(Page 4 of 4)
Public and union pension funds will be increasingly important factors in financial markets for the foreseeable future. As part of their fiduciary mandate to maximize investment returns, their trustees certainly have a right and duty to lobby for changes in corporate behavior that could result in better returns for their pension holders. But judging by the words and actions of some pension activists, “shareholder value” has become synonymous with “cause-related investing,” justifying a range of actions that may put at risk, directly or indirectly, pensioners’ retirement holdings.
If the goals of pension managers and retirees are not the same—as is often the case—then pension plans should not engage in social investing. In many instances, SRI amounts to union leaders or politicians gambling with other people’s money in support of ideological vanity.
A few politicians have begun speaking out against risking pension funds on political causes, for fear of limiting returns in a difficult investment climate. New York state and New York City public funds prohibit investing in new tobacco stocks, a policy that has drawn the ire of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, even though he is a zealous opponent of smoking. “I don’t think we should be using the city’s investment policies…to advance social goals, no matter how admirable those goals are and no matter how much I believe in it,” he has said.
Pensions are being dragged into treacherous waters by investors who consciously choose to direct their money in socially conscious ways. It’s a questionable risk for cautious times. The use of political criteria may be fine for affluent investors and activists who gamble their own money and assume the extra risk, but pension funds should be held to a higher standard.