Should “green” funds invest in fossil fuels?

Bill McKibben’s groundbreaking Rolling Stone story (Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math) and 350.org’s “Do the Math” divestment campaign raise important and difficult questions about fossil fuels. One that is starting to roil the world of socially-responsibly investing is this: How should mutual funds that strive to be “green” or “sustainable” or “socially responsible” deal with the fossil fuel companies in their portfolios? Should they divest, as McKibben argues?

That was the topic of a column I wrote last week for the Guardian Sustainable Business, which generated some noteworthy responses. It’s part of the British newspaper The Guardian, which has one of the most popular English language media websites in the world. Here’s how the column begins:

“We’re going after the fossil fuel industry,” Bill McKibben tells about 1,800 cheering fans in a Washington, DC, theatre. “They’re trying to wreck the future, so we’re going after some of their money.”

Al Gore notwithstanding, McKibben – an author, academic and founder of the grassroots climate group 350.org – is America’s leading environmental activist. His 21-city Do The Math tour begins a campaign to persuade colleges, churches, foundations and governments to divest their holdings in coal, oil and natural gas companies.

“It does not make sense,” McKibben tells the Washington audience, “to invest my retirement money in a company whose business plan means that there won’t be an earth to retire on.”

He’s right about that, but the divestment campaign raises a thorny question: where can investors who worry about climate change put their money?

Divest for our Future, 350.org’s divestment website, recommends “environmentally and socially responsible funds“. The trouble is, the biggest and best-known mutual funds that call themselves environmentally and socially responsible also invest in fossil fuel companies. They evidently haven’t heard McKibben’s message.

Is this green?

The column–you can read the rest here–goes on to report that the Parnassus Equity Income Fund  holds about 14% of its assets in oil, natural gas companies and electric utilities that burn fossil fuels, that the TIAA-CREF Social Choice Equity Fund owns shares in dozens of oil and gas firms including Hess, Marathon and Sunoco, and a pair of shale gas giants, Devon Energy and Range Resources, that the Calvert Equity Portfolio  has about 10% of its portfolio in fossil fuels, including  Suncor, which says on its website that it was “the first company to develop the oil sands, creating an industry that is now a key contributor to Canada’s prosperity,” and that the Domini Social Equity Fund has, among its top 10 holdings, Apache Corp, an oil and gas exploration and production company.

Are you surprised to learn that these funds invest in oil and gas companies, including those in the Canadian Tar Sands? Perhaps naively, I was. [click to continue…]

Social funds and BP: How embarrassing!

bp_logo_color.180105622If you are a shareholder in a so-called socially responsible or sustainable mutual fund, you may also be an owner of  BP, the company responsible for the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

When BP’s oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded on April 20, the company was a major holding of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index–which calls itself an index of “the leading sustainability-driven companies worldwide.”

BP was also held by Pax World Funds (“sustainable investing is a better smarter, way to invest”), by the MMA International Fund, which is part of a fund group that is “guided by Christian values,” and by the Legg Mason Social Awareness Fund, which, as of March 31, had BP as its single biggest holding.

These are not anomalies. When Cary Krosinsky, an editor of a book called Sustainable Investing: The Art of Long Term Performance, tallied up the holdings of about 350 socially responsible investment (SRI) funds from around the world, he found that at the end of 2008, BP was the second biggest holding, in terms of how much money the funds had collectively invested. The five biggest holdings were Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Nokia, Vodafone and HSBC Holdings.

Does this look "sustainable" to you?

Does this look "sustainable" to you?

What’s more, BP and Shell aren’t the only oil companies held by the social funds. The biggest holding of a mutual fund called the Sentinel Sustainable Core Opportunities Fund–which says it “screens for fundamentally strong, well-managed companies with sustainable business models and a commitment to corporate responsibility”– was, as of March 31, believe it or not….Transocean, the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor, which operated the Deepwater Horizon rig for BP.

While no mutual fund manager could have foreseen the oil rig explosion, you’ve got to wonder how a fund with the word sustainable in its name could have as its biggest holding an offshore oil drilling company. I emailed Sentinel to try to probe their reasoning a bit. You won’t be surprised to hear that they declined to be interviewed.

