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INPRS ‘ahead of schedule’ on China divestment, laying anti-ESG investment framework


INPRS ‘ahead of schedule’ on China divestment, laying anti-ESG investment framework

Sep 22, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
INPRS ‘ahead of schedule’ on China divestment, laying anti-ESG investment framework
Lawmakers cracked down on what they considered "dangerous" and "woke" investments. (Getty Images)

Indiana’s Public Retirement System (INPRS) says it’s “ahead of schedule” in pulling out of its Chinese investments after lawmakers approved a ban in May.

And it’s putting together a compliance strategy for a separate ban on controversial ESG investment strategies.

“We very much realize and respect the policy wishes of the Legislature and so we’ve been working diligently to move as quickly as possible,” INPRS Executive Director Steve Russo told an interim pensions-focused committee Wednesday.

Following through

The Indiana Public Retirement System has nearly 530,000 members from more than 13,000 public employers across the state. It manages more than $46.6 billion on their behalf.

The system had $1.2 billion invested in China at the beginning of the year, with $486 million falling under a new ban in Senate Enrolled Act 268. Now it’s trying to comply.

Senate Enrolled Act 268:

“The People’s Republic of China has both the motivation and capability to interfere with and impose economic, political, or military harm on the United States and its people.

Economic support for and investment in Chinese entities unnecessarily increase the risk to the security and welfare of the United States and the people of Indiana.

The threat from these entities constitutes the extraordinary circumstances necessary for mandatory divestment by the system of the fund holdings in restricted entities and restricted investment products.”

The legislation requires INPRS to divest from any entities on a variety of federal lists of Chinese companies that do military or intelligence work, or that are controlled by the Chinese government and its ruling political party.

The system must divest from 50% of any holding within three years of discovering a banned connection to China, 75% within four years, and 100% by five years.

“I’m happy to report we’ve been marching along — I’ll show you numbers here — to the extent that I would call it ahead of schedule,” Russo told the committee.

As of late March, INPRS had 486 investments subject to divestment, and 711 that were excluded. By late July, the number of investments covered by the law was down to 40.

Russo said the system was “purposely timing” its departure from the remaining 40 to “minimize the impact on the fund.” But he’s expecting it’ll be zero by late next June.

INPRS, he said, aimed to comply in a “practical way, and an efficient way, without significantly impacting the fund.”

System leaders previously said the proposal could increase the volatility of INPRS’ portfolio, though they anticipated little long-term impact.

‘Bureaucratic red tape’

INPRS is also working on a framework for a more complex ban on ESG investing, the culture war-entrenched investment method that takes into account the environmental, social and governmental effects of decisions.

Supporters says it’s basic risk management, but the method’s detractors say it brings “woke” non-financial factors into decisions that should be about dollars and cents.

In its final version, House Enrolled Act 1008 bans INPRS’ board from using ESG criteria in investment decision-making, and the system itself from contracting current and future investment managers that have made “ESG commitments.” INPRS must replace the manager with an alternative that delivers “comparable” financial results.

Pro- or anti-capitalism? Lawmakers finalize anti-ESG pension investing bill

The legislation charges the state treasurer with creating and publishing a list of investment managers who make those commitments. The treasurer must provide the manager’s name and evidence backing up the claim to INPRS’ board for a final decisions. If the system can’t find a comparable alternative, it must make that decision and supporting evidence public.

“We are very close to wrapping up all the details of the process with the treasurer’s office on exactly how this is going to work,” Russo said.

INPRS will likely go public with its plans at a board meeting this fall, Russo added. Once the board adopts the process, the system will start following it.

Some are still skeptical.

“Does the anti-ESG legislation that we passed essentially just add bureaucratic red tape to what you’re after?” asked Rep. Kyle Miller, D-Fort Wayne, referring to INPRS’ goal of delivering the best financial returns.

“I would say generally, yes,” Russo responded. “We’ve had, in the past, a very strong process that we went through to make those decisions on who we invested with, based on a strong fiduciary standard.”

“And I would say, yes, in the end, that legislation — you know, I’m not here to criticize in any way — but it is extra work that we’ll need to go through to … justify those decisions that we make,” Russo continued.

The legislation at one point had a staggering price tag of $6.7 billion over 10 years, but wholesale changes reduced that $5.5 million over that period, and then further down.

Russo estimated Wednesday that compliance would cost about $500,000. That’s because INPRS had to add new employees to its investment and stewardship teams to administer the requirements.