Sticking around and backing dissident board candidates worked. Instead of divesting from Exxon Mobil, the US’s biggest oil company, the nation’s three largest public pension funds pursued a successful strategy of advocating for change, and they just helped elect a pair of outside directors. Expect more of this tack against fossil fuel outfits.
Running counter to the trend of pension programs dumping fossil fuel stocks, these giant retirement systems—the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), and the New York State Common Retirement Fund—believe that, in most cases, working from within is the better way to promote change.
They were key players in electing the two outside directors (a third is still up in the air as proxy ballots are counted), along with huge asset managers BlackRock and Vanguard, plus other pension entities such as the Church of England’s program.
The New York State Common Retirement Fund (Fund) will restrict investments in oil sands companies that have not demonstrated that they are prepared for the transition to a low-carbon economy, New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, trustee of the third largest public pension plan in the country, announced today.
“As nations around the world become increasingly serious about addressing the threat of climate change and as market forces drive a low-carbon economic transition, we need to make sure our investments line up with this reality,” said DiNapoli. “We have carefully reviewed companies in the oil sands industry and are restricting investments in those that do not have viable plans to adapt to the low-carbon future. Companies responsible for large greenhouse gas emissions like those in this industry, pose significant risks for investors.”
Publication Date: 12 April 2021
Publication Site: Office of the NY State Comptroller
On August 4, 2010, Massachusetts passed “An Act Relative to Pension Divestment from Certain Companies that Invest in the Republic of Iran.” The act directs the Massachusetts public pension funds to divest from certain companies “providing goods or services deployed to develop petroleum resources in Iran.”
In an effort to avoid conflict with federal policy, the Massachusetts act has two features. First, it exempts from state divestment “any company” that the US “affirmatively declares to be excluded from” federal sanctions. Second, the act has a sunset provision. The act expires if (1) the US “remov[es] Iran from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and certify[ies] that Iran is no longer pursuing a nuclear capability in violation of its international commitments and obligations,” or (2) the president “declar[es] that [the Massachusetts act] interferes with the conduct of the United States foreign policy.”
The Massachusetts Iran boycott has a long pedigree. In New England and other colonies, the founding generation considered the boycott of English tea and other products to be a wise alternative to war. Prior to the Civil War, Massachusetts abolitionists urged private boycotts of Southern goods. In the 1980s, Massachusetts was one of scores of states and cities to enact divestment and selective purchasing laws regarding South Africa. In 1996, Massachusetts restricted state purchasing from companies doing business in Burma, though the act was later struck down by the Supreme Court. Massachusetts today maintains laws restricting state investment or procurement with Sudan, China, and Northern Ireland.
The commitments are part of New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s climate action plan to lower investment risks from climate change and help shift the pension fund to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within the next 20 years.
“While climate change poses investment risks, it also creates opportunities for the state pension fund to invest in the companies and funds that are best positioned for the low-carbon future,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “The commitments we announced today aim to take advantage of the growth in climate investing and to strengthen our portfolio for the long-term.”
On the eve of President Joe Biden’s virtual climate change summit with approximately 40 other world leaders and the fifty-first anniversary of Earth Day, a new alliance of 160 financial institutions was formed to achieve net zero by 2050 or sooner.
The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) consists of three separate groups representing different sectors of the financial universe — the Net Zero Banking Alliance (NZBA), comprising 43 banks from 23 countries including Bank of America, Citi and Morgan Stanley in the U.S.; the Net Zero Asset Managers Alliance of 87 firms, including BlackRock, Vanguard, Allianz Global Advisors, Invesco and State Street Global Advisors and Trillium Asset Management, which joined Wednesday; and the 37-member UN-Convened Net Zero Owners Alliance, which includes the David Rockefeller Fund and the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS).
New Jersey’s public-worker pension fund continues to own a small stake in a company that manufacturers firearms, several years after Gov. Phil Murphy and lawmakers first raised concerns about public investments in the gun industry.
As of earlier this month, the pension fund owned shares worth an estimated $28 million in a company that, among other products, specializes in making custom sporting shotguns and rifles, according to the latest information provided by the Department of Treasury.
However, the overall $85 billion worker-pension fund has cut ties in recent years with a manufacturer of firearms ammunition, which had been its only other direct link to the firearms industry, Treasury officials confirmed.
The world’s largest pension fund had charted a course for sustainable investing, but the Government Pension Investment Fund, Tokyo, is now treading water.
After taking the helm of the world’s biggest pension fund as CIO in 2015, Hiromichi Mizuno sought to turn GPIF into a fund that — as one Harvard Business Review article put it — tried to “change the world” through its approach to environmental, social and governance investing.
