CalPERS, CalSTRS try to apply vague Newsom order to investment decisions

California agencies are trying to figure out the implications of a vague executive order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September that orders many policy decisions to be made with the need to “mitigate climate change” kept in mind.

A recent Sacramento Bee story suggested that among the most vexed were the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, the two pension giants with estimated unfunded liabilities of $136 billion and $107 billion, respectively, according to 2018 data.

The Bee reported that while the Newsom administration wasn’t ordering CalPERS and CalSTRS to divest from firms involved in fossil fuel, it was requiring them to make new investment decisions that reflect “the increased risks to the economy and physical environment due to climate change.”

Newsom thinks fossil fuel companies are in trouble

This reflects the assumption of the Newsom administration that there will be a rapid shift away from fossil fuels – a view that many hedge funds, mutual funds and large institutional investors don’t share. Large energy corporations remain popular with their stock pickers despite global warming fears. And contrary to the idea that these companies are in decline, some investors see fracking continuing to increase oil production in the U.S. for years to come. Last week, for example, the Motley Fool investment website strongly recommended buying ExxonMobil in 2020, noting that its annual divided “has increased more than 100 percent over the past 10 years.”

Newsom’s edict is producing heartburn with some members of the CalPERS board. That’s because, as the Bee noted, “pension systems have a financial obligation to earn as much as cash as possible to provide retirement security for millions of government employees.”

Former Garden Grove Unified manager Margaret Brown, a CalSTRS critic who won election to the board in December 2017, wrote on Twitter that “unless the governor is willing to take even more $$$ from over-taxed California citizens, Newsom should step back.” 

Corona police Sgt. Jason Perez upset CalPERS Board President Priva Mathur in the October 2018 election after running a campaign that blasted Mathur and other trustees for not focusing solely on returns in their investment decisions.

But the CalPERS and CalSTRS boards have a history of using investments for decades to make political statements. In September, state Treasurer Fiona Ma – who sits on both boards – strongly endorsed such investment activism.

CalPERS quietly shifting from low-risk ‘passive investing’

That means CalPERS and CalSTRS executives are under heavy pressure to improve returns while making investments that can be defended as socially responsible.

The Naked Capitalism website reported in October that this pressure may have led to CalPERS making a major shift in investing part of its portfolio. Instead of traditional “passive equity investing” in index funds that track the S&P 500 or other large categories of stocks and emphasize diversified portfolios, CalPERS has begun to adopt a more aggressive “factor investing” approach that has a chance of generating bigger returns by focusing on industries with better prospects for short- and medium-term gains, among its many tenets. The approach is also somewhat riskier than using index funds.

Reporter Yves Smith wrote that this was a major shift in investment strategy on a par with “CalPERS’ renouncement of hedge funds” in 2014.

The website, which is run by veterans of the global financial industry, has broken a series of stories about CalPERS in recent years.

In August 2018, it revealed that CalPERS CEO Marcia Frost had misrepresented her academic background and didn’t have a college degree.

This August, it offered evidence that CalPERS was hiding a negative audit of its hiring practices that had been triggered in part by the agency’s failure to vet Frost’s claims.

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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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