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Post: Brett Arends’s ROI: Ron DeSantis ramps up attack on ‘woke capital’ with ESG crackdown

Florida governorundefined Ron DeSantis says he is going to stop the state’s $240 billion pension fund from investing in stocks based on so-called ESG measures, meaning portfolios are built around environmental, social and governance issues.

DeSantis’s announcement, made Wednesday at a press conference at Harpoon Harry’s Crab House in Tampa, should raise a cheer with GOP donors and primary voters in the 2024 presidential race.

There’s just one problem.

The state pension fund, known as the State Board of Administration, already doesn’t invest based on ESG metric.

No way, no how.

“Neither the SBA nor its managers use ESG factors as a way to screen or limit the available investment opportunity set,” spokesman Kent Perez tells MarketWatch in a statement. “We do not invest to make social statements.”

A formal statement on the SBA website goes further. It argues that divesting from companies for social and political purposes leads to “increasing costs, reducing diversification and ultimately, reducing returns.”

“As a pension plan fiduciary, the SBA’s duty is to act in the sole interest of participants, strengthening their retirement security, not invest to make statements,” it says.

The board’s statement adds that it doesn’t believe dumping stocks with bad ESG ratings does any good, anyway: The best way to change corporate behavior, it says, is to invest in companies and then engage with the management. (Many others argue the same, and indeed the SBA statement cites Boston College retirement expert, and MarketWatch contributor, Alicia Munnell on the topic.)

Read: A retirement safe from climate change? Ask the tough questions about real estate and property insurance.

None of this stopped the governor from promising to clamp down on this nonactivity during Wednesday’s announcement. “We’re going to prohibit the SBA fund managers. … [W]e want to make sure that they are not using political factors when investing the state’s money,” he said. “We want them to invest the state’s money for the best interests of the beneficiaries.”

“We’re also going to require SBA fund managers to only consider maximizing the returns on investment on behalf of Florida retirees,” DeSantis said.

Confused? Me too. I emailed the governor’s office, seeking an answer to this mystery. Alas, I didn’t hear back.

DeSantis’s announcement was part of a broader attack on “woke capital,” and on rich liberal elitists using their financial power to impose their values on everyone else. “For every Master of the Universe who’s prattling on about no emissions and all this stuff, I don’t see many of them giving up their private jets,” DeSantis said. “They’re living their own life, and they want the burden of their policies to fall on working-class Americans.”

He is proposing new laws to prevent companies operating within the state from discriminating against individuals based on their politics or religion. DeSantis is tapping into deep conservative anger over the behavior of some corporations over the past few years.

From the archives (March 2021): ‘A step backward’: Coca-Cola joins fellow top Atlanta employer Delta in blasting new Georgia voting curbs as undemocratic

Key Words (April 2021): ‘We stand for democracy’: Read the statement from top companies and executives opposing voting restrictions

DeSantis’s move against ESG investing by the SBA won’t have much, if any, effect on the SBA, but it can be expected to become a talking point in his stump speeches on the campaign trail, provide some debate zingers and feature in 30-second TV spots in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Political betting site Predictit.org gives him a 35% chance of winning the GOP presidential nomination, trailing Donald Trump, the former president, at 44%. Meanwhile, DeSantis has overtaken Trump in some of the polls.

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