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PSERS pension fund votes to dump investments it owns in ‘barbaric’ Russia

The vote to divest was unanimous, but it may be hard to cash out of those investments.

The Pennsylvania teacher pension board (PSERS) voted unanimously to dump up to $300 million of its remaining investments in Russia and Belarus in protest of Russia's invasion of neighboring Ukraine from bases in both countries, at a meeting March 3, 2022
The Pennsylvania teacher pension board (PSERS) voted unanimously to dump up to $300 million of its remaining investments in Russia and Belarus in protest of Russia's invasion of neighboring Ukraine from bases in both countries, at a meeting March 3, 2022Read moreJoseph N. DiStefano

Trustees of Pennsylvania’s largest state-funded pension fund, PSERS, voted unanimously to “take all necessary action” to dump up to $300 million it has invested in Russia and Belarus to protest Russia’s invasion, from bases in both countries, of neighboring Ukraine.

The move — involving about 0.4% of the total assets of the Public School Employees’ Retirement System — is in response to what board chairman Christopher Santa Maria called “the terrible military campaign being inflicted on [Ukraine] by Russia and Belarus.”

» READ MORE: Why is Belarus helping Russia invade Ukraine? An explainer on the latest in the conflict | Trudy Rubin

“This is barbaric,” said state Rep. Frank Ryan (R., Lebanon), the board vice chair, and a retired Marine Corps reserve officer who said he had served with Ukrainian forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the Russian artillery attacks on Ukrainian cities are “just pure barbarism, targeting civilians.”

It wasn’t clear, however, how quickly the securities could be sold, or at what prices, because Russia has frozen securities sales in response to Western sanctions. The Russian stock market has been closed for four straight days.

“They don’t know what their Russian or Chinese investments are even worth, because so many of them are in these secretive private-investments funds, where the contracts are not subject to public scrutiny,” said Edward “Ted” Siedle, a onetime SEC lawyer who performs forensic audits to review investments in state and municipal pension plans.

Still, the PSERS board, which has been divided over the fund’s penchant for costly alternative investments, was glad to find agreement Thursday on Russia.

Ryan suggested PSERS, which invests $73 billion and receives $5 billion in taxpayer contributions each year plus $1 billion from school staff, might also cut off the three small countries (North Korea, Syria and Eritrea, which have few if any Western investors) that supported Russia against a United Nations move to censure it for the attack. Thirty-five others, notably China and India, abstained.

Trustee Sue Lemmo suggested that the board should go further, preparing to divest from countries that may assist Russia with financial payments since it has been shut out of the Western banking system. It was left unspoken that this could end up forcing PSERS to divest investments in Russia’s frequent supporter China, which are substantially larger than what it holds in Russia or Belarus.

PSERS officials could not immediately estimate how much they have invested in China.

In a bipartisan gesture, State Treasurer Stacy Garrity, a Republican and a PSERS board member, thanked Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, for urging state pensions to divest, and called on the General Assembly to pass its own Russian divestment legislation.

At the smaller, $40 billion State Employees’ Retirement System, “Russia-related investments amount to a fraction of 1%,” and will be reviewed at Friday’s regularly scheduled board meeting, said SERS spokesperson Pam Hile.

» READ MORE: Vanguard’s emerging markets funds largely escape Russia’s market debacle. Here’s some that didn’t.

She added that fund managers sold “all Russian bond holdings in 2021″ and held no Belarusian investments of any kind. She did not respond to a query about Russian stocks or other equity investments.

PSERS did not provide a list of the Russian investments it still holds.

Public documents reviewed by The Inquirer show that the plan owned bonds issued by Russian government finance agencies, plus securities in Lukoil petroleum refining, the Magnit food retailer, Surgutneftegas gas exploration, Norilsk Nickel, and the Severstal and Evraz steelworks as of last June 30, along with “emerging market” stock index funds sold by big Wall Street firms, which have also pledged to dump their Russia investments in recent days.

PSERS’ acting chief investment officer, Robert Levine, and his staff promised to report back on their progress at getting rid of the Russian and Belarusian investments by a scheduled board meting in June.

PSERS had already scheduled two board meetings next week, but called the emergency meeting after politicians including Wolf, who appoints three PSERS board members, and Garrity called for immediate action.

In her office in Feasterville on Monday, Iryna Mazur, honorary consul for Ukraine, said Ukrainians and their supporters appreciate any U.S. moves to dump Russian assets. “It will be very significant and welcome,” she said.