However, the $1.63 trillion fund — constrained by stricter legal restraints than its peers — has largely been quiet on impact investing since Mr. Mizuno was succeeded in April 2020 by Eiji Ueda. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the global push toward ESG themes and GPIF’s peers around the world have cut fossil-fuel investments and threatened to pull funds from firms that fail to meet ethical standards.
New York’s state pension fund is restricting investment in six Canadian oil sands companies because they have not shown they are prepared for a transition to a low-carbon future, the fund’s Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said on Monday.
The New York State Common Retirement Fund will divest more than $7 million in securities already held in the companies, and not make any further investments in them, DiNapoli said in a statement.
Canada’s oil sands hold the world’s third-largest crude reserves and have some of the highest emissions intensity per barrel, due to the carbon-intensive production process of extracting tar-like bitumen from the ground.
In places, BlackRock’s findings are redacted, so as not to show the size of particular holdings, but the conclusions are clear: after examining “divestment actions by hundreds of funds worldwide,” the BlackRock analysts concluded that the portfolios “experienced no negative financial impacts from divesting from fossil fuels. In fact, they found evidence of modest improvement in fund return.” The report’s executive summary states that “no investors found negative performance from divestment; rather, neutral to positive results.” In the conclusion to the report, the BlackRock team used a phrase beloved by investors: divested portfolios “outperformed their benchmarks.”
In a statement, the investment firm downplayed that language, saying, “BlackRock did not make a recommendation for TRS to divest from fossil fuel reserves. The research was meant to help TRS determine a path forward to meet their stated divestment goals.” But Tom Sanzillo—I.E.E.F.A.’s director of financial analysis, and a former New York State first deputy comptroller who oversaw a hundred-and-fifty-billion-dollar pension fund—said in an interview that BlackRock’s findings were clear. “Any investment fund looking to protect itself against losses from coal, oil, and gas companies now has the largest investment house in the world showing them why, how, and when to protect themselves, the economy, and the planet.” In short, the financial debate about divestment is as settled as the ethical one—you shouldn’t try to profit off the end of the world and, in any event, you won’t.
In late 2020, Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP), which invests $170 billion worth of pensions belonging to federal government employees like public service workers and employees, bought over 600,000 shares of US private prison companies GEO GEO-1% Group and CoreCivic. According to a February 12th 2021 report filed with the SEC, that totaled about $4.7 million to the companies who have been found to be key players in family separation and continued detainment of migrants suffering from Covid-19.
On March 15th, however, the public learned that PSP pledged to fully divest from the industry amidst public pressure — a financial blow to two companies who have already lost financial support and credibility from major bank financers over the past few years. This announcement by PSP adds them to the list of pension funds who have made an explicit commitment to no longer fund private prisons; joining New York City’s public pension system, The Philadelphia Board of Pensions Retirement, New Mexico Teachers’ Pension Fund, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, The Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board, and many more who have also taken a stand against the industry.
In late February, the State University of New York Cortland Faculty Senate, which represents instructors at the Southern Tier school, unanimously passed a resolution urging its pension fund manager, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, to divest from fossil fuel companies. “Whereas, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA) has $8 billion invested in industries promoting fossil fuel production, distribution and consumption,” reads the resolution, “…Therefore be it resolved, that the SUNY Cortland faculty urges the SUNY Board of Trustees to support and advocate for the divestment of TIAA funds from all fossil fuel holdings….”
In doing so, the SUNY Cortland Faculty Senate became the latest institution to join TIAA Divest, a campaign demanding that TIAA cease investing in fossil fuel projects, businesses involved in deforestation, and other enterprises accelerating climate change. TIAA has thus far refused to take action, but environmentalists hope that the growing pressure from clients like SUNY faculty will force its hand.
Readers, I have long been of the opinion that it’s a sensible approach to enable savers to choose among multiple retirement funds, so that they are able to reflect their particular ethical concerns, whether this means an “ESG” (environmental, social, and governance-issue focused) fund or a religious-screening approach, such as excluding companies which donate to Planned Parenthood (Ave Maria Funds) or which are in the alcohol industry (GuideStone Funds).
But no state official should be using investors’ money to play politics — not the money of individual investors through state-run IRAs or the retirement savings accounts of state employees, and not the money of public pension funds. And, frankly, I find it appalling that these sorts of actions aren’t universally considered to be wholly out of bounds — but I suppose living in Illinois (newly-declared the third-most-corrupt state, with Chicago as the most-corrupt city), I suppose I should lower my expectations. Readers in the remaining 49 states, however, should watch carefully.