A surprising source of funding for attacks on defined-benefit pensions

When Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers were negotiating their most recent collective bargaining agreement, some Canadian think-tanks used the opportunity to trot out ideological attacks on Canada Post’s defined-benefit pension plan.

“Canada Post should not be in the retirement business to begin with,” said a blog post by Fergus Hodgson, Economic Consultant at the Fraser Institute.

Even though the Canada Post plan is solvent as a going concern and in fact posted a surplus last year, groups like the Fraser Institute, which are critical of defined-benefit plans in the public sector generally, didn’t hesitate to suggest its dissolution.

Not unexpected, of course, from a group that also believes Canada Post should be privatized.

Interestingly, the very same Canada Post pension plan has more than $750 million invested in companies that have contributed to the Fraser Institute.

Perhaps it’s time that the Canada Post plan starts a conversation with the donor companies whose shares are held in their portfolios. They might ask why those companies think it is in their shareholders’ interest to sponsor organizations that attack the same defined-benefit plans that are their shareowners.

Of course the Fraser Institute is not alone among defined-benefit pension detractors. The Montreal Economic Institute, the Macdonald Laurier Institute and other Canadian think tanks have advocated for the conversion of public-sector defined-benefit plans, and all receive money from publicly-traded corporations.

Nor is the Canada Post Pension Plan the only defined-benefit pension plan holding shares in the companies that contribute to these think tanks. Pension funds such as the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP), Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS), and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, for example, own more than $40 billion in shares in companies that have contributed to the Fraser Institute, the Montreal Economic Institute and the Macdonald Laurier Institute.

That paradox inspired a new report from SHARE, published today, which looks at how companies oversee contributions to think tanks engaged in policy advocacy and what those companies disclose to shareholders, particularly in the context of continued attacks by Canadian think tanks on defined-benefit pension plans. It’s the third in a series of case studies that SHARE hopes will encourage dialogue among capital market participants about disclosure and oversight of corporate political spending (the first two case studies in our series looked at direct corporate campaign contributions and trade association lobbying).

Here are some quick take-aways from the report:

  • While corporate donors are under no obligation to stop contributing to public policy think tanks just because their shareholders include the public pension funds under attack by these organizations, publicly-traded corporations need to be attuned to the risk of negative attention from what can be seen as political activity.
  • Although companies may wish to support organizations that contribute research to public policy discussions, companies that provide funding to these organizations should be clear about the purpose of this funding and how it aligns with the company’s interests – and that of their shareholders and other stakeholders.
  • Pension funds, for their part, may want to assess the contributions their investee companies, their consultants and asset managers are making to policy development, particularly where it affects the interests and reputation of their own fund and its members and beneficiaries. They may also want to engage with the management of portfolio companies to ensure that risks related to public policy interventions are addressed and adequate transparency and accountability measures are in place.

Finally, companies with a real interest in public policy on retirement security may find that some of their major shareholders – Canada’s highly praised public defined-benefit pension plans – have some valuable advice to offer about building efficient and secure retirement income for all Canadians.

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