Pensions used wisely can offer opportunties
AS WITH many a clever plan, the idea of investing public sector pension funds in reforestation will make many people wonder: why didn’t we think of this before? That reaction might be even more pronounced when considering the idea of merging Scotland’s 11 local government pension funds into one, with potential for transforming the way public infrastructure projects are funded.
Inevitably, questions arise. As regards the first idea, fund contributors will want to know about levels of risk and yield. Some might also discern a somewhat artful way of meeting the Scottish Government’s tree-planting target, which has been falling short.
But others might support investing in the environment and associated jobs. Ethics and investors’ returns rarely make the best soulmates and when, in recent times, Scottish council pension funds have been decried for investing in the likes of tobacco, fracking, fossil fuels, weapons, and private finance initiatives linked to offshore tax havens, they have adduced a legal obligation to maximise retirement income.
Coming with the implication that the source of profit is immaterial, campaigners have called this unconscionable and a dereliction of responsibility, not least when investments run counter to stated public policies.
Regarding the second idea, as with any move towards centralisation, questions arise about local accountability and losing the current system of democratic governance. However, there are possible benefits that make the idea tempting. As trade union Unison points out, the multiplicity of private fees would be cut, allowing greater investment in job-creating projects. The move could also improve scrutiny of investment decisions, and refocusing these could benefit, for example, affordable housing programmes, which campaigners say would bring solid returns, as well as again creating jobs.
Few areas of finance come with greater responsibility than pension funds. They are emphatically not to be trifled with. But it’s conceivable that they could be used responsibly to benefit the economy and the environment.