Pension funds stick by Blackstone despite closeness to Trump

Public pension funds that invest billions of dollars with Blackstone are resisting activists’ calls to distance themselves from a firm led by one of President Donald Trump’s most important backers.

Stephen Schwarzman, the billionaire financier who founded Blackstone in 1985, has lent rhetorical support to the president at key moments and donated $30m to Republican political causes last year, including $3m to a super-political action committee aligned with Mr Trump.

Activists argue that Mr Schwarzman’s Trump ties could become a liability, if not for Blackstone itself, then for the public pension funds that contribute a large chunk of Blackstone’s $584bn asset pile.

“Investors should question the judgment of a man who gave millions of dollars to support Donald Trump despite his growing hate speech, calls for violence and authoritarianism,” said Jim Baker, who leads the Private Equity Stakeholder Project activist group.

Pension funds’ reluctance to allow politics to influence investment decisions contrasts with the stance of dozens of high-profile American businesses that severed ties to Mr Trump and cut off funding from his Republican supporters in the days after the president incited a violent insurrection in Washington.

One non-profit group, the Chicago-based Action Center on Race and the Economy (Acre), on Thursday wrote to 30 pension schemes to demand they stop investing with Blackstone.

New York state, which has one of the largest public pension funds, will not be heeding that call, according to a spokesperson for Thomas DiNapoli, a Democratic official who oversees the $200bn New York State Common Retirement Fund.

“Comptroller DiNapoli strongly disagrees with Mr Schwarzman’s views on President Trump,” the spokesperson said. “But the fund does not, and will not, make investment decisions based on political viewpoints.”

Officials at another three public pension systems expressed concerns about political violence, but none said they would alter their investment plans.

One of them, the California teachers’ pension fund Calstrs, responded to a question about Blackstone without mentioning the firm by name, stating that it “fervently condemns recent violence against our country’s longstanding democratic processes” and urging investors to use their funds responsibly.

Calpers, which pays the pensions of other public workers in the state, also condemned the “violence and destruction in Washington DC”.

Supporters of President Donald Trump over-ran the Capitol as lawmakers prepared to confirm the election of Joe Biden © AFP via Getty Images

The New York City government pension funds “will monitor investments with Blackstone, as [with] any risks” to its portfolio, according to a spokesperson for comptroller Scott Stringer’s office.

Officials at several other largest public pension funds did not respond to questions from the Financial Times on the matter.

In a statement, Blackstone called Acre a “fringe anti-capitalist group” and said its letter to pension funds contained “completely false” claims and “outrageous distortions”. It added that Mr Schwarzman had expressed “horror and disgust at the appalling insurrection that followed President Trump’s remarks on January 6”, and had long ago “made it crystal clear . . . that President-elect Joe Biden won the election”.

Inside Blackstone, there has long been a division between business and politics, according to people who work at the company, which counts prominent Democrats among its senior ranks. Mr Schwarzman’s top lieutenant is Jon Gray, who gave millions of dollars to Democratic causes last year, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

“Steve might joke that ‘you Democrats’ are going to tax yourselves into oblivion, he might have those occasional digs,” said one investor who has worked at Blackstone and made no secret of his own Democratic leanings. “But it’s a diverse firm flooded with talented people who are encouraged to have their own views.”

Mr Schwarzman did not donate to Mr Trump in 2016, but emerged as a key supporter on Wall Street shortly after the president’s surprise victory.

The Blackstone founder briefly chaired a White House “strategic and policy forum”. The group was disbanded in August 2017, after Mr Trump said there was violence on “both sides” in Charlottesville in 2017, where torch-bearing marchers chanted against blacks and Jews. Mr Schwarzman said at the time that he “wasn’t outraged” by the president’s remarks. 

In November, as other prominent chief executives met to extend congratulations to Mr Biden, Mr Schwarzman told a closed-door meeting that the president was within his rights to challenge election results and forecast that the legal process would take its course.

On November 23, however, Mr Schwarzman said he was “ready to help President-elect Biden” rebuild a pandemic-hit economy. He has not spoken to Mr Trump for more than six months, according to a Blackstone spokesperson.

When a pro-Trump mob stormed Congress on January 6, Mr Schwarzman declared that “the insurrection that followed the president’s remarks today is appalling”.

Advocacy groups have in the past scored victories against private equity groups and other investment firms by applying pressure on the public pension funds that provide much of their capital.

In 2018, Bain Capital and KKR paid $20m to former employees of Toys R Us, a retail chain they bought in 2005. The move came after Mr Baker attended dozens of pension fund board meetings arguing that the firms should receive no more pension fund investment unless they made up for severance payments that workers lost out on when the chain was liquidated in 2018.

So far, however, pension funds seem reluctant to join the stampede of businesses reviewing their financial ties to Mr Trump and his supporters.

“We have not been following this issue,” said John Kuczwanski, an official with the State Board of Administration in Florida, which invests with Blackstone. “We are not following anything related to Mr Schwarzman’s financial backing for Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign.”

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