Anti-ESG Bill in North Carolina Will Ensure Tarheel State Pension Funds Invested Appropriately

Legislation in the North Carolina House of Representatives (HB 750) would combat environmental, social and governance (ESG) scoring systems and ensure state pension funds are invested solely to achieve the maximum return on investment for pensioners, rather than advancing social or political causes that may likely lead to lower returns and financial underperformance.

ESG scores are essentially a risk assessment mechanism increasingly being used by investment firms and financial institutions that forces large and small companies to focus upon politically motivated, subjective goals which often run counter to their financial interests and the interests of their customers. Companies are graded on these mandated commitments to promote, for example, climate or social justice objectives. Those that score poorly are punished by divestment and reduced access to credit and capital.

To combat this, HB 750 states that any fiduciaries’ “evaluation of an investment, or evaluation or exercise of any right appurtenant to an investment, shall take into account only pecuniary factors. Plan fiduciaries are not permitted to promote non-pecuniary benefits or any other non-pecuniary goals. Environmental, social, corporate governance, or other similarly oriented considerations are pecuniary factors only if they present economic risks or opportunities that qualified investment professionals would treat as material economic considerations under generally accepted investment theories. The weight given to those factors shall solely reflect a prudent assessment of their impact on risk and return. Fiduciaries considering environmental, social, corporate governance, or other similarly oriented factors as pecuniary factors are also required to examine the level of diversification, degree of liquidity, and the potential risk-return in comparison with other available alternative investments that would play a similar role in their plans’ portfolios. Any pecuniary consideration of environmental, social, or governance factors shall necessarily include evaluating whether greater returns can be achieved through investments that rank poorly on these factors.”

As Heritage Action for America notes, “using asset managers that engage and vote shares based on ESG can reduce the value of pension fund assets over the long-term. For example, [the world’s largest investment firm] Blackrock has voted against directors for failing to set emissions reduction targets or for increasing exposure to fossil fuel assets such as coal. In 2020, Blackrock voted against the directors of a utility for increasing its exposure to coal related assets, even though such exposure would no doubt have been financially beneficial. Such actions prevent companies from making money during periods when being anti-ESG is profitable. Over time, this will reduce the value of pension fund assets.”

HB 750 further provides that proxy voting must be directed or exercised by a representative of the fiduciary in accord with the provisions of this law. Currently, only two firms—Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and Glass Lewis—control 97 percent of the proxy advisory market and have stridently committed to ESG principles.

ISS and Glass Lewis are currently under scrutiny by several state attorneys general for collusion and antitrust violations.

Critics of anti-ESG legislation have charged that bills such as North Carolina’s HB 750 distort the free market and could possibly lower a state’s credit rating. However, the true distortion is being perpetrated by those seeking to use the financial agencies as de facto governmental regulators. By allowing ESG to gain a foothold in North Carolina, Tarheel State legislators would be perpetuating this distorted marketplace, and nothing in the bill forces North Carolinian fiduciaries to use uneconomical investment options.

By clarifying the fiduciary duties of North Carolina’s pension fund managers, and by insisting that maximizing the return on investment for clients be their only guiding principle, Old North State legislators can help ensure the long-term fiscal health of the state’s pension systems and make sure that promises proffered to state pensioners will be kept.

The following documents provide more information about ESG.