There was a great turn-out for the launch of our major new report on investors’ fiduciary duties, Protecting our Best Interests, on Wednesday. At 140 pages it’s been something of a labour of love, so it’s great that it’s finally out there and getting such a positive response.
BIS Minister Ed Davey gave a speech that made us blush, saying his officials were “incredibly impressed” by the report and faithfully promising to read it over the coming Easter recess. More importantly, he confirmed that fiduciary duty is about more than maximising the bottom line, saying that investors should be taking ESG issues into account, and that they should be transparent about how they exercise their rights to vote at company AGMs. While keeping his cards close to his chest, he held out a lot of hope that the government will seriously consider our recommendations as part of their review of economic short-termism.
Responding, David Pitt-Watson of Hermes said that rediscovering fiduciary duty was fundamental to the future of finance – it was what savers wanted, it was more economically efficient, and it was good for sustainability. The quality of discussion that followed was impressively high, with contributions from trustees, lawyers, asset managers, academics and regulators. One of the key themes was the need for pension funds and other long-term investors to concern themselves with the whole economic system – with the “health of the forest” rather than just individual trees – seeing themselves not just as players in stocks but as long-term owners, able to defend their beneficiaries’ interests in a healthy environment as well as a healthy return.
Several contributors also raised the danger of a ‘pensions lottery’. More and more of us are saving for our pension by purchasing products directly from high-street retailers like Aviva or Standard Life. In this structure, there are no trustees whose job it is to protect our best interests. The regulators themselves seemed to agree that this accountability gap was a problem: there’s an urgent need to make sure all consumers are properly protected from complacency, recklessness and self-serving behaviour by those who manage their money.
A final key theme was the sense that trustees are “frightened of their own shadows” when it comes to liability for breach of their fiduciary duties, and that they badly need to be freed from the perceived straitjacket of fiduciary duty and allowed to exercise their judgement. We think our proposal for a legal provision for institutional investors similar to company directors’ duties under the Companies Act would do just that.
Charles Scanlan – who’s been an absolute tower of strength without whom we couldn’t have done this report – quoted Brecht’s suggestion (admittedly tongue in cheek) that an optimist is “someone who hasn’t yet heard the bad news”. Here at FairPensions we are, of course, eternal optimists – and it really does feel like there is a momentum building here. We hope this report will be a platform for some real progress: re-examining something that has for too long been seen as a roadblock to responsible investment, but which, by rediscovering its roots, might actually be part of the solution to building a more responsive and responsible financial system.