U.S. pension funds heavily invested in China despite crackdown

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U.S. proposals to clamp down on investments in China may be being undermined by continued funding from some of America’s biggest institutional investors, new analysis shows.

The majority of U.S. public pensions, as well certain universities and non-profit organizations, have committed funds to China and Hong Kong, including in sensitive technologies — some as recently as this year, according to a report by Future Union, a non-partisan trade organization.

The 74 largest contributors have allocated more than $70 billion to companies in China and Hong Kong via more than 1,100 investments in various funds, including those with exposure to tech majors such as TikTok-maker ByteDance, Tencent and Alibaba.

The data — which was compiled through a combination of public and private databases, including capital markets database Pitchbook, CapitalIQ and Private Equity International — hones in on the U.S.’s biggest pension funds found to be invested in China. However, the report’s authors said the number invested is likely to be much larger.

The 74 are the best exemplars of a long laundry list of U.S. pension funds invested in China.

Andrew King

executive director of Future Union

“The 74 are the best exemplars of a long laundry list of U.S. pension funds invested in China,” Andrew King, executive director of Future Union, told CNBC via the phone.

The findings come as U.S.-China relations have deteriorated over recent years amid concerns over national security, trade and defense, including China’s increased provocations toward Taiwan.

The first face-to-face meeting in November between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping indicated an ostensible warming of ties, yet Washington has remained steadfast in its plans to “de-risk” from Beijing. In August, Biden instituted a ban on certain investments in China, specifically sensitive technologies, which is expected to be implemented from next year.

While not in violation of the ban, the funds’ ongoing investments in an “adversary” highlights the “historical misuse of capital” by key capital allocators, King said, adding that the idea of the report was to get the funds “to move and change.”

Of the top 74 pension funds cited in the report, three-quarters made investments within the last 36 months — the minimum threshold instituted by Future Union to “obviate claims of plausible deniability” over rising U.S.-China tensions. Four in 10 (39%) committed funds within the past 12 months.

“This is a staggering 75% renewal rate by pension portfolio managers entrusted to responsibly manage the retirement wealth of the U.S. pensioners, despite the geopolitical implications,” King said.

“It’s become the latest greenwashing, where everybody says the right things [about divesting from China] but getting them to adhere to it is a different story,” he added.

California and New York funds lead the charge

The New York State Common Retirement Fund (NYSCRF), which serves over 1.2 million public employees, was identified as the largest investor in China and Hong Kong, according to the report, committing a total of $8.3 billion to the region, including $3.5 billion (42%) in the past 36 months.

Commenting on the findings, a NYSCRF spokesperson disputed the total sum invested, saying that it was closer to $6.1 billion, or “less than 3% of its more than $250 billion in assets.”

The California Public Employees Retirement System (CaIPERS) — which describes itself as “the nation’s largest public pension fund,” serving more than 2 million of California’s public employees — ranked second. The fund has invested an aggregate $7.8 billion in China, a quarter ($1.8 billion) of which was committed over the past three years, including in 2023.

A spokesperson for CaIPERS said it is “a global investor and believes diversification is a key component to generating the returns needed to meet the retirement security of our 2 million members.” They added that the fund is “closely monitoring” discussions in Washington and elsewhere, and said that it will comply with “any additional government requirements that might be initiated.”

The largest public pension funds investing in China and Hong Kong

U.S. Public Pension Number of Investments Total Amount of Investment ($mm) Date of Latest Inv.
New York State Common Retirement Fund (NYSCRF) 72 8,392 2022
California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) (CA) 80 7,866 2023
California State Teachers Retirements System (CalSTRS) (CA) 58 5,559 2022
Washington State Investment Board (WASIB) 24 5,025 2022
San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System (SFERS) (CA) 80 3,381 2022
Pennsylvania Public School Employees Retirement System (PAPSERS) 31 3,220 2021
New York State Teachers’ Retirement
System (NYSTRS)
30 3,142 2022
Maryland State Retirement and Pension System (MASRPS) 34 3,050 2023
Oregon Public Employees Retirement
System (ORPERS)
26 2,925 2021
Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TXRS) 24 2,775 2022
Oregon State Treasury (ORST) 17 2,080 2018
Teachers’ Retirement System of the State of Illinois (ILTRS) 34 2,012 2022
New Jersey Division of Investment (NJDI) 20 1,812 2020
Florida Retirement System Pension Plan (FRSPP) (FL) 15 1,664 2022
Texas County & District Retirement System
44 1,605 2022
Virginia Retirement System (VARS) 11 1,450 2022
Employees Retirement System of Texas (TXERS) 18 1,368 2022
Minnesota State Board of Investment (MNSBI) 15 1,316 2022
State of Michigan Retirement Systems (MISMRS) 32 975 2021

Source: Future Union

Both the California State Teachers Retirement System (CaISTRS) and the New York State Teachers’ Retirement Fund invested $5.6 billion and $3.1 billion in China, respectively, the report found — with each allocating one-quarter of those sums within the last 36 months.

