Chris Burnham Commentary in Barron’s: ESG Investing Suffers a Setback in California

A funny thing happened recently in the left-leaning Golden State. In a board election last month, members of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or Calpers, the biggest pension fund in the nation, threw out their president and gave ESG investing a bloody nose.

ESG is the increasingly popular asset-management style that applies environmental, social, and governance standards to screen potential investments. Following this approach, an investor might avoid certain stocks or push shareholder proposals to modify corporate behavior. Unfortunately, they often favor hard-to-define social objectives rather than the narrower goal of maximizing shareholder returns.

In the vote, Jason Perez, a sergeant in the Corona, Calif., police department, upset board member Priya Mathur, a 15-year Calpers veteran, who was also board president and a champion of Calpers’ focus on ESG investing. The pension fund runs $351 billion for its 1.9 million members. Because of its size and stature, Calpers is among the most influential institutional investors in the U.S., and its policies are often adopted by other state pension funds.

Perez, who received 57% of the vote to Mathur’s 43%, ran a campaign that criticized her support for Calpers’ use of ESG, which goes back to at least 2012. Perez’s victory didn’t come as a surprise to those who bothered to look at Calpers’ mediocre recent returns. And that’s exactly what members seemed to have done…..

“We are reaching a crescendo of bad fund management meeting unfunded liabilities,” says Christopher Burnham, president of the Institute for Pension Fund Integrity. “Calpers members recognize this and reject those who are playing politics instead of getting the highest rate of return at a reasonable risk.”

Read the full article here.