Defining Public’s Interest

Charles Crumpley
Editor and Publisher of the San Fernando Valley Business Journal

If you read this newsletter, you probably know what it means to take on a fiduciary responsibility. That’s the duty to handle other people’s money responsibly, to invest it in a way that maximizes return and to put the investors’ interests ahead of the fiduciary’s interests.

But apparently California’s big public pension funds aren’t too acquainted with that definition. Instead, Calpers, the California Public Employees Retirement System, and Calstrs, the California State Teachers Retirement System, have been pushing their so-called socially responsible investment plans.

Several years ago, they stopped investing in countries that didn’t have labor unions and a free press. They dumped stocks in tobacco companies and businesses they didn’t think were “socially responsible.” Instead, they boosted investments in businesses they did like and real estate, much of it in California.

The decision to make the giant funds become socially responsible was pushed by then-state Treasurer Philip Angelides, a Democrat, in the dawn of this decade. Funny how the definition of “socially responsible” favored the friends of Democrats, who got beneficial funding, but punished the friends of Republicans, who got screwed.

But, as BusinessWeek recently reported, Angelides did receive one big return on his socially responsible investing scheme: a bounty of campaign contributions from real estate developers and money managers who got money from or who did business with the state pension funds.

Donations to Angelides included $25,000 from Victor MacFarlane, a San Francisco money manager who steered some of the state pension money into California real estate investments, and $13,500 from Forest City Enterprises, a developer that’s a partner with Calpers on a Koreatown condo building called the Mercury. Forest City recently reported an $8.2 million hit on that project, by the way.

No longer state treasurer, Angelides early this year joined Canyon Capital Realty Advisors of Beverly Hills. It invests money on behalf of Calpers and Calstrs.

Let me ask: Does it seem to you as if the “socially responsible” investing scheme put the interests of the state workers and teachers ahead of those entrusted to invest the money?

To be fair, the funds have performed well in recent years. Despite their self-imposed limits on what they can invest in, they’ve generally outperformed the benchmarks in past years. But, to be fair, they could have done much better had they not been slowed by the “socially responsible” yoke.

Calstrs last month revealed that $1 billion in would-be gains went up in smoke because it snuffed out its tobacco investments. Calpers left $400 million behind when it exited China and some other high-growth countries that it deemed unworthy of investment.

And their decision to emphasize California real estate could well bite them in the future. We already know that Calpers will likely take a big haircut on the nearly $1 billion it sunk in the development attempt at the Newhall Ranch in northern San Fernando Valley (an investment in which the aforementioned MacFarlane played a role).

Call me old fashioned, but I like it when money is invested in a detached, responsible way by those with a true fiduciary duty.

I’m not a fan of so-called socially responsible investing, which, at least in California, apparently is defined as political monkeying with billions of dollars of other people’s money.

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