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Ethics and Government Investment

The recent statement by Simon Tyler on behalf of the National Provident Fund and the Government Superannuation Fund, that environmental and social goals must be balanced with financial risk and reward, displays conceptual confusion about the role of ethical factors in decision making in investment. To claim that financial returns should take precedence over ethical matters, is contrary to common sense and current practice. All funds exclude some unethical behaviour from their portfolios regardless of financial returns, such as money laundering, tobacco, land mines, or some human rights abuses. These exclusions are made regardless of any potential financial profit or loss, because there are certain forms of moral behaviour that any society sets for the safety and well-being of its citizens. The debate should be about the ethical principles that should guide investment choices, and the NPF, the Government Superannuation Fund, ACC and the New Zealand Superannuation Fund all illustrate wide variations with no consistency. It is now time for the Government to reform these to provide consistency, including consistency with its stance on climate warming.

Just as disturbing was Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s reply that ministers had to maintain an arms-length relationship with crown entities. ACC and the NZ Superfund have an ethical charter determined by the Government – it is just that this charter is so weak that it is in effect useless. So there is a need for Government to review and change the charter but leave its implementation to the Funds. That is the responsible role that Government should play.

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