Traditional thinking on tobacco investing goes up in smoke.
January 24, 2012
A report released today casts serious doubt over the assertion that pension funds are ‘duty bound’ to invest in tobacco.
The report follows an investigation by The Independent which found that councils across Britain have at least £1.3 billion of employee pensions funds invested in tobacco. (1) (2)
With tobacco sales declining for the first time in 2010 and savers continuing to have ethical concerns with how their money is invested, the report exposes misconceptions surrounding investors duty to have tobacco as part of their portfolio.
The report, by FairPensions and ASH, challenges the long held view that investors have a legal duty to maximise financial returns through investments such as tobacco and calls for a more nuanced understanding of investors’ fiduciary duties.
Tobacco investments, previously thought of as safe havens, have come under increasing scrutiny for their ethical and financial shortcomings.
No longer a financial safe haven
With global tobacco sales falling and analysts predicting that smoking could disappear entirely, the report questions whether tobacco is a prudent long term investment. Shareholders in tobacco companies may be particularly concerned by the raft of regulations that are set to affect the industry over the next few years.
Martin Dockrell, Director of Policy and Research at ASH said:
“So far tobacco companies have pulled off the trick of boosting profits in the face of falling sales and that has kept share prices high. But it can’t go on forever, and the problem is not just falling sales. All around the world the big tobacco companies face a perfect storm of tougher regulation and higher taxes while more governments sue for billions of dollars in health care costs.”
Developing countries are increasingly regulating the sale of cigarettes and over 170 countries have signed up to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). China, which accounts for 40% of worldwide tobacco sales, banned smoking in public places in May 2011.
In the developed world regulations are becoming ever more burdensome on tobacco companies and sales are falling every year. Australia is set to become the first country to introduce plain packaging from December 2012.
With Goldman Sachs downgrading Imperial Tobacco from neutral to sell in November 2011 and countries across the world looking for tax rises to plug their deficits, the report suggests that tobacco may not be the long term safe haven that investors used to rely on.
Hiding behind a legal smokescreen
The report also explodes the myth that pension funds are not permitted to take the ethical concerns of pension savers into account when considering tobacco investments. It suggests that pension fund managers may be hiding behind a smokescreen that has been created to avoid serious consideration of non-financial matters. With some councils already omitting tobacco from their portfolios, the report suggests that pension funds can indeed pull their investments if the move doesn’t significantly damage returns.
Christine Berry, Policy Officer at FairPensions, said :
“It’s simply not true that the law requires pension funds to ignore their members’ ethical views. It’s time to move on from this tired old myth: savers who care about where their money is being invested have the right to expect a considered response to their concerns.”
Professor Lindsey Davies, President of the Faculty of Public Health, said:
“Under the government’s plans to reform the NHS, directors of public health will be employed by local councils. That means that it will be the responsibility of the town hall, not just the local hospital, to provide anti-smoking services. The very organisation that is supposed to be taking the lead in protecting our health could be using public money to invest in tobacco. This is a clear conflict of interest that will undermine councils’ credibility and the public’s trust in the health services they receive. We would urge all councils to use the many alternative, and more ethical, forms of investment for their pension funds that still maximise financial return.”
1) The true figure is likely to top £2bn, with individual local authorities investing up to £125m each.
2) Camden has the largest proportion, 3.7 per cent of its pension fund is in tobacco, while West Yorkshire has the single largest value amount of £125m. Many other local authorities, such as Berkshire, have no direct investment in tobacco but have invested in global tracking funds such as the FTSE 100, of which tobacco companies make up 2 per cent.
The report by ASH and FairPensions : ‘Local Authority pension funds and investments in the tobacco industry’ can be accessed at: http://fairpensions.org.uk/sites/default/files/uploaded_files/press/ASHfinalbriefing.pdf or www.ash.org.uk/pensions
Matthew Butcher (FairPensions): 020 7403 7806
Martin Dockrell (ASH) : 020 7739 5902 or 07889 725 984
Liz Nightingale (Faculty of Public Health): 020 7935 3115