US investors call on Winter Olympic sponsors to speak out against LGBT discrimination in Russia

Meanwhile, NYC’s Comptroller reports record year for engagement.

A coalition of US investors led by the $160.7bn (€117.6bn) New York State Common Retirement Fund (CRF) has urged ten investees sponsoring the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia to speak out against Russian laws which the coalition says discriminate against the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and risk damaging their own brands. The investors are outraged by laws signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin last June that impose fines on people who discuss homosexuality in a positive way in the presence of children. The laws also allow the government to shut down media that do positive stories on the topic for three months. In letters sent to the companies, the coalition cites the reputational risk they face “if they fail to send a strong message that recently enacted laws that target LGBT people are not acceptable.” The coalition wrote: “UN principles state that companies have an obligation to respect human rights and remedy abuses where they affect their business operations. If these companies fail to speak out against these restrictive and intolerant laws, they threaten not only the return on their sponsorship dollars but the value associated with their brands and reputations.” The coalition added that since sponsors like them finance 92% of the Olympic’s costs, they have the necessary influence with the Russian government. The investees contacted were: AtoS, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, General Electric, Swatch Group, McDonald’s, Panasonic, Proctor & Gamble, Samsung and Visa. Beyond demanding that they speak out against the laws, the coalition wants the sponsors to ensure that their employees – especially in Russia – are not discriminated against for their sexual orientation. It alsocalls on them to get assurances from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the human rights of all attendees and athletes of the Sochi games are protected. Along with the CRF, the signatories of the letters include some of America’s best known responsible investors. They are: New York City (NYC) Comptroller John Liu, who looks after $144bn in assets from five NYC pension funds; Zevin Asset Management; Trillium; Calvert Investments; and the Unitarian Universalist Association. Together the investors represent $327bn in assets. In related news, the NYC Comptroller’s office said that it, in terms of its engagement, it had a very productive 2013 proxy season, negotiating agreements on 27 of the 55 shareholder proposals it submitted – a new record. Among the highlights were policies enacted at four US financial institutions, including Citigroup and Wells Fargo, that empowered their boards to claw back pay from senior executives guilty of improper conduct or excessive risk taking. Similar policies were put in place at three other US drug companies, including Merck and Johnson & Johnson, at the NYC Comptroller’s behest. Other engagement successes that NYC Comptroller Liu can take part of the credit for were the major reshuffling of Cheaspeake Energy’s board to make it more independent and the appointment of a new chief executive. Liu said: “Since then, the company’s share price has outperformed its peers.” In addition, pressure from investors like the NYC Comptroller led to the resignation of two directors at computer giant Hewlett-Packard. According to Liu, the directors had failed to protect investors from a series of ill-advised acquisitions and boardroom fiascos that destroyed tens of billions of dollars in shareowner value.