Socially Responsible Investing and Fiduciary Duties

Here’s a little twist on an issue we have often discussed on this blog, namely the fiduciary obligations of plan sponsors and other fiduciaries. To what extent does the fiduciary obligation to properly manage and invest fund assets leave room to consider social, environmental or political agendas in selecting investments? This article, by Benjamin Richardson of York University in Canada, concludes that there is room, within fiduciary obligations, to engage in socially conscious investing. Here is the abstract with his conclusions:

In recent years, pension funds and other institutional investors have begun to give more attention to the environmental and social behaviour of the companies in which they invest. A recent movement for socially responsible investment (SRI) seeks to exclude companies that pollute or ignore human rights, for example, and to champion those that behave ethically and responsibly. However, some confusion among investment decisionmakers persists about the extent to which their fiduciary duties to beneficiaries allow policies that may sacrifice financial returns for environmental or other philanthropic causes. This is compounded by the belief that they cannot secure the best returns in respect of their fiduciary obligations with current socially responsible companies. With reference to the main common law jurisdictions, this article critically examines whether the fiduciary duties of pension fund investors hinder SRI. Contrary to some commonly held beliefs, SRI can often sit comfortably with fiduciary duties to invest prudently. However, legal reforms to improve the climate for SRI would help, as evident by some recent initiatives in several jurisdictions.

Interesting points. But I will tell you, that as a litigator, its always an easier case to make that returns were as high as possible if plan members sue, than to argue that they were as high as possible while still consistent with a reasonably appropriate social agenda. On the other hand, disinvestment movements, of which socially responsible investing can be seen as an heir, have a respected and valued social history, one that, whether or not it can be easily reconciled with fiduciary obligations, should not be disregarded.