Predatory capitalism, pension funds, agriculture and more

I’m always on the lookout for informative or interesting material for this column, and recently I came across some informative presentations that I need to share. During the pandemic, the use of funds from public pension funds has come under increasing scrutiny, both in terms of the impact of these funds on land concentration and the loss of family farms around the world, but also on the impact on health systems and more.

The two webinars on retirement investment funds follow columns I wrote last year about our pension funds and the impact of their use on urban and rural communities here in Canada and around the world.

Graina small international non-profit organization that supports family farmers, social movements and food systems, is hosting a series of two webinars titled “Resist pension fund capitalism.“The first is an overview of pension funds investing globally, in terms of the impacts on agriculture and much more. This webinar is revealing and disturbing in many ways.

Since the economic crash of 2008, pension funds have been looking to place their assets in what are seen as more stable investments that promise good returns. Of course, inadequate public funding of public pensions in Canada dates back to the late 1980s as a key problem.

All this to underline that the for-profit management of retirement investment funds has experienced tremendous growth here in Canada and elsewhere in the world. Pension fund investments now constitute one of the largest pools of investment capital in the world. Of the estimated $250 trillion in investment assets in the global market today, more than $56 trillion is controlled by pension funds from 22 countries.

This Grain webinar incorporates a lot of research. The first webinar features an in-depth presentation by Kevin Skerett, Senior Researcher at the Canadian Union of Public Employees and Adjunct Professor at the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton University.

In his presentation, Skerett notes that of the 22 countries with investments in pension assets, seven are considered to be the biggest holders – the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands , Canada and Switzerland. Skerett also notes that Canada’s investment model — the pooling of pension plan investment funds — is being exported and internationalized, and essentially adopted by other pension plan investment funds around the world.

This is a very sad note for those of us who like to believe that public and labor pension funds, and the practice of pooling resources, can have a positive impact. In this case, the pool modeling adapted to Canada is not about supporting communities here, or helping or providing assistance elsewhere, but rather the model encourages destructive practices that negatively impact everything, from climate change to oil and gas investments, the privatization of education, health, land grabbing and concentration, the privatization of water and what is increasingly being called the financialization of food systems.

Essentially, the contributions to the pension fund that we pay through our unions (if we are lucky enough to be unionized) or through our government-run public pension plan (the Pension Plan of Canada – PRC), bind us to what can best be called a shady system of investments based on growth at all costs. Investments that are made “stealthily” according to Skerett, who notes that the workers who put their money into these pension funds know little about the harmful ways their money is actually being used.

Research continues to uncover piles of information that lead to more and more connections about how workers and public pension funds are actually invested in predatory and destructive ways.

An example cited by Skerett during the Grain webinar is the privatization of a public water company CEDAE in Brazil. The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and Alberta pension fund AIMCo bought the Brazilian public company in April 2021 – essentially by privatizing water – much to the delight of current right-wing Brazilian President Bolsonaro, who attended the launch of the new social entity called Iguá Sareamento. The privatization of what was once a profitable and well-administered utility is affecting 30 municipalities and more than 13 million people in the state of Rio de Janeiro, and more such privatizations are on the horizon.

Over the past year, the mob has published two of my columns on the role of pension fund investments in the industrialization of everything from farmland to long-term care homes. Food to Fragility documents pension fund investments in farmland as well as the role of long-term care company REVERA and its ownership by workers’ pension funds. The column also notes how workers are unionized by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC).

REVERA and the Canadian Health Coalition call on the federal government to nationalize REVERA.

The March 2021 scoundrel column notes how Canadian pension funds are actually investing in corporations that are clearly working to undermine farmers and farm families across the Canadian Prairies and their communities at large. And, as the research presented by Grain shows, the impact goes beyond Canada, beyond agriculture and beyond long-term care homes.

The second webinar in this series hosted by Grain is scheduled for June 9 – and the aim is to strategize on how to deter these predatory pension fund investments from using funds that really should be considered as public funds. These funds are, after all, made up of the pension contributions of workers across the country!

Well worth the effort here.

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