Spurred by moral outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, US governors and other top state officials have made it clear: They want to sever their economic ties to Russia.
Some states quickly followed suit. Idaho sold $300,000 in bonds to a Russian oil company in early March. A day before the attack, the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System sold shares in the Russian bank Sberbank.
But those examples are outliers. In the six-month war that has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians and displaced more than 12 million, most pledges to divest Russian investments — some made with great fanfare during news conferences — have gone unfulfilled, according to an Associated Press review of state pension administrators and companies that invest state funds.
A swift global reaction has isolated Russia’s economy from the rest of the world. This has made it nearly impossible to invest through private investments like state pension funds, university endowments and other public sector holdings — as well as 401(k) accounts.
“These pension funds want to get out, but in the current environment it’s not realistic to sell everything,” said Keith Brainerd, director of research for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.
Benjamin Smith, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Treasury, said the complicating factors also indicate that a worldwide effort to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin is at work.
“This is good news because it means that pressure from investors around the world, including Rhode Island, is succeeding in taking a toll on the Russian economy, making it more difficult for Putin to fund his military operations, state-owned companies and corrupt network of oligarchs,” he said. Said in an email, Rhode Island’s pension plan exposure in Russia will never exceed 0.3% of assets.
Any pre-war investment in Russia is now worthless, or nearly so. This is leading some executives and fund managers to question whether it is necessary to invest.
In Hawaii, one of a handful of states where top administration officials have not pledged to invest, Gov. David Ige said at a May 5 press conference that the state’s employee pension system had “little to almost nothing” invested in Russia.
“Some of the remaining investments are very small, and so I’m not compelled to make a statement just for political reasons that we’re going to invest,” he said.
Prior to Russia’s invasion in late February, many state-controlled investments had only small holdings in Russian investments — in each reported case a fraction of 1%. But it can also be millions of dollars.
California’s CalPERS, the largest US public sector pension fund, said only 17 cents of every $100 of its portfolio was in Russian investments since the war began. Still, that translated into $765 million worth of stocks, real estate and private equity.
By the end of June, the value had dropped to $194 million. A total loss occurred because the holdings decreased in value; No one was sold.
There is no way to know how much US state government agencies have invested in Russia or its companies, but before the war they collectively had billions of dollars invested. Most of the money was invested in Russian government bonds, oil and coal companies as part of an emerging market index fund.
Quick to condemn the invasion, state officials said they could pressure Putin to divest his Russian investments.
“In the face of these atrocities, our moral imperative demands that you confront Russia’s aggression and immediately restrict Russian access to California capital and investments,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote in a Feb. 28 letter to the boards that oversee the largest pension fund that serves teachers. , state and local government employees and university employees.
Across the country, governors and other top officials made similar statements.
After the invasion began, New York Governor Cathy Hochul signed an executive order calling for divestment “to the extent possible,” while Arizona’s Board of Regents voted to exit any Russian investment.
The treasurers of 36 states, as well as the District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands, signed a joint letter in March endorsing the divestment of publicly controlled funds from Russia. He cited an economic reason for doing so: “The current crisis poses a major threat to the investment of states and also to our financial security.”
The bulk of government holdings in Russia are in the form of index funds that investors use to mimic the performance of the overall stock market. Russian stocks are usually part of a special fund in emerging markets. MCSI and other companies that decide which stocks to hold in funds quickly excluded Russian securities.
But companies selling investment products based on those indexes were left with chunks of Russian stocks in their investors’ portfolios.
As part of the sanctions, stock markets in the US and elsewhere halted trading of Russian stocks. And the Moscow stock exchange was closed for nearly a month, reopening with tighter controls that prevented U.S. investors from selling.
Property values decreased during the invasion, although the exact value is not always clear.
Maryland said that as of early February, $197 million of its state retirement and pension system funds were invested in Russian assets. A month later, the state estimates the value has dropped to just $32 million. The state could not unload its investment.
In the handful of states where higher authorities have not approved investments, the main reason is the decline in values.
Immediately after the invasion, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster said that the amount of state investment in Russia was “minimum” and noted that “the value is going to dwindle to almost nothing as the Russian economy closes off from the world.”
In Florida, Lamar Taylor, interim executive director of the agency that oversees pension fund investments, told a cabinet meeting that some investment managers may try to offload Russian assets as quickly as possible, while others may hold off. They are worth more later.
At the meeting, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state board of trustees has a legal responsibility to try to raise money for the retirement system.
“It would be a breach of your fiduciary duty if you were to make a substantial loss for political reasons rather than the interests of the beneficiaries,” he said.
But DeSantis said there is one way to make it easier: Lawmakers passing a bill banning investment in Russia.
“If the Legislature can speak clearly, we want to be here to make sure we’re not increasing investment in parts of the world that don’t reflect our interests or values,” he said.
Hank Kim, executive director of the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems, said he has told member pension funds that even if it can’t be done immediately, it’s important to take steps to eliminate them.
“People have a right to know that it has been seriously discussed,” he said.
___ Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Associated Press writer Kimberly Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama; Amy B. from Helena, Montana. Hanson; Kimberly Krusey in Nashville, Tennessee; and Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu contributed to this report.