Editorial Writing At Its Most Pathetic

It might seem incongruous for the conservative San Diego Union-Tribune to advocate putting public pension dollars in Iran.

But that’s exactly what it called for in this overheated editorial in today’s newspaper.

The subject of the newspaper’s ire is a 2007 California law that prohibits CalPERS and CalSTRS, the giant state pension funds, from investing in a company with business operations in Iran.

The fact that CalPERS hasn’t complied with the law was brought to the public’s attention through the efforts of Dave Maass in San Diego CityBeat.

The U-T calls the California Public Divest from Iran Act “political posturing, pure and simple.” The stated goal of the bill’s author La Mesa Assemblyman Joel Anderson — punishing Iran for its support of international terrorism — is dismissed as “nonsense.”

The real targets of the editorial are Jerry Brown and Steve Poizner, two state officials who are running for governor. Brown is guilty of “unadulterated folly” for demanding the giant state pensions comply with state law.

The U-T is entitled to its opinion, but the editorial is misleading, distorting, and just plain wrong on a number of fronts:

The California Public Divest from Iran Act requires CalPERS and CalSTRS “to sell stock holdings in international companies that did business with Iran.”

Not quite. The law bars companies that invest or operate in Iran’s defense and nuclear sectors or develop oil and natural gas resources.

You can still sell soap and medical equipment to Iran.

Is this really so unreasonable?

“And if we believe that the state government should deter investments in nations that are at geopolitical risk, why would Iran be the only nation on the list?”

Well, it’s not.

Current law also requires CalPERS and CalSTRS to sell or transfer investments in Sudan. In the 1980s, the state approved similar measures to allow state entities to divest in South Africa in order to protest its apartheid policies.

“The professionals advising CalPERS and CalSTRS on portfolio strategies were obviously better qualified to evaluate investment danger.”

What professionals are they referring to?

The professionals who lost $1 billion by investing CalPERS assets in LandSource Communities, a bankrupt company that owns raw land in California. Or the professionals who advised the pension fund to put $500 million in Peter Cooper Village in New York, now in foreclosure?

Perhaps they mean the shady, unregistered professional placement agents who collected millions of dollars in payments from fund managers seeking business from CalPERS?

“Among the many respected international firms whose affiliates do business with Iran are Royal Dutch Shell, Siemens AG, Hyundai and Alcatel. Their operations are perfectly legal under U.S. and international law.”

First off, Hyundai no longer has active business operations in Iran, as CalPERS notes in its 2009 report on its Iran investments. Siemens recently announced it is pulling out by mid-2010.

Second, “respected” Siemens AG settled a U.S. Justice Department investigation into the company’s bribery of foreign officials by paying a record fine and admitting systemic violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Third, thanks to the Iran divestment act, we now know about CalPERS’ investments in Chinese state-owned firms:

  1. China Petroleum & Chemical Company (Sinopec), Asia’s biggest oil refiner, which signed four exploration contracts in Iran. 
  2. CNPC Hong Kong Ltd., which has a service contract for the Masjed Soleiman oilfields and is developing gas fields.
  3. CNOOC Ltd., the state-owned Chinese oil firm that was thwarted in its 2005 effort to buy Unocal.

These companies are investing in Iran (and Sudan) to secure reliable energy supplies for China, now the world’s second biggest oil consumer. Sooner or later, that will put them directly at odds with U.S. interests.

If, as the U-T maintains, CalPERS’ investments in these firms aren’t all that significant, then why should we support them with public pension dollars?

Update: CityBeat‘s latest report finds CalPERS is correcting its annual report as it has no holdings in Sinopec.

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