Saturday, 30 June 2018

Politicised investment decisions

If you've spent any time trying to get pension funds to take account of labour issues, or any other social or environmental issue for that matter, at some stage you will have been on the receiving end of the need not to politicise investment decisions. Returns are paramount, and to focus on anything else would be a breach of fiduciary duty, absolutely not in beneficiaries' interests.

What then are we to make of the recent Court of Appeal decision that on the face of it upholds the Government's madcap scheme to require the Local Government Pension Scheme to invest in line with UK foreign policy? This is about as explicit as you can get in terms of political interference in investment decision-making.

The background to this is an attempt by the government to stop schemes from disinvesting from assets linked to Israel. Whatever your views on Palestine, this should trouble you. First, even if you agreed with the politics behind it (which I don't) it would be a planet-sized sledgehammer to crack a nut. There are very few schemes that have even considered disinvestment.

Second, as anyone who has looked at fiduciary duty will tell you, actually schemes are suppose to have quite a lot of freedom of movement provided that they approach their decisions in the right way. This intervention essentially goes in the other direction in seeking to instruct pension funds what decisions they should reach. What if investments linked to Israel, or any other country that we favour in foreign policy, perform badly? The government's approach seems to stray into taking certain decisions without considering beneficiary interest. I cannot see that surviving another well-argued legal challenge.

There's a slightly made element to it too. Assuming the current government wins the argument, what happens if it loses an election to a Corbyn-led government with a different policy in relation to Israel, including support for boycotts? What would investing in line with foreign policy look like then?

The whole idea deserves to be challenged, as I am sure it will be again.

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