Driven by moral outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, U.S. governors and other top state officials made it clear: They wanted to cut their financial ties with Russia.
A few states quickly followed through. Idaho sold $300,000 of bonds in a Russian oil company in early March. A day before the invasion, the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System sold its shares in the Russian bank Sberbank.
But those examples are outliers. Six months into a war that has killed thousands of Ukrainians and displaced over 12 million more, most of the pledges to drop Russian investments — some made with great fanfare during news conferences — have gone unfulfilled, according to an Associated Press review, state retirement administrators and firms that invest state funds.
Swift global reaction has cut off much of Russia’s economy from the rest of the world. That has made it nearly impossible for divestment by state pension funds, university endowments and other public-sector holdings — as well as private investments such as those in 401(k) accounts.
“These pension funds want to get out, but it’s just not realistic to sell everything in the current environment,” said Keith Brainard, research director at the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.
Benjamin Smith, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island treasury, said the factors that make it hard to divest also show that a worldwide effort to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin is working.
“This is good news because it means that pressure from investors across the world, including Rhode Island, is succeeding in exacting a toll on the Russian economy, making it more difficult for Putin to fund his military operation, state-owned companies, and corrupt network of oligarchs,” he said in an email, noting that Rhode Island’s pension plan exposure in Russia never exceeded 0.3% of its assets.
Any pre-war investments in Russia are now worthless, or nearly so. That’s raising questions from some officials and fund managers about whether divesting is even necessary.
In Hawaii, one of a handful of states where top administration officials did not pledge to divest, Gov. David Ige said at a May 5 news conference that the state’s employee pension system had “very little to almost nothing” invested in Russia.
“The few remaining investments are quite small, and so I didn’t feel compelled to just make a statement for political reasons that we would be divesting,” he said.
Before Russia’s invasion in late February, many government-controlled investments had only small holdings — a fraction of 1% in every reported case — in Russian investments. But even that could amount to millions of dollars.
A sign at California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) headquarters in Sacramento, California.
Max Whittaker | Reuters
The largest U.S. public-sector retirement fund, California’s CalPERS, said just 17 cents of every $100 of its portfolio was in Russian investments as the war broke out. Even so, that translated into $765 million worth of stocks, real estate and private equity.
By the end of June, the value had shrunk to $194 million. The entire loss was because the holdings dropped in value; none had been sold.
There is no way to know how much state government entities in the U.S. have invested in Russia or companies based there, but collectively they were worth billions of dollars before the war. Much of the money was invested in Russian government bonds, oil and coal companies as part of emerging-markets index funds.
Quick to condemn the invasion, state officials said they could put pressure on Putin by dumping their Russian investments.
“Our moral imperative before these atrocities demand that you act to address Russia’s aggressions and immediately restrict Russian access to California’s capital and investments,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote in a letter on Feb. 28 to the boards overseeing the massive pension funds that serve teachers, state and local government workers and university employees.
Across the country, governors and other top officials made similar statements.
Just after the invasion began, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed an executive order calling for divestment “to the extent possible,” while Arizona’s Board of Regents voted to exit any Russian investments.
The treasurers for 36 states plus the District of Columbia and U.S. Virgin Islands signed a joint letter in March advocating divestment of publicly controlled funds from Russia. They noted a financial reason for doing so: “The current crisis also constitutes a substantial risk for states’ investments and our economic security.”
A major chunk of the government holdings in Russia is in the form of index funds that investors use to mimic overall stock market performance. Russian stocks were commonly part of funds specializing in emerging markets. MCSI and other firms that decide which stocks should be in the funds quickly dropped Russian securities.
But the companies that sell investment products based on those indexes were left in the lurch, still leaving pieces of Russian stocks in their investors’ portfolios.
As part of the sanctions, stock markets in the U.S. and elsewhere stopped the trading of Russian stocks. And the Moscow Stock Exchange was closed for nearly a month, reopening with tight controls that keep U.S. investors from selling.
The assets sank in value amid the invasion, though the precise value isn’t always clear.
Maryland said that as of the beginning of February, $197 million of its state retirement and pension system funds were invested in Russian assets. A month later, the state estimated the value had plunged and amounted to just $32 million. The state has been unable to unload its investments.
For the handful of states in which top officials have not endorsed divestment, eroding values like that are the main reason.
Shortly after the invasion, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said the number of state investments in Russia was “minuscule” and noted that the value was about to “shrink to almost nothing as the Russian economy is being virtually shut off from the world.”
In Florida, Lamar Taylor, the interim executive director of the agency that oversees investments of pension funds, said during a cabinet meeting that some investment managers might seek to unload Russian assets as soon as they’re able, while others could hold on in case they’re worth more later.
At the meeting, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the State Board of Administration has a legal responsibility to try to make money for the retirement system.
“That would violate your fiduciary duty, if you liquidated at massive losses for political reasons rather than for the best interests of the beneficiaries,” he said.
But DeSantis said there was a way to make it easier: Lawmakers passing a bill banning investment in Russia.
“If the Legislature could speak clearly, that would be something we’d welcome here, just to make sure we’re not furthering investments in parts of the world that are not reflective of 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 taking steps to divest is important even if it can’t be completed right away.
“The public has a right to know that it was debated in a serious manner,” he said.