Investment Practices of State and Local Pension Funds: Implications for Social Security Reform
The investment practices of public pension funds have become a topic of major interest in the wake of proposals to invest a portion of the Social Security Trust Funds in equities. Both supporters and opponents of the proposal point to the performance of public plans to argue their case. Supporters cite the success of Federal plans, particularly the Federal Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which has avoided picking individual stocks by investing in a stock index and has steered clear of projects with less than market returns. Divestiture of stocks for social or political reasons has also not been a problem, and TSP has avoided government intervention in the private sector since individual portfolio managers vote the proxies. Opponents of Social Security Trust Fund investment in equities point to state and local pension funds. They contend that state and local pensions often undertake investments that sacrifice return to achieve political or social goals, divest stocks to demonstrate that they do not support some perceived immoral or unethical behavior, and intervene in corporate activity. Opponents claim that if Social Security’s investment options were broadened, Congress would use the Trust Fund money for similar unproductive activities. An important question is the extent to which allegations about state and local plans are true.
This comprehensive review yields the following conclusions. First, economically targeted investments account for no more than 2.5 percent of total state and local holdings. Although early studies showed plans sacrificing considerable return for targeting their investments to in–state activities, recent survey data reveal no adverse impact on returns as a result of the current small amount of ETI activity. Second, public plans in only three states have seriously engaged in shareholder activism, and this activism appears to have been motivated by a desire to improve the bottom line not to make a political statement. The literature suggests that this activity has had a negligible to positive impact on returns. Third, the only significant divestiture that has occurred was related to companies doing business in South Africa before 1994. This was a unique situation where worldwide consensus among industrial nations led to a global ban on investment in that country. With respect to tobacco, public plans have generally resisted divestiture, and only a few have actually sold their stock. Finally, state and local governments have borrowed occasionally from their pension funds or reduced their contributions in the wake of budget pressures, but this activity has been restrained by the courts and frequently reversed. In short, the story that emerges at the state and local level is that while in the early 1980s some public plans sacrificed returns for social considerations, plan managers have become much more sophisticated. Today, public plans appear to be performing as well as private plans.