Risk & Compliance

Has Calpers Fallen Out of Touch?

Some observers suggest that the nation's largest pension fund is announcing its opposition to too many nominees at too many companies.
Dave CookMay 10, 2004

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or Calpers — a $165 billion pension fund that represents California state workers — has undertaken an ambitious campaign to challenge corporate board nominees.

Too ambitious, and too scattershot, say many observers. In prior years Calpers generally targeted only a few poorly performing corporations during proxy season, according to Reuters. But since the start of April this year, added the wire service, the nation’s largest pension fund has announced that it would withhold votes from directors at more than 120 companies.

Last week California controller Steve Westley sent a letter to his fellow board members, which questioned the pension fund’s rigid adherence to a familiar policy: opposing nominees who permit a company’s auditor to perform nonaudit services. Reuters noted that Calpers even opposed Warren Buffett’s reelection to the board of the Coca-Cola Co. on this basis, a move that was widely regarded as a demonstration that the pension fund is out of touch with the market. Buffett was reelected with about 84 percent of votes cast, the wire service reported.

Westley urged Calpers to pursue “a more outcome-oriented strategy,” according to Reuters. The wire service also quoted James Hawley, co-director of the Center for the Study of Fiduciary Capitalism at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California, who maintained that “Calpers is making a tactical mistake by focusing on so many firms.” Added Hawley, “If you do it on hundreds of firms simultaneously, you may be dissipating your energy.”