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June 11, 2019

What They’re Saying: Don’t Let Divestment Politics Hurt Pension Funds

It’s the workers benefitting from pension funds who are often the ones lost in the divestment debate. They rely on robust returns from those funds to support their retirement and maintain financial independence. Thankfully, amid the political back-and-forth, a retired firefighter from New York brings the focus back to where it belongs: the workers and the fund’s fiduciary responsibility to provide the best possible returns.

In a column published by The Buffalo News, Richard Browner, a retired officer of the Fire Department of New York, says, “State pension funds shouldn’t be captive to politics.”

Browner, also a former vice chairman of the New York City Fire Department’s Pension Fund, writes:

“As a lifelong New Yorker and retired officer of the Fire Department of New York, I believe in empowering fiduciaries to make the best decisions for the funds without the influence of politics. By cutting investments that have generated more than $4 billion over the past decade, the Senate bill would force DiNapoli to abdicate his fiduciary responsibility, which stands independent of political and social opinions.”

Workers should be the priority of a pension fund, not politics, says Browner:

“New York must recognize the futility of divestment and its ineffectiveness for urging change. It only hurts retirees and local economies. Fellow pensioners, retirees and taxpayers must demand separation between political opinions and public pension management. Politicians should not jeopardize our hard-earned retirement and a healthy economy because of a political agenda.”

Additionally, Browner states how divestment is misguided approach to tackling climate change:

“During an April 2019 hearing on the bill, New York State Common Retirement Fund’s interim chief investment officer, Anastasia Titarchuk, explained the benefits of the fund having a strong diversification strategy – which also includes $10 billion in its sustainable investment program. She called divestment a ‘blunt instrument that does not actually address the greatest [climate change] risks …’

“Beyond divestment posing a threat to New York’s workforce and retirees, it hasn’t been proved that it fights climate change. An issue brief from the Institute for Pension Fund Integrity (for which I am an advisory board member) explores this topic, showing that divestment doesn’t necessarily force a company to change its actions.”

Thankfully for Browner and his fellow retirees in New York, the state has so far rejected calls for divestment. New York Comptroller Tom DiNapoli once again this week stated his opposition to divestment while releasing a report to increase select “sustainable investments” and engagement efforts.

Previously, DiNapoli’s colleague in New York, the fund’s interim Chief Investment Officer Anastasia Titarchuck, has called divestment unconstitutional, costly, and in violation of the Comptroller’s fiduciary duty.

There is a consensus among both the leaders of pensions funds and New York workers that divestment won’t benefit retirees or help the environment. Upstate politicians should listen.