STUMP » Articles » Divestment and ESG Follies: Where's My Dark Money? » 28 April 2019, 14:32

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Divestment and ESG Follies: Where's My Dark Money?  


28 April 2019, 14:32

Not only divestment.

But yes, a lot of divestment.

Harvard Activists Call for Fossil Fuel Divestment

Harvard University students, faculty, and alumni marked Earth Day by kicking of a week of climate-related rallies and calling on the university’s $39.2 billion endowment to eliminate fossil fuel-related companies from its investment portfolio.

Divest Harvard, a fossil fuel divestment advocacy group began this year’s “Heat Week” with a press conference in a Cambridge, Mass., hotel where the group invited alumni, faculty, and environmental advocates to pressure the university to divest from fossil fuels.

So, here’s a question: how do the Harvardians stay warm in the winter?

Just curious.

In a March interview with student newspaper The Harvard Crimson, Bacow reiterated Harvard’s policy against divestment, saying the endowment is not, has never been, and should not be a vehicle for social change.

“The endowment exists to support the institution, to support our students, and to support our faculty,” Bacow said. “And it was on those terms that our donors have entrusted the resources to us. They’ve said here, here are these resources which we want you to invest to support these activities—not to accomplish some other ends.”

And this week in an emailed statement to the Crimson, university spokesperson Jonathan Swain reiterated Harvard’s stance on the issue.

“The university’s position, as it has stated previously, is that it should not use the endowment to achieve political ends, or particular policy ends,” Swain wrote.

Yup, the people with actual fiduciary duty tell the activists to go blow.


The Dark-Money Lobbying Group Going After Pension Funds


Enter the Institute for Pension Fund Integrity.

The impressively named group began its campaign to “keep politics out of pension funds” roughly a year ago, launching in April 2018. Since then IPFI has released several white papers covered by Reuters, Barron’s, Institutional Investor, and other mainstream publications. It has submitted reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission roundtable and targeted specific U.S. public funds, including New Jersey’s and Washington State’s.

Founder Christopher Bancroft Burnham claims that IPFI is working to depoliticize pension funds and make performance information more accessible.

But in practice the organization primarily attacks divestment initiatives and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programs. The information it publishes on public funds is frequently rife with errors and seemingly self-serving data. And for someone striving to make pensions nonpartisan, Burnham has deep political ties. He served on President Donald Trump’s transition team in 2016, and was recently subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee as part of its investigation into potential abuses of power and illicit campaign activities.


How about the “dark money groups” that back these divestment pushes?

Could we hear a little about those, hmm?

(Also, none of that sweet sweet “dark money” ever comes my way. The main reason, of course, is I’m such a sucker that I do this crap for free.)

I want to point out something that automatically makes my antennae raise:

Robben’s pension fund has been on the receiving end of inaccurate IPFI information. According to the nonprofit’s website, “The Kentucky State Retirement System [sic] saw its funded liabilities drop from 16 percent in 2016 to just 13.6 percent funded in 2017. The prospects for fiscal year 2018 are even more dismal, as rate of return on investments are [sic] still too optimistic at 7 percent.”

Hmmm. Two instances of what I call the “asshole [sic]”. Given the damn thing is in quotes, why [sic] at all?

First, [sic] is a bit obscure to many people. The point is “yes, we really copied over something verbatim, and the mistake we want you to make sure to notice was in the original source.” Except, if you put the stuff in quotes, and you link to the original source, my assumption is that obviously the text was copied exactly. The whole point of the [sic] is to highlight some kind of mistake.

If you’re scratching your head over what is being [sic]ed, first, the official name of the system is the Kentucky Retirement Systems, and the second is a noun-verb mismatch — it should be “the rate of return on investments is still too optimistic”

A legitimate use of [sic] is when there can be a confusion that comes from the copied text — but in general, using [sic] is an asshole move. Indeed, I dug through my own posts, and found two prior uses – one where I [sic]ed NBC news, which should have editors, dammit, and one where I said I’d correct the quoted text without a [sic].

Says Robben by phone, “We changed that a year ago. The assumed rate of return for the plan that we mentioned here is 5.25 percent, which I’m pretty sure is the lowest in the country.”

So… you’re bitching that the group is not keeping up with a really recent change?

Also, I am extremely skeptical of this claim.

Let’s check the actuarial valuation from October 2018, and…. I find there’s two valuation rates. For non-hazardous, it’s 5.25%. For hazardous (like police), it’s 6.25%. Mind you, these are fairly low compared to other plans. It’s the lowest among state plans, yes.

The IPFI website’s dedicated page on Kentucky seemingly once linked to a full IPFI report on the retirement system, which has since been taken offline. This is one of many instances of outdated or false information appearing live on the website, where many links to its supposed sources are broken.

Well, this kind of lets me know that they’re not spending much (any) money on editors, etc.

I wonder if there’s much money at all behind Burnham’s efforts. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is just a jumped-up version of me, in that he’s self-funding his little project. He’s running the thing out of his business office, and he’s obviously a lot richer than me and has much more important connections than I have.

I think it’s hilarious. I bet this “dark money” is just Burnham himself.

Oh, and it’s “dark money” funding STUMP! As in, I’m paying for the hosting fees, and Stu bought me this domain back in 1999, and I make chump change in Amazon fees:

Oooh, I’m in the money…


Now, maaaaybe there’s a shady big dark money source for Burnham. I think they assume that because there definitely are big money sources backing all sorts of divestment pushes.

Tom Steyer is a big name in leftist dark money circles, and he’s all-in on fossil fuel divestment.

President Trump’s abandonment of America’s global role on climate change means cities and states must lead the way. San Francisco can claim the mantle of leadership and set an example for the world by divesting its pension funds from fossil fuels.

Wednesday, the San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System’s pension board will decide the issue. As someone who spent 30 years in the investment world, I believe the choice is clear: Divestment is the right thing to do, and it’s financially smart. I speak from experience as someone who decided to divest almost five years ago. It feels right and it pays well.

Steyer is using his own money for this, as far as I can tell. He’s super rich. But maaaaaybe there’s nefarious dark money players behind him!

Or, maybe, it’s just some very rich individuals spending money on their own hobby causes.

Burnham is getting out there saying “hey, that’s not your money to play with — consider fiduciary duty”.

Steyer is saying “yes, it’s fiduciary duty… and given the likely trajectory of fossil fuel returns, these institutional investors should divest.”

Neither is particularly a nefarious point of view.

I can see fossil fuels eventually going the way of whale oil, but who knows?

In many cases, the investment horizon of these pension plans is not 200 years (though they pretend to go out that far. That’s absurd).

It would be really interesting to do a study looking at how long particular assets are in pension plan funds. Do they hold onto a stock for decades? Or is the turnover about every ten years? Would be really interesting to know.


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