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NPS invests in ‘sin stocks’

Pension fund found to be pumping millions into cigarette makers

Oct 19,2019
The state-run pension fund’s investment in so-called sin stocks like cigarette and alcohol makers has sparked a backlash over the ethics of Korea’s largest institutional investor.

Rep. Kim Sang-hee of the ruling Democratic Party revealed earlier this week that the National Pension Service (NPS) invested a total of 1.15 trillion won ($974.8 million) into 14 multinational tobacco companies, marking over 1 percent of the NPS’s entire overseas security holdings.

The practice stands, the lawmaker said, in contrast with the global transition toward more responsible investing and pension operator moves to dump shares of companies whose businesses are seen as affecting health and the environment.

Of the investment, the highest amount, or 270.7 billion won, went toward Philip Morris International, followed by British American Tobacco at 262.9 billion won.

Altria, the U.S.-based top shareholder of e-cigarette maker Juul Labs, came in third with 232.9 billion won. Juul and Altria came under fire after seven deaths were reported in the United States from vaping-related illnesses. In Korea, a possible case of lung damage was reported earlier this month.

A fund management committee from the NPS, which is presided over by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, directly invested 389.6 billion won, while the remaining 758.5 billion won was assigned by entrusted asset managers.

Rep. Kim said that the investment guideline of the committee restricts investments in companies selling tobacco and alcohol, but the restriction doesn’t apply to overseas securities.

Still, KT&G, Korea’s dominant tobacco maker, can be invested in, since it also engages in other businesses such as ginseng production.

The NPS invested a total of 1.392 trillion won into KT&G as of last year. When combining direct and entrusted investments, the shares held by the NPS accounts for 9.99 percent of KT&G.

The Government Pension Fund of Norway, the world’s second-largest pension fund, excluded KT&G from its holdings because it sells cigarettes. The fund screens out companies producing weapons and tobacco. Other pension operators, especially in Europe, follow through with strict rules designed to make their investments more responsible and beneficial to society.

“Other pension funds strive to come up with ways to limit their investment in sin stocks, with consideration for human rights and the environment, but [the NPS] doesn’t have any specific guidelines,” Kim said.

“[The NPS] must include the restriction of investments in sin stocks both inside and outside of Korea when it revises rules for responsible investing.”

BY JEONG JONG-HOON, PARK EUN-JEE [park.eunjee@joongang.co.kr]


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