Pension Official: Here’s How Congress Could Make Investing in Environmental Projects More Appealing to Pension Funds

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Girard Miller, CIO of the Orange County Employees Retirement System, sat down with Governing magazine yesterday to talk about what’s holding many public pension funds back from taking on “green” investments.

Miller first explains the concept of “green bonds”. From the Governing interview:

These are bonds issued to finance environmentally friendly capital projects. One use of the concept applies very narrowly to tax-exempt bonds for what are called brownfields development. Then there is also an international working group promoting “climate bonds,” which are sometimes called green bonds. CalSTRS, the large state teachers pension fund here in California, is part of that working group. The central idea is to reduce the carbon footprint globally through infrastructure projects that can be funded through big bond issues. I use the term green bonds very broadly to include essential environmental projects that might be funded by states and localities through bond financing. Beyond carbon reduction and water conservation in drought areas, I’ll leave it to the policy geeks and public finance guys to haggle over the definition. It’s a big tent.

Miller goes on to talk about the problem with “green bonds”: they are tax-exempt, and, in his words, pension funds “don’t want tax-exempt paper in their portfolios.”

But he says Congress can fix that problem, and in the process make the bonds more appealing to some of the world’s largest institutional investors. From the interview:

The problem is that pension plans don’t want tax-exempt income. We’re not the only ones. Sovereign investment funds from abroad, such as those in China and the Middle East, and endowment funds don’t care about taxes either.

[…]

What we need is a taxable option to be approved by Congress and limited to green bonds, not to every conceivable capital project, which is typically what happens when politics gets involved. A taxable bond option (TBO) is a concept that has been kicking around in public finance circles for four decades. As far back as the 1970s, economists like John Petersen were saying there is a smarter way to do this stuff. Build America Bonds, which were authorized in 2009-2010 at the bottom of the Great Recession, were a taxable option. A TBO allows, but does not require, a muni bond issuer to elect to pay taxable interest and receive a direct interest-cost reimbursement from the U.S. Treasury rather than the indirect subsidy of tax exemption. In most cases, that would mean a lower borrowing cost — net-net — than issuing tax-exempt bonds. For pension plans, a TBO-yield will compare favorably with corporate credit and foreign sovereign bonds, plus the bonds would be a diversifier for our bond portfolios. Foreign investors and endowment funds, as well as ordinary investors with incomes below $200,000, would prefer taxable municipals.

Read the whole interview here.

 

Photo by  penagate via Flickr CC

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