While the U.S. stock market has produced one of the longest and strongest bull runs in its history over the past nine years, the financial condition of many of the country’s 6,000 or so state and municipal pension funds has deteriorated. Some are in bad shape.
Yet, even as these pension funds grapple with a huge deficit, $1.4 trillion as of 2016, the drumbeat for exiting investments in certain industries—oil, coal, arms, even car companies—goes on. Should pensions, particularly underfunded ones, make investment decisions based on political litmus tests rather than follow the standard fiduciary duty to make the best returns possible with the least risk?
There’s a strong argument to ignore the calls for divestment, which limit a fund’s diversification. Sectors go up and down in the business cycle, and a portfolio permanently eschewing a key sector—like energy, for example—will likely suffer underperformance through the added risk of loss of diversification across the market’s sectors.
Despite big fluctuations in oil prices over the years, the energy sector of the Standard & Poor’s 500 index is up 159% to date since the end of 1999, third-best out of 11 sectors and similar to the 158% rise in crude prices. Technology? Up 43% over that period, second to last. In late 2016, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (Calpers) said its exit from some tobacco stocks in 2000 reduced portfolio returns by $3 billion from 2001 to 2014. Diversification pays.