CalPERS pressed to divest from energy firms, banks

After years of criticism, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System made headlines in December when its board voted to lower the expected rate of return on investments from 7.5 percent to 7 percent over the next three years. The move was billed by board members as a responsible reaction to years of unrealistic projections followed by unimpressive returns.

But on another front, CalPERS continues to defy critics who say the giant pension agency should focus like a laser on achieving strong returns instead of using investments to make political statements.

Early last year, the CalPERS board rejected a staff recommendation that it resume investing in tobacco stocks after a 16-year moratorium. The board not only rejected that advice, in December, it broadened the ban to include more companies with ties to the tobacco industry.

Now a freshman lawmaker from Silicon Valley – California’s first Indian-American state lawmaker – is pushing for a bill with the potential to cause billions of dollars in investment losses for CalPERS.

Assemblyman Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, launched his legislative career by introducing Assembly Bill 20, which would require CalPERS and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System to sell all their investments in companies involved in building the disputed Dakota Access pipeline. For CalPERS, this divestment would start with the forced sale of about 1 million shares of Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s primary builder, a Dallas-based Fortune 500 firm.

Divestment would not prevent Dakota pipeline’s construction

The Army Corps of Engineers has given its final approval to the project. As such, critics say Kalra’s bill – if enacted – would amount to a costly gesture of disapproval that achieved nothing beyond signaling the state of California’s allegiance with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and environmentalists who have protested the pipeline plan.

CalPERS staff strongly opposed Kalra’s proposal, sayings such a forced divestment would yield losses of at least $4 billion. CalSTRS has no estimate of the cost yet.

The toll is so heavy on CalPERS because the ban would be so broad, applying not just to energy firms and their contractors but to the banks that financed the 1,100-mile project. Many of these banks have otherwise excellent relationships with California businesses and government agencies.

Despite staff concerns, last week, the CalPERS board took its first step toward an activist position on the project. It called on Energy Transfer Partners to choose a new route away from Indian land, echoing the concerns’ offered by opponents. A CalPERS statement warned that without a route change, it was possible that there could be “escalation of conflict and unrest as well as possible contamination of the water supply.” This, CalPERS said, could lead to a costly public backlash against the banks.

Kalra praised CalPERS’ statement but said he would continue pushing his bill. He depicted the state government as a “significant investor in the Dakota Access Pipeline” that should take steps to “respect the sovereign rights of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and raise awareness on the environmental impacts” the project would have on tribe lands.

Trump’s OK of Dakota project could affect state Democrats’ view

CalPERS, which has a portfolio last officially estimated at $309 billion, prefers lobbying the companies it invests in to change their policies rather than make divestment threats. Some coverage of the statement from last week suggested this was just such a measured step, not a first sign of weakened opposition to Kalra’s bill.

But how CalPERS deals with Kalra’s legislation could become caught up in the rhetorical war between state leaders and the Trump administration, which cleared the way for a project blocked by the Obama soon after Donald Trump was sworn in Jan. 20.

State leaders’ eagerness to cast themselves as enemies of Trump has been the target of mockery by Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, who questions how this will help California deal with its many problems.

But Trump’s hardline position on immigration and embrace of fossil fuels continues to infuriate state Democrats. In a state in which Trump lost in November by more than 4.2 million votes, the downside to opposing him at every turn seems minimal.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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