Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Manage the commonwealth wisely: another way to change the world

Some of our older states have better names than our younger states. Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky are all, legally, commonwealths.

That's the right way to think about the $3 trillion in assets held by state and local pension funds. They are the commonwealth. That tremendous pool of wealth is deployed to finance some activities and not others.

What are we doing with our commonwealth?

As the world's wealth distribution gets more unequal (hurting our economy and lowering the median standard of living) and as a maniacal focus on short-term strategy by many business leaders leaves us hurtling ever closer to the point of no return for coastal-flooding, drought-creating climate change, we should be investing our commonwealth into those institutions that are pushing us in a more sustainable direction. Companies that are building and buying renewable energy should get our commonwealth, not those that are building and buying climate-change-causing energy. Companies that pay their top managers 400 times more than their lowest-paid workers should not be financed; companies that pay their lowest-paid workers a high wage with great benefits should.

I don't trust Wall Street money managers to use our commonwealth wisely. Their investments in private prisons, predatory lenders, mega-polluters and manufacturers of weapons of mass destruction make the world a worse place. How can we find better stewards of our commonwealth?

One tactic is legislative -- passing new state laws and local ordinances that regular how the commonwealth will be invested to create the Great Society -- more equal, more just, more prosperous, more peaceful. I suspect European nations have some of these laws on the books for their pension funds. I'd like to know more about that.

Another tactic is entrepreneurial -- join the team of pension fund managers as a consultant for using the commonwealth to advance the Great Society. Advise the pension funds how to vote on shareholder resolutions. Represent the pension funds as internal advocates within publicly-traded companies for longer-term strategies and sustainable business practices. Recruit candidates for corporate boards who will insist on raising pay for workers, not CEOs, and get them elected. Find smaller scale companies who need access to capital and devote part of the commonwealth to those entrepreneurs.

I don't think there are many money managers of pension funds (or the vastly greater pool of private wealth) who deliver services beyond promising the highest rate of return -- no matter the costs to society of extracting that wealth. There can't be many managers of wealth who can show they have invested their clients' money in companies that are responsible for high wages, renewable energy and increased general prosperity. I suspect there's an untapped demand for that. And if there isn't much of one today, we need to convince our elected representatives to hire more far-sighted managers of our commonwealth.

If you know of any good managers, please let me know.

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