RSF Social Finance: Making money, making change

Happy customers of Revolution Foods

Happy customers of Revolution Foods

If you have a few extra dollars in savings, and you’d like to earn more than 0.00001% interest or whatever it is your bank or money market fund is paying, and you’d like to support socially-conscious businesses, you’ll want to take a look at RSF Social Finance.

RSF Social Finance is a financial services organization of modest means (about $145 million in assets under management) that is bursting with big ideas and bold rhetoric. It calls itself “a leader in building the next economy.” It seeks to generate “social and spiritual renewal through investing, lending and giving,” Its mission is to “transform the way the world works with money.”

Whew. What’s going on here?

To find out, I visited RSF Social Finance’s offices in the Presidio complex in San Francisco last week to talk with Don Shaffer, the organization’s president and CEO.

At the simplest level, RSF looks and acts very much like a bank: Its flagship product, the Social Investment Fund, takes deposits and makes loans to so-called social enterprises, a term that’s widely (and often carelessly) thrown around to describe businesses or nonprofits whose intention is to improve society and the environment.

Deciding what qualifies as a social enterprise is subjective, at best. That said, the RSF Social Investment Fund supports companies and nonprofits that, by all appearances, do great work. Among them: [click to continue…]

Chevron. Sustainable. Really?

It’s not every day that one of the world’s biggest corporations files an ethics complaint against a little-known government official–in fact, if it’s happened before, I missed it–but that’s exactly what Chevron did last week in the state of New York.

The company accused Thomas DiNapoli, the state comptroller, who oversees the state’s pension fund, of accepting about $60,000 in campaign contributions from lawyers and supporters of people who are suing Chevron in Ecuador. The campaign donations, it is alleged, influenced DiNapoli to use his power as the trustee of  the pension fund, which owns Chevron stock, to push Chevron to settle the long-running, bitterly-fought lawsuit.

Imagine. Politicians being influenced by campaign donations.

Chevron would know about that. Last month, the company donated $2.5 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that supported House Republican candidates. The donation “appears to be the largest contribution from a publicly traded corporation to a political group” since the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling, The Washington Post reported. Chevron also spent nearly $15 million on Washington lobbying since the start of 2011, the Post said.

So…evidently, it’s fine for Chevron to lavish money on politicians but unethical for its opponents to do so.

As it happens, Chevron’s complaint against DiNapoli was not even the most surprising news about the company to surface last week. Even more unexpected was the announcement that Chevron was being added to the holdings of the NASDAQ OMX CRD Global Sustainability Index, a “benchmark for stocks of companies that are taking a leadership role in sustainability performance reporting.”

The NASDAQ CRD Index helps guide investors seeking companies that are more sustainable.  Just a few months ago, at the Rio + 20 confab, NASDAQ  and several other stock exchanges promised, along with the UN Global Compact, to “promote long-term, sustainable investment in their markets.”

But what does that mean when an index includes Chevron, America’s second-biggest oil company? [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…]

A low carbon mutual fund?

You want a car that gets good gas mileage and you want energy-efficient appliances (or at least I hope you do). But do you want a low-carbon investment portfolio?

The Green Century Balanced Fund is betting that you do. The Boston-based mutual fund says it is the first U.S.-based fund to disclose its carbon footprint, which is 66% less than the carbon intensity of the S&P500 Index.

GCFLogo

Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here. This isn’t an accounting of how much energy the mutual fund company uses in its offices or how often its staffers get on planes. It’s an analysis of the tons of carbon emissions per million dollars of revenue that are generated by the companies held by the Balanced Fund, compared to the firms in the S&P500.

Why would you care? Not merely because you want to invest in mutual funds and companies that are greener and cleaner than average (although, again, I hope you do) but because those funds and companies will over time outperform their peers—an arguable but much iffier proposition.

[click to continue…]