Has the ever been a better time to subscribe to Reason Magazine?
Funds worth trillions of dollars start to plummet in value. Political pressure to be “socially responsible” distorts the market decisions of government-related enterprises, leading to risky investments. Investors who once considered their retirements safely protectedwake up to a sinking feeling of uncertainty and gloom.
State, local, and private pension plans covering millions of government employees and union workers with “defined benefit” accounts are teetering on the brink of implosion, victims of both a sinking stock market and investment strategies influenced by political considerations.
Many of these funds prospered in the 1990s, when the basic material stocks that they frowned upon swooned, while the favored sectors—mostly technology and financial stocks, which were considered “clean investments”—did great. But the technology and communications bust of 2000–02 knocked out one of SRI’s pillars, and now the crash in financial stocks has destroyed the other. Despite much hype to the contrary, socially responsible stocks, as measured by major broad-based SRI stock funds, have significantly underperformed the market this decade, and some of the most aggressive pension funds that use “responsible” screens—such as the California Public Employees’ Retirement System—have taken some of the largest hits.
As recently as mid-2008, three of the top eight holdings by the leading social investing organizations in the country were financial stocks: AIG, Bank of America, and Citigroup. AIG was praised for its retirement benefits and sexual diversity policies; Bank of America strove to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote diversity; and Citigroup donated money to schools and tied some of its loans to environmental guidelines. The stock prices of all three companies tanked in 2008.
The self-righteous are certainly getting a wake-up call, but taxpayers are the ones who will suffer as a result. This may be the best example of the "road to hell is paved with PC intentions."
The state’s pension fund meddling went into high gear in 1998 with the election of Phil Angelides as California treasurer. If there is a face to pension fund activism, it’s Angelides’. As political issues go, treasury and pension fund investments are not the sort of hot-button topics that ambitious California politicians usually ride to glory. But Angelides had a vision: to use retirement dollars as a way to change the world, and the state treasurer position became his tool.
Supported by labor unions and minority groups, Angelides argued that the state had too many billions stashed away in so-called emerging markets—Third World nations where democracy is weak and wages are low—and not enough invested at home creating jobs and housing. So in March 2000, he rolled out an ambitious social investing program, dubbed the Double Bottom Line, which included dumping $800 million in tobacco stocks and persuading fund managers to shed investments in countries that Angelides thought had questionable environmental or governance practices. He claimed the initiatives would not sacrifice investment returns, saying at the time: “I feel strongly that we wouldn’t be living up to our fiduciary responsibility if we didn’t look at these broader social issues. I think shareholders need to start stepping up and asserting their rights as owners of corporations. And this includes states and their pension funds.”
How has this social engineering worked out? Angelides left his job as state treasurer in 2006 for an unsuccessful run for governor, but his legacy of politicizing pension fund investing remains. In 2003 CalPERS rejected a recommendation from its financial adviser, Wilshire Associates, to invest in the equity markets of four Asian nations—Thailand, Malaysia, India, and Sri Lanka—based on their alleged misdeeds. That was a costly decision, as their stock markets roared in the ensuing years. Another decision to shun investment in China, India, and Russia cost the fund some $400 million in forsaken gains, according to the fund’s own 2007 internal report.
Some of the most steadily performing sectors, through both good and bad times, have been the very “vice” stocks that are no-nos for most social investors. When times get tough, the sinners get sinning. “Demand for drinking, smoking, and gambling remains pretty steady and actually increases during volatile times,” says Tom Glavin, chief investment officer at Credit Suisse First Boston. Alcohol, tobacco, and gambling stocks rallied solidly during two of the last three major recessions, in 1990 and 1982. “Many of these industry groups tend to be beneficiaries of the flaws of human character,” Glavin says.
So what stocks did the California funds buy instead? High on the list were financial stocks, which have been given a green bill of health by social investors. CalSTRS recently acknowledged it had lost hundreds of millions of dollars on Lehman Brothers, AIG, and other fallen icons that were recent favorites of social investors.
But those losses may pale when the tab comes due for misplaced bets on the boom-to-bust California real estate market. According to a report released last April, CalPERS had 25 percent of its $20 billion real estate assets in the California market, which has declined faster than the real estate markets in most of the rest of the country.
Large public pension funds have a selfish notion of risk: heads they win, tails you lose. If they gamble on risky investments that pay off, they are heroes, although the predetermined benefits don’t increase. But if those investments go south, tax dollars will have to bridge the gap. “This is adding insult to injury,” says Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “At the same time we’re seeing our own 401(k)s get hit, we’re on the hook to make up the shortfalls for public employees who are guaranteed their full pensions without any risk.”
When public funds slide in value, taxpayers get hit from all sides. The municipalities and school districts that hire firefighters, police, teachers, and other workers have to cut their staffs to recapitalize funds. Last October the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors learned that the county would have to come up with an extra $500 million to keep its pension fund whole. That means the county may have to raise local taxes and cut services to deliver on overextravagant promises it failed to safeguard.
The great Thomas Sowell wrote a column sometime last year with the title, "Stop Making a Difference" in reply to meddlers. I think someone should start listening.