CaISTRS said that, as of December 2022, approximately 1% of its portfolio was invested in China, and that it was in full compliance with Biden’s executive order. It added that its exposure to China was “modest” and that it plans to hire dedicated China managers to “recognize and manage” associated environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks.

Washington State Investment Board also committed over $5 billion to China, around 20% of which in the past 36 months, according to the report. A WASIB spokesperson confirmed that the total funds invested was approximately accurate as of September 2023, but disputed that its commitments had risen over recent years.

The Minnesota State Board of Investment committed more than $1.3 billion in China since 2008, with a notable 70% — or $900 million – invested in the last 36 months, the report found.

Meantime, the Teachers Retirement Fund of Texas committed more than $2.7 billion to China funds, 23% over the last 36 months, including in the last year. The fund said in 2022 that it intends to reduce future commitments by half.

CNBC contacted the other funds cited but they did not wish to provide comment.

University endowments invest heavily

The report also found that numerous U.S. universities, both public and private, are significantly invested in China.

University endowments have invested a total of $7.7 billion in China and Hong Kong via 385 investments, many of which within the past 36 months, according to public data analyzed by Future Union. It added that the true value of investments could be greater given the limited disclosure requirements for private higher education institutions.

“The reality is much more objectionable than depicted, as private universities are largely exempt from disclosing investments. Simultaneously, many of the U.S. public universities have shielded such investments from public review and disclosure,” King said.

The university endowments investing in China and Hong Kong

University Endowments Number of Investments Total Amount of Investment ($mm) Date of Latest Inv.
Texas Permanent School Fund (TX) (Public) 39 1,971 2022
Univ. of Texas System Endowment (TX)
29 1,607 2022
Univ. of Michigan Endowment (MI) (Public) 83 1,570 2023
Regents of Univ. of California (CA) (Public) 22 1,556 2022
Princeton Univ. (NJ) (Private) 12 155 2020
Univ. of Missouri System Endowment (MO) (Public) 9 153 2022
Univ. of Washington (WA) (Public) 11 89 2022
Stanford Management Company (CA) (Private) 12 80 2014
Texas A&M Univ. System Endowment (TX) (Public) 9 50 2021
Yale Univ. Endowment (CT) (Private) 6 50 2015
Univ. of Pittsburgh Endowment 10 43 2020
Texas Tech Univ. System Endowment (TX) (Public) 8 42 2021
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MA) (Private) 6 22 2016
Duke University/The Duke Management Company (NC) (Private) 7 20 2020
Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (OK) (Public) 5 14 2022
Carnegie Mellon Univ. Endowment (PA)
7 10 2020
Univ. of Oklahoma Foundation (OK) (Public) 10 N/A 2011
Univ. of Chicago Endowment (IL) (Private) 7 N/A 2015
Harvard Management Company (MA)
7 N/A 2011
MITIMCo/Basic Retirement Plan (MA)
7 N/A N/A
Columbia University Endowment (NY) (Private) 5 N/A 2015

Source: Future Union

The University of Michigan, Michigan state’s largest public university, was among the most heavily invested in China and Hong Kong, with $1.6 billion in funds committed, including as recently as a few months ago.

The University of Texas System similarly invested $1.6 billion, with around one-quarter allocated in the past three years.

It comes as universities have come under fresh scrutiny over their handling of political issues, including their failure to condemn a rise in antisemitic incidents in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.

Elsewhere, the report also found that a series of notable U.S. foundations and non-profits were involved in Chinese investments, making a total of 620 commitments. Those include the MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation, including in the past few months.

A spokesperson for the MacArthur Foundation said that it maintains a “broadly diversified portfolio to achieve [its] investment and programmatic objectives,” but added that China and Hong Kong do not constitute a “material portion” of its overall investments.

The other foundations and universities cited did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the report.

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