Once again, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is considering divesting from certain companies that do business with the Israeli government. As I explained the last time the church went down this road, it's a bad, anti-semitic idea:
Let's start with a basic question: Will the PC(USA)'s decision "work"? In other words, do divestment campaigns tend to achieve their proponent's goals? The clear answer from the empirical literature is "no."
A London Business School Institute of Finance and Accounting working paper called "The Effect Of Socially Activist Investment Policies On The Financial Markets: Evidence From The South African Boycott concluded:
"We find that the announcement of legislative/shareholder pressure of voluntary divestment from South Africa had little discernible effect either on the valuation of banks and corporations with South African operations or on the South African financial markets. There is weak evidence that institutional shareholdings increased when corporations divested. In sum, despite the public significance of the boycott and the multitude of divesting companies, financial markets seem to have perceived the boycott to be merely a 'sideshow.'"
Another paper, "The Stock Market Impact of Social Pressure: The South African Divestment Case," from the Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance in fact found:
"Using the South African divestment case, this study tests the hypothesis that social pressure affects stock returns. Both short-run (3-, 11-, and 77-day periods) and long-run (13-month periods) tests of stock returns surrounding U.S. corporate announcements of decisions to stay or leave South Africa were performed. Tests of the impact of institutional portfolio managers to divest stocks of U.S. firms staying in South Africa were also performed. Results indicate there was a negative wealth impact of social pressure: stock prices of firms announcing plans to stay in South Africa fared better relative to stock prices of firms announcing plans to leave."
In sum, divestment may make activists feel all warm and fuzzy, but the evidence is that (1) it has no significant effect on the target of the divestment campaign but (2) likely does harm the activists' portfolios.
As the Manhattan Institute's James Copland explained, these results are entirely consistent with financial theory:
"Unlike a boycott in a traditional goods market, the sale of a stock or bond in a financial market in sufficient volume to affect its price makes it more attractive to a buyer who doesn't care about the divester's social cause. These buyers will bid the price back up to its equilibrium level, the risk-adjusted net present value of expected free cash flows from the instrument. So whereas a goods boycott can be effective under certain conditions, a stock divestiture never can unless there is insufficient liquidity on the other side, a highly dubious condition in our financial market. The Presbyterian Church may have $7 billion in financial assets, but that's hardly a sufficient sum to control financial market pricing."
If the PC(USA) mavens who passed this proposal were simply dealing with their own investments, who could gainsay their right to shoot their portfolios in the foot? Apparently, however, the plan encompasses divesting the retirement funds of Presbyterian pastors and workers invested in denominational pension plans. As such, their decision illustrates a perennial problem of institutional investment; namely, Quis cusotdiet ipsos custodies.
Like the vast majority of large institutional investors, the PC(USA)'s pension plans manage the pooled savings of small individual investors. From a governance perspective, there is little to distinguish such institutions from corporations. Plan investors have no more control over the election of company trustees than do shareholders over the election of corporate directors. Nor do the holders of such shares have greater access to information about their holdings, or ability to monitor those who manage their holdings, than do corporate shareholders. Worse yet, although an individual investor can always abide by the Wall Street Rule with respect to corporate stock (it's easier to switch than fight), he cannot do so anywhere nearly as easily with respect to investments such as these denominational pension plans.
Managers of pension plans are fiduciaries of the beneficiaries of those plans. When they pursue a social agenda nearly certain to result in poorer performance, they are disserving their beneficiaries. The activists at the PC(USA) may have gotten a warm and fuzzy feeling from taking a slap at Israel, but in doing so they injured Jewish-Christian relations, besmirched the one functioning democracy in the Middle East, and stabbed their own people in the back. All for the sake of a gesture that experience teaches will be fruitless.
As for whether the divestmenbt proposal is anti-semitic, I use a standard proposed by Jay Lefkowitz:
A more nuanced standard, and one that properly recognizes that legitimate criticism of Israel is perfectly appropriate, was articulated last year by Natan Sharansky. A member of the Israeli cabinet who for years had been a prisoner of conscience in the Soviet gulag, Mr. Sharansky defined one current expression of anti- Semitism by three features: the application of double standards to Israel, the demonization of Israel and the delegitimization of Israel.
Applying it back in 2004 to the last time the PC(USA) got into the divestment game, Lefkowitz made a persuasive case that the Presbyterian divestment plan was anti-Semitic:
The recent action by the Presbyterian Church sadly satisfies Mr. Sharansky's test. The church has singled out Israel, alone among all the nations of the world, for divestment. It has demonized Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, and it has delegitimized Israel's right to self- defense.
The church is not calling for divestment of its $7 billion portfolio from China, despite China's denial of the most basic political and religious rights and its particularly harsh treatment of followers of Falun Gong. It is not condemning Russia, even though Russia's policies in Chechnya are by any human-rights standard atrocious. It is not even calling for economic sanctions against Syria or Iran, whose human-rights records for their own people are egregious and whose Jewish citizens are denied the basic civil rights and liberties afforded to all Israelis, including its Arab citizens, some of whom even serve in the Knesset.
Nothing's changed in the meanwhile tochange that conclusion. If the PC(USA) in its finite wisdom (that's not a typo--as a colective, the PC(USA)'s wisdom is not just finite, it is minuscule) decides to go forward, it will once again be committing anti-semitism, bad economics and politics, and a breach of fiducary duty simultaneously. That's quite a hat trick.