‘Wokeness’ of portfolio depends on the state for public pension plans

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered an emphatic attack on ESG in an Aug. 23 news release that accompanied the action by the trustees of the Florida State Board of Administration. “Corporate power has increasingly been utilized to impose an ideological agenda on the American people through the perversion of financial investment priorities under the euphemistic banners of environmental, social and corporate governance and diversity, inclusion and equity,” he said.

In July, the governor announced proposals for the 2023 legislative session that would prohibit the State Board of Administration from considering ESG factors in making investments and require SBA fund managers “to only consider maximizing the return on investment on behalf of Florida’s retirees,” the governor’s news release said.

Other states have taken different steps to put public pension plan executives and other state officials on notice.

Last month, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar identified BlackRock Inc. as one of 10 financial companies that he has determined boycotts energy companies.

Mr. Hegar is implementing a 2021 state law that restricts state agencies and public pension funds from investing in such companies.

“The environmental, social and corporate governance movement has produced an opaque and perverse system in which some financial companies no longer make decisions in the best interest of their shareholders or their clients, but instead use their financial clout to push a social and political agenda shrouded in secrecy,” Mr. Hegar said in an Aug. 24 news release.

The law covers the $199.9 billion Texas Teacher Retirement System; $44 billion Texas County & District Retirement System; $40 billion Texas Permanent School Fund; $37 billion Texas Municipal Retirement System; $39.6 billion Texas Employees Retirement System; and the $116 million Texas Emergency Services Retirement System, all based in Austin.

The law also contains a caveat: A state government entity isn’t affected if it “determines that the requirement would be inconsistent with its fiduciary responsibility with respect to the investment of entity assets or other duties imposed by law relating to the investment of entity assets.”

In Kentucky, Attorney General Daniel Cameron issued an opinion in May that even though “asset owners may pursue a social purpose” to achieve an ESG goal, “investment managers entrusted to make financial investments for Kentucky’s public pension systems must be single-minded in their motivation and actions.”

Declaring that “politics has no place in Kentucky’s public pensions,” Mr. Cameron said “‘stakeholder capitalism'” and “‘environmental, social, and governance'” investment practices that introduce mixed motivations to investment decisions are inconsistent with Kentucky law governing fiduciary duties owed by investment management firms to Kentucky’s public pension plans.”

In March, Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed the Disfavored State Investments Act, which said no public entity engaged in investment activities should consider ESG factors “in a manner that could override the prudent investor rule.” The law, which took effect July 1, defined a disfavored investment as one that is “against the public policy” of the state “by statute, concurrent resolution or executive order.”

The law also said a public entity “serving as a fiduciary to select investment options for investors may offer environmental, social and governance preferred investment alternatives, but such investments shall not be required and sufficient alternatives must be offered.”

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