While Democrats in Congress negotiate over trillions of dollars in new spending, the Biden Administration is quietly advancing its agenda through regulation. Witness a little-noticed proposed rule last week by the Labor Department that will add new political directives to your retirement savings.
The Administration says the rule will make it easier for retirement plans to offer 401(k) funds focused on ESG (environmental, social and governance) objectives. In fact, the rule will coerce workers and businesses into supporting progressive policies.
An important Trump Labor rule last fall reinforced that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (Erisa) requires retirement plan fiduciaries to act “solely in the interest” of participants. The rule prevented pension plans and asset managers from considering ESG factors like climate, workforce diversity and political donations unless they had a “material effect on the return and risk of an investment.”
The Biden DOL plans to scrap the Trump rule while putting retirement sponsors and asset managers on notice that they have a fiduciary duty to include ESG in investment decisions. The proposed rule “makes clear that climate change and other ESG factors are often material” and thus in many instances should be considered “in the assessment of investment risks and returns.”
Wall Street’s three biggest municipal-bond underwriters have seen business grind to a halt in Texas after the state blocked governments from working with banks that have curtailed gun-industry ties. In June, as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. was on the hunt for a new campus in Dallas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott took a shot at ESG initiatives by banning state investments in businesses that cut ties with oil and gas companies.
That’s not to mention the brawls over Covid vaccines and mask mandates, deadly Texas blackouts along the country’s most isolated power grid and new state laws that restrict voting and all but ban abortion. It’s all happening just as Wall Street’s shareholders push the industry to fight climate change, racism and the gender gap.
So far, most big banks haven’t taken public positions on the new abortion restrictions. They’re being cautious about requiring Covid-19 vaccinations for employees in places where officials have assailed mandates. But the new Texas gun law is running into both the industry’s efforts to advance social causes and its ability to work with the second-largest state for muni-bond issuance.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. — which has 25,500 Texas employees, its most in any state outside New York — has said it can’t bid on most business with public entities in Texas because of ambiguities around the law. The biggest U.S. bank is assessing its potential next steps, said a person with knowledge of the company’s thinking.
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.
Two Republican senators expressed concern that Thrift Savings Plan asset managers BlackRock and State Street Global Advisors are putting ESG and their CEOs’ “left-leaning” priorities ahead of their fiduciary duties when it comes to proxy voting.
In a letter Thursday to Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board Acting Chairman David A. Jones, Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin questioned the priorities of BlackRock and State Street Global Advisors, who between them manage nearly $500 billion for the $762.3 billion Thrift Savings Plan’s 6.2 million federal employees and members of the uniformed services. Of that, roughly $57 billion is managed by SSGA.
“We are concerned that BlackRock and SSGA may be prioritizing their CEOs’ personal policy views over retirees’ financial security,” the letter said.
A dónde va mi pensión (Where is my pension going?), an investigation by the Press and Society Institute, IPYS, the Pulitzer Center and 13 news organizations, revealed that workers from nine Latin American countries have saved around US$500 billion for their pensions but that they have no idea how and where their money was invested.
The investigation found that in some cases the money ended up in questionable companies that violated local regulations concerning the environment or worker’s safety.
In Chile, for example, 36 companies financed by pension funds accounted for nearly 3,500 fines issued by the labor regulator over the last five years.
Author(s): JULETT PINEDA SLEINAN
Publication Date: 6 July 2021
Publication Site: Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project
In what environmental advocates called an important step forward for climate justice, Maine became the first state to commit through legislation to divest from fossil fuel companies after Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill this week.
The legislation, LD 99, sponsored by Rep. Maggie O’Neil (D-Saco), “directs the $17 billion Maine Public Employee Retirement System to divest $1.3 billion from fossil fuels within five years” and directs the state treasurer to “do the same with other state funds,” according to a news release by 350 Maine. The bill was amended to grant the retirement system some flexibility in pursuing a gradual divestment from fossil fuels.
The move comes as momentum for fossil fuel divestment is building around the country, including in states such as New York as well as some cities. All in all, more than 1,300 institutions with a total of $14 trillion in assets have committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment.
Over the past two weeks, activist hedge fund investor Engine No. 1 scored a victory for the climate change movement by wresting three board seats at ExxonMobil with the support of the “Big Three” institutional investment firms BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street. But the episode also marks a failure in ExxonMobil’s “corporate diplomacy” because of its inability to convincingly demonstrate that it is committed to mitigating climate risks and protecting its long-term business value, according to Wharton management professor Witold Henisz.
Engine No. 1 has only a 0.02% stake in ExxonMobil, but the climate risk issues it pushed for were sufficient to get the three big investment firms on its side. In explaining its stance, BlackRock stated that the energy major needs “to further assess the company’s strategy and board expertise against the possibility that demand for fossil fuels may decline rapidly in the coming decades.” BlackRock CEO Larry Fink had reiterated his company’s commitment to combating climate change in his 2021 annual letter to CEOs; in his 2020 letter to CEOs, he had said that “climate risk is investment risk.”
A proposed mandate to shutter the $5 billion Prairie State coal energy campus and a Springfield, Illinois? plant by 2035 would hit local ratepayers with the double burden of funding new energy sources while still paying down project bonds, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers warn.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker backs a state mandate to end coal generation by 2035 to meet de-carbonation targets included in pending energy legislation. The package stalled during the General Assembly?s spring session that ended last week, but Pritzker said he expects lawmakers will return in the coming weeks for a vote.
Retiring Prairie State early would mark the latest headache for some of the nine public utilities in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, and Ohio that issued $4.5 billion of debt, some it under the federal Build America Bond program, to finance their ownership in project.
Peabody Energy Inc. initially sponsored the project in Washington County promoting it as an affordable source of energy with an adjacent mine and a cleaner one given its state-of-the-art technology at the time. Bechtel Power Corp. built it. It initially carried a $2 billion price tag that rose to a $4 billion fixed cost under the 2010 contract with utilities but cost overruns drove the price tag up to $5 billion.
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 Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) is hunting for investments in the world’s transition to renewable energy as it aspires to be a global leader in sustainability, the head of the company told Reuters on Thursday.
The pension manager last month announced it was creating a new investment group that would generate investment opportunities in renewables, conventional energy and new technology and service solutions.
CPPIB’s exposure to renewable energy producers rose to C$7.7 billion at March 31 2021, from C$6.6 billion at March 31, 2020, according to a spokesman for the firm.
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
The Fund committed approximately $300 million to Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners IV, a European investment fund that will focus on investments in renewable assets including onshore and offshore wind and solar, as well as climate infrastructure assets that support renewable power.
Additionally, the Fund committed $100 million to Excelsior Renewable Energy Investment Fund I, a North American-focused investment fund that will target investments in renewable power assets such as solar and wind.
Publication Date: 20 April 2021
Publication Site: Office of the NY State Comptroller