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My View: PERS investments should be examined

Many of us 345,000 PERS members/retirees/beneficiaries have long endured the shot-and-shell about this pension fund in the media, Legislature — even friends. We’ve been silent, especially thousands who made less than $25,000 a few decades ago and receive 45 percent — not 104 percent — in pensions. Silence needs to be broken on an entirely different issue: Who gets our PERS contributions that the Oregon Investment Council and Treasurer Ted Wheeler invests for those pensions?

PERS mailers never include lists of companies/institutions and amounts invested on our behalf. We have to read about it after the fact.

Case in point: the OIC’s recent decision to invest nearly a billion dollars to the $1.2 billion already entrusted to the Texas Pacific Group. It’s a private investment company that owns two fossil-fuel companies and has holdings in six others. The TPG affiliate receiving $250 million of this latest deal has been in business only since July.

Now, a private company doesn’t have to tell the public how it’s doing, but one news source just revealed that OIC has been investing in TPG since 1994 despite “poor” performances in some years because the manager is a “favorite.” If ever there was a reason to televise this agency’s deliberations about where they invest our money, that should be it.

In the case of TPG, how many PERS members want our contributions spent so that the fossil-fuel industry can prosper as they snuff out life on this planet? How many realize that this industry sells to increasingly declining markets in Asia? That production is so costly that dividends are minuscule and unsold products pile up at terminals? These are reasons smart stockholders are fleeing fossil-fuel investments — when not demanding industry leaders tell them if they’re bailing in the near future.

Because all pensions depend on payouts down the road, this is a vital issue for anyone whose pensions are invested in the fossil-fuel industry. No trustworthy life insurance company would ever invest its 2 percent in securities because a holding is fast disappearing or its manager is a “favorite” and still expect to pay death benefits. OIC expertise seems to have deliberately ignored these factors and more:

• Proliferation of fossil-fuel start-ups, cutting profits and leading to bankruptcies or forced mergers for those with “weak or inadequate internal liquidity,” as happened last May when Kinder Morgan Energy Partners took over TPG’s Copano Energy company.

• New, built-in energy efficiencies — cars to buildings — and less need for fossil fuels.

• Proliferation of renewable energy companies and new technologies.

• Increasing global warming, less need for heat from fossil-fuels.

• Asian customers developing fossil-fuel resources.

• Ignorant or lazy investment brokers and mutual fund managers — unable or unwilling to see the oncoming “carbon bubble” burst around the globe.

The OIC obviously fails to see — perhaps deliberately — what’s ahead for the fossil-fuel industry even in the next two years. Apparently it’s not as sharp-eyed, market-wise, or brave as the 70 stockholders in the Ceres organization with $3 trillion for investments. Last October, they demanded that 45 major fossil-fuel companies tell them what they may have to leave “in the ground.” No response has now led to a class-action suit.

If they can see no payoffs down the road, it’s difficult to understand wonder why the OIC continues to bet more of our hard-earned millions on a dying, high-priced racehorse which may never make it to the finish line of pension payouts.

Contact the OIC office and Treasurer Ted Wheeler and ask how they could remedy this potentially disastrous decision for pensioners of today and tomorrow (503-378-4000; Suite 100, 350 Winter St. N.E., Salem; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

Barbara G. Ellis became a PERS member as an Oregon State University professor. She is a principal in a Portland public relations company, and an environmental activist opposing fossil fuels.