacted in 2016 requires state pension funds to withdraw investments from any company that boycotts the goods, products, or businesses of Israel or companies operating in Israel or territories occupied by Israel. The law requires the state to create a blacklist of companies that boycott Israel.
New York City police unions that hold partial control over how their members’ pension money is invested are planning to pull out of a consortium of other city pension funds that Comptroller Scott Stringer has credited with considerably augmenting their return on investment.
In 2015, Stringer launched what’s come to be known as the Common Investment Meeting, where the trustees of the city’s five largest union pension funds meet to hash out how their money is managed.
According to Stringer, the CIM has boosted the pension funds’ growth overall, with their rate of return hitting 11.58% over the five years since the CIM was created, compared to a 7.02% rate of return for the five years prior to its creation.
The police pension funds’ trustees are made up of several police unions. The most powerful among them is the Police Benevolent Association.
The PBA’s head, Patrick Lynch, pointed out that the CIM began as a pilot program and disputed the idea that, over the past five years, it’s made life easier for the funds’ trustees.
This paper introduces a real-time, continuous measure of national sentiment that is language-free and thus comparable globally: the positivity of songs that individuals choose to listen to. This is a direct measure of mood that does not pre-specify certain mood-affecting events nor assume the extent of their impact on investors. We validate our music-based sentiment measure by correlating it with mood swings induced by seasonal factors, weather conditions, and COVID-related restrictions. We find that music sentiment is positively correlated with same-week equity market returns and negatively correlated with next-week returns, consistent with sentiment-induced temporary mispricing. Results also hold under a daily analysis and are stronger when trading restrictions limit arbitrage. Music sentiment also predicts increases in net mutual fund flows, and absolute sentiment precedes a rise in stock market volatility. It is negatively associated with government bond returns, consistent with a flight to safety.
Alex Edmans London Business School – Institute of Finance and Accounting; European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI); Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR)
Adrian Fernandez-Perez Auckland University of Technology
Alexandre Garel Audencia Business School
Ivan Indriawan Auckland University of Technology – Department of Finance
Publication Date: 14 Aug 2021
Publication Site: SSRN, Journal of Financial Economics (forthcoming)
A MassMutual investment subsidiary has agreed to pay $4.75 million to resolve allegations by Massachusetts securities regulators including that it failed to supervise its agents, among them the social media persona “Roaring Kitty,” whose online posts helped spark January’s trading frenzy in GameStop Corp (GME.N) shares.
Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin on Thursday said MML Investors Services failed to detect the activities of Keith Gill, who touted GameStop stock in his spare time while he was working at the company.
Galvin, the state’s top securities regulator, alleged MassMutual also inadequately supervised other agents and failed to review their social media usage or catch excessive trading in their personal accounts.
The company agreed to pay a $4 million fine to resolve those allegations and another $750,000 for failing to register 478 broker-dealer agents. It also agreed to overhaul its social media policies.
A New Jersey state treasury official said on Wednesday it is set to divest $182 million in Unilever Plc stock and bonds held by its pension funds over the restriction of sales by the consumer giant’s Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
It is the latest action by a U.S. state challenging Unilever over Ben & Jerry’s move in July to end a license for its ice cream to be sold in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Ben & Jerry’s said selling its products there was “inconsistent with its values.”
New Jersey’s Division of Investment had said on Tuesday it made a preliminary determination that maintaining its investment in Unilever would be a breach of a state law barring it from investing in companies boycotting Israel. It gave the company 90 days to request a modification of the order.
The New York City Comptroller is an investment advisor and fiduciary for New York City’s $266 billion public pension system that serves 700,000 current and former teachers, firefighters, health care workers, police officers, and other retired city employees.
Brad Lander, the Democratic nominee for Comptroller, is all but certain to win the general election this fall in the overwhelmingly Democratic city after prevailing in a competitive primary earlier this year. If successful, Lander would be inaugurated in January and soon be able to make recommendations to the Boards of Trustees of the city’s five public pension funds on how their many billions should be invested, while also voting directly on four of the five pension boards, making him the key figure in almost all investment decisions.
The implications are significant given that city workers’ pensions are on the line, and because the city guarantees those pensions, billions are spent each year to make up for what the pensions themselves don’t produce in returns. Better returns from pension fund investments can save city government a significant amount of money that could be used for other priorities or put aside for a crisis.
Those investment decisions can also be made to further other goals than simply the funds’ bottom lines, though the returns and overall financial health of the pension funds are the comptroller’s main city charter-mandated responsibility.
According to a lawsuit filed this week by Tobe, the pension denied most of his requests for records under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. It’s no secret that state and local government pensions—which are supposed to be the most transparent of all pensions—are regularly criticized for opposing public record requests, particularly related to alternative investment documents.
The report accuses the pension of failing to monitor and fully disclose investment fees and expenses. It is estimated that fees and expenses could be 10 times greater than the $7.4 million disclosed in the pension’s most recent financial audit. Tobe believes the fees related to dozens of investment managers are not properly disclosed. Using assumptions from an Oxford study, Tobe estimated that undisclosed fees could be as high as $70 million a year. Also, $2 million to $3 million a year in investment fees may have been paid to Wall Street for doing nothing, i.e., fees on committed, uninvested capital.
Most analysts attribute the strong market performance to historically low interest rates and an unprecedented $5 trillion in federal stimulus in response to the pandemic. In addition, the economy is now recovering at a rapid pace, with recent projections by the Congressional Budget Office, Moody’s, and the Federal Reserve forecasting a return to pre-pandemic levels of gross domestic product by calendar year 2022 or before.3
However, the path to recovery remains uncertain, and the long-term forecast for economic growth and pension investment returns is less rosy. The Congressional Budget Office expects average real economic growth of 1.6% between 2026 and 2031 and nominal growth of 3.7% over the same time frame—significantly lower than the historical average.4 As such, market experts now estimate equity returns, which are related to economic growth and current market value of stocks, to be 6.4% over the long term, compared with 6.7% before the pandemic.5 And with interest rates currently lower than pre-pandemic levels, they also project bonds to yield just 2% over the next decade before returning to the pre-pandemic expected yield of about 4%.6