Monday, August 26, 2013

Payday loan pension scandal? Disinvest or engage?

I have been very critical about the Social Housing Pension Scheme (SHPS) on their decision to raise contributions to the scheme for what I think are "artificial" deficits.

Yet I think that industry magazine "Inside Housing" has got the wrong end of the stick about its front page story on Friday "Revealed - Pay Day Loan Pension Scandal".

The "Scandal" is that the £2.6 billion SHPS invests less than 1% of its money in rip off Pay Day loan providers as does the Cheshire Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS)

My view on this are similar to the post I made about the similar pickle the Church of England Pension fund found itself in last month.

Pay Day lenders have "despicable business model based on ripping off its vulnerable customer base but hey, "welcome to capitalism", this is what happens when you get poor corporate governance of a company coupled with wholly inadequate state regulation.....engagement by responsible investors with the companies they own is key".

Pension Scheme trustees have a fiduciary duty to run funds in the interests of beneficiaries.  They have an obligation to take advice from their professional advisers on where they should invest beneficiaries money.

To ignore this advice there is very slippery legal and practical slope if you decide to call for disinvestment on "ethical grounds". If you are a Muslim then you would probably want to call for disinvestment in all companies that lend money for interest (its all "usury"). So no investment in any banks or insurance companies then? If you are a vegetarian or vegan you would be unhappy in any investment in companies that take part in the production and sale of meat. So no investment in supermarkets or shopping centres?

Teetotallers would object to companies that sell alcohol, animal rights activists would object to investments in pharmaceuticals and environmentalists would not want their money in oil companies or mines. I can go on and on - but I think you get the picture.

What all pension trustees should be doing is making sure that they and their fund managers engage with all the companies that they own to try and ensure that they are socially responsible.  SHPS should be working with other pension funds to firstly in private, try and change pay day loan business models. If (and when) this fails then they should instructing their fund managers to vote out the company Board and Executive team at the next AGM.

Now, I am currently unclear whether SHPS do any engagement? I am not sure either about the quote in "Inside Housing" from Cheshire LGPS that  they do "not operate a socially responsible investment policy". Since it is clear from their statement of Investment Principles that they do (if appropriate) - and they are members of the Local Authority Pension Fund Forum (LAPFF), who are very well known for their active engagement with companies on a whole range of socially responsible investment issues.

I think that the key development in pension fund governance in recent years is the rising (not total) acceptance that you will in the long run get better returns from investing in well managed and responsible companies and that trustees have a duty as owners to try and ensure the companies they invest in act in this way.

The real "scandal" of Pay Days loans is the failure of successful governments (including Labour) to properly regulate the sector. Hopefully the next government will sort this out. In the meantime the SHPS, the Pensions Trust, the LGPS and all the Pension funds in the Community and Voluntary sector ought to be working together to bring about meaningful change in the companies they own.
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