Over the last 20 years, public pension funds have grown nearly sevenfold – to more than $2 trillion nationwide, outpacing private-sector fund growth by more than one-third and making them tremendously powerful in boardrooms across the country.
Why do they want to meddle? Because they can. Although private-sector fund managers focus on picking lucrative investments – because that’s how they get paid – public fund trustees have different incentives. Sure, they want funds to perform well. But if they don’t, they know that taxpayers will make up the shortfall. So they’re free to pursue political objectives.
Public funds first discovered their political strength in the mid-1980s, when they successfully pressured companies with business in South Africa to lobby against apartheid or to withdraw from that nation. For years, activist pension funds focused on broad-brush issues like apartheid. They didn’t meddle with corporate management.
But the public funds have taken the corporate scandals of the Enron era as a license to step up their interference with corporate boards. "The age of investor complacency must be replaced by a new era of investor democracy," said Phil Angelides, California treasurer and a member of the board of CalPERS, the state’s main pension fund.
Read more here. Tomorrow I will consider the more general question of whether we should trust our federal government to invest social security funds in private equities.