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Public Citizen and social investors peddling falsehoods

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The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) famously remarked, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." Tell that to the leaders of the social-investing funds Domini Social Investments and Green Century Capital Management, who along with Public Citizen's Lisa Gilbert, made the following claim in Politico: "The five largest U.S. mutual fund families supported [shareholder proposals seeking corporate political transparency] more than 80 percent of the time during the 2012 proxy season."

Whatever one's thoughts about corporate disclosure of political spending--about which I have written elsewhere--this claim is wildly inaccurate. In 2012, the seven largest mutual fund families--Vanguard, BlackRock, State Street, Fidelity, Capital World Investors, Capital Research Global Investors, and T. Rowe Price--supported only 3.6 percent of proposals calling for increased disclosure of corporate political spending, as is evident from a review of Form N-PX proxy filings publicly available from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

How could Public Citizen and the social-investing funds be so far off? Well, I don't know for sure--and Public Citizen has a long track record of playing fast and loose with the facts--but the claim probably originated with a February 3 Financial Times piece by Sarah Murray, which stated, "The five largest US mutual fund families supported corporate political disclosure more than 80 per cent of the time in 2012, according to the Center for Political Accountability (CPA), a Washington-based advocacy organisation."

The problem is, the CPA makes no such claim. To the contrary, in its December 2012 analysis of last year's proxy season, CPA states, "As in previous years, the three largest mutual fund families in the United States failed to support a single political spending disclosure resolution." Figure 2 on page 3 of that report does show five U.S. mutual fund families that supported more than 80 percent of such proposals--MFS, Alliance Bernstein, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, and DWS--but those are hardly the five largest mutual fund families. (In terms of equity assets under management, MFS and Alliance Bernstein aren't in the top 10, Morgan Stanley isn't in the top 20, Wells Fargo isn't in the top 40, and DWS isn't in the top 50.)

One would think such an obvious error--in which FT's attributed fact is contradicted by a published account from its own purported source--would warrant a quick and clear correction. But when I brought the matter to the attention of Politico's editor-at-large, Bill Nichols, he replied, "The writers of the response have provided documentation which, while I'm sure arguable in your view, does not allow me to put my thumb on the scale one way or the other."

As Moynihan notes, opinions are arguable, but facts are facts. Given the inability of press "fact checkers" to tell the difference between the two, I understand Nichols' decision not to "put his thumb on the scale," but this is really cut and dried, and his choice is disappointing.

(The Financial Times has yet to respond to my request for a correction.)

The Manhattan Institute's Margaret M. O'Keefe, manager of the ProxyMonitor.org database, contributed to the above discussion.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.