Investing under wraps

By Kate Augusto

As universities around the nation take steps to divest from companies that do business in Sudan, Northeastern’s board of trustees announced this week they will look into endowment investment procedures in the next several months.

Forty-one universities, including Harvard and Boston universities, have announced they plan to divest from companies with ties to the Sudanese government, which is sponsoring genocide in the Darfur region.

Northeastern’s endowment investments are not public, and Bill Rosenfeld from advocacy group Fidelity Out of Sudan said, “Many [universities] don’t release information [on endowment investments] at all and it’s relatively difficult to get inside.”

In a statement released Monday, the board of trustees said Northeastern’s investments will remain private, but the board will examine its policy on socially conscious investing in the near future.

“The board takes seriously both its fiduciary responsibilities and its responsibility to ensure that the endowment is invested responsibly in accordance with Northeastern’s values,” according to the statement. “To that end, the board’s committee on Investments is currently reviewing the university’s approach to investment. The Board expects to formulate a statement of principles, as well as policies and procedures, that will guide the university in its investment decisions.”

Jack McCarthy, senior vice president of administration and finance, would not say whether Northeastern is working formally or informally to investigate the matter, or what is being done.

“We’re working very hard, but our investment committee only meets periodically and our board meets less frequently and this isn’t something that we can do at a Wednesday afternoon meeting,” McCarthy said.

Rosenfeld said fund managers do not like the concept of divesting.

“It’s their job to make as much money as they can for their investors and [divestment makes them] feel restricted and like there’s less of a chance of meeting their goal,” he said.

Rosenfeld said if Northeastern invests in companies that support Sudan, it is probably a small percentage, but divestment would still make a statement.

Retirement plans at Northeastern are also the subject of controversy. Northeastern employees can now choose from investing in two financial companies for their pension plans: Fidelity and TIAA-CREF.

PetroChina, a company that invests in Sudan, has ties to Fidelity. Fidelity owns five percent of PetroChina, making it the largest public investor in the company on the New York Stock Exchange, and invests $1.3 billion in the company, according to the advocacy group Fidelity Out of Sudan.

Under Fidelity, employees have the option of investing in several mutual funds. One of them, Contrafund, is known to invest in PetroChina and other Sudanese-supporting companies, according to the Fidelity Out of Sudan website.

According to Morningstar, a company that provides information on savings plans, Contrafund deserves five stars financially for low risk and high returns. The retirement investment package for Northeastern employees said Contrafund “may invest in securities of domestic and foreign issuers whose value the fund’s manager believes is not fully recognized by the public,” but the primary investments are in common stocks.

Employees invested in Contrafund can take steps to oppose the investment, Rosenfeld said. Individual employees can personally divest in Fidelity or avoid using the Contrafund. They can also object to Fidelity and send letters urging the company to divest from PetroChina and Sincopec, another company that financially supports Sudan.

“[If people got] so disgusted and made efforts to kick out Fidelity entirely and go with someone else, [it’s] a more complicated plan

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