So what does the BP-SRI connection tell you? At the very minimum, it suggest that any investor in a mutual fund that calls itself socially responsible, sustainable, green, blue or any other color would do well to dig deep beneath the magazine ads and website fluff to understand what the fund is really all about. (Disclosure: I’m a small investor in Calvert and Domini Funds, and a believer in the SRI idea.) Some SRI funds still focus on feel-good, negative screens that shield investors from weapons, tobacco and alcohol, and don’t get much more analytical than that. (See Socially Responsible Investing’s Silly Screens) [click to continue…]

How to be a HIP Investor

R. Paul Herman

R. Paul Herman

Make money by making the world a better place.

What’s not to like about that? So appealing is the idea of doing well by doing good that a significant slice of the financial services industry is devoted to persuading people that they can invest with their values without sacrificing returns. That’s what so-called socially responsible mutual funds are all about.

R. Paul Herman, the founder and CEO of an investment advisory firm called HIP Investor, goes a step further:  He argues that companies that are leaders in sustainability and corporate responsibility are likely to outperform their peers. Those companies can be identified by using publicly-available data, he says. So by constructing an index of big companies, and investing more money into the better companies and less into the not-so-good, Herman says he both promote good corporate behavior and make money for his investors.

HIP stands for Human Impact plus Profit, Herman explained today during a talk at the  Kenan Flagler business school at the University of North Carolina. (I’m in Chapel Hill for a couple of days, participating in a conference called Global Innovations in Energy organized by Kenan Flagler’s Center for Sustainable Enterprise.) I interviewed Herman, who gave a talk about HIP investing and his brand-new book, called The HIP Investor: Make Bigger Profits by Building a Better World. He’s a personable, 41-year-old Wharton grad who did a stint at McKinsey and worked at Ashoka.org and the Omidyar Network before starting HIP.

The core of his argument, as expressed on the HIP website, goes like this:

Our world of more than six billion people faces many human problems that need solutions, many of which can be served by companies.  By solving these human needs profitably through products and services (from Walmart’s $4 generic drug program to ICICI Bank’s micro-loans to Vestas’s wind turbines), a company can benefit customers, inspire employees, engage suppliers,  and deliver sustainable profitable growth for its investors.

Well, sure. Like many, I believe that Herman’s fundamental investing thesis makes sense.  I wrote it right into my bio: “Companies that make the world a better place—by serving their customers, their workers and their communities—will deliver superior results to their owners in the long run.”

The challenge for an investor comes in identifying those better companies and deciding whether they are fairly priced by the market. [click to continue…]

Fidelity, Vanguard and the genocide in Darfur

Recently, I voted in a contested election with repercussions for a big Islamic nation. (No, not Iran.) As a shareholder in mutual funds run by Vanguard and Fidelity, I voted to ask both mutual fund companies to sell their holdings in companies doing substantial business with Sudan, and thereby helping to finance the genocide in the Darfur region.

If you own stocks or mutual funds, this is the time of year when shareholder proxy ballots arrive in the mail, usually accompanied by pages of small print asking you to change the corporate bylaws or “elect” a slate of directors who have already been chosen. They’re boring and easy to ignore.

This year, however, shareholders of Vanguard, Fidelity and other mutual fund groups should keep an eye out for the important shareholder proposals about genocide on the ballot. These proposals don’t mentions Sudan because they are broader in scope. They ask but the funds to refrain from investing in companies that “substantially contribute to genocide or crimes against humanity.”
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Perhaps surprisingly, Vanguard and Fidelity both recommend a “no” vote on the proposals.

“They don’t want to have limits on where they invest,” says Eric Cohen, the co-founder of Investors Against Genocide, a volunteer organization that got both proposals on the ballot.

Cohen, a retired tech executive, is a soft-spoken and usually understated guy but he says this of Vanguard and Fidelity: “Their lack of due diligence connects their customers to the very worst companies in the world.”

The Investors Against Genocide website puts it this way:

Looking back, who would support the idea of investing in firms that sought to make a profit by selling Zyklon-B gas to the Nazis or machetes for the genocide in Rwanda? Looking forward, who wants their personal savings and pension funds invested in companies that help fund genocide?

Investors Against Genocide was formed in January, 2007. (I wrote one of the first stories about the group, under the headline Fidelity’s Sudan Problem, for CNNmoney.com.) By then, campus activists had persuaded the endowment managers at Harvard, Yale and Stanford to sell stocks of companies that were doing business with the government of Sudan, which is responsible for the genocide that has now taken the lives of an estimated 300,000 people in the Darfur region. (Another 2.7 million have been forced out of their homes.) Pension funds in half a dozen states, including California, had also agreed to divest.
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