Columnist Lee Schafer provides short takes on economic incentives and choices, business strategy and performance, market moves, what business leaders are saying and doing and other topics that pique his interest.

The Socially Responsible Employer of Mike McFadden

Posted by: Lee Schafer Updated: April 14, 2014 - 11:24 AM

The race for United States Senate in Minnesota is barely getting started but it’s already reached the point of silly.

The Associated Press reported last week that Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat, was going to have difficulty getting a charge to stick that Republican candidate and former investment banker Mike McFadden was nothing more than a ruthless corporate raider because Franken had invested in a mutual fund that owned shares of McFadden’s former employer, Lazard.

What was even worse politically for the senator was that his investment was held in a well-known, socially responsible mutual fund.

So how could McFadden have worked as an irresponsible, job-killing corporate raider when his employer was owned by a socially responsive fund that the senator himself owned?

For what’s silly about this, let’s start with the idea that Franken blundered by owning this investment. The thing is, it was a mutual fund investment that sparked the AP report, the Neuberger Berman Socially Responsive Fund. Individual investors, of course, don’t make investment choices in a mutual fund.

It’s doubtful that the senator himself read the annual report in sufficient detail to have picked up on the Lazard holding. It’s doubtful he’s ever read the annual report.

If Franken, or more likely Franken’s business manager, wanted to put money into a socially responsive fund, that’s fine. The concept of a fund like this, and Neuberger Berman was one of the first among mainstream fund managers to sponsor one, is that it won’t invest mutual fund owners’ money in companies whose operations, while legal, engage in socially irresponsible activities like selling cigarettes or running gambling operations.

And as of the most recent report, it owned $55 million of stock in Lazard Ltd., the corporate parent of Lazard Middle Market LLC in Minneapolis. McFadden was co-CEO of Lazard Middle Market prior to launching his campaign for the Senate.

In Neuberger Berman's marketing materials, it explains that "socially responsible investing... stems from the belief that responsibility is a hallmark of quality. SRI integrates environmental, social, governance criteria into sustainable impacts across the economy." 

It’s been a top-performing fund, but Neuberger Berman doesn’t provide enough detail in disclosure materials to know why it picked Lazard shares. It’s