University needs to make investments transparent

    In 2002, scandals at Enron, MCI Worldcom and Tyco revealed corporate America’s dirty secret: CEOs at many publicly traded companies doctored their books to make their companies look more profitable than they really were, often triggering lucrative performance bonuses that made them richer than they already were. Thanks to the efforts of state attorney generals around the nation, many of those executives are now standing trial for their actions. However, the silent accomplices who allowed the financial hijinks to take place have gone mostly unnoticed: these companies’ negligent boards of directors, who are supposed to oversee the company. Unfortunately, at these companies, greedy CEOs were able to fill corporate boardrooms with their friends and colleagues, completely defeating the purpose of having an independent oversight entity.

    Now, one doesn’t normally think of corporate finance as a pressing issue for an institution like the University of California. However, with the university responsible for investing $59 billion in pension and endowment funds through the Office of the President, how the school invests and manages its money greatly impacts both students and society. Following the scandals, Congress swiftly passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which, among other things, empowered smaller shareholders by allowing them to nominate members to companies’ board of directors. Thus, the university should do its part to improve corporate governance by ensuring that the votes it controls through its stock investments are used properly.

    In addition, buying stock in a company is an implicit show of support for it. In recent years, many investors have been adopting a strategy of “socially responsible investing,” which means avoiding tobacco companies, gaming and casino companies, environmentally damaging companies and companies with unfair labor practices. As a public entity, the University of California should do what’s best for both students and society as whole, and that means adopting such an investment strategy.

    Of course, it’s possible that the university is already doing so — but there’s no way to know. Unfortunately, the university publishes precious little information about the money it’s investing on behalf of students and employees. The Office of the Treasurer (http://www.ucop.edu/treasurer), which manages these funds, does a good job of publishing data regarding how much money is invested and how much money it makes, but says little about what stocks the company actually owns. Click on a link that says “portfolios” and you get a list of things like “ARC LC GROWTH,” “CGT CORE” and “FRANKLIN PORTFOLIO LC CORE.” Unless you’re one of the few students at the Rady School of Management, that probably doesn’t mean a lot to you.

    Given the amount of money at stake and the large economic and social impact that money has in the marketplace, the school needs to do a better job of being transparent and accountable for its investments. Theoretically, the school could be investing our money in cigarette-producing sweatshops that also dump toxic waste into rivers and kill baby seals. To the students, the university’s investment practices are as opaque as Enron’s. While it’s unlikely that the university is cheating students out of millions of dollars through bogus investments, the Office of the President should still do a better job of making information about its investments available to the public, in a form more understandable than financial gibberish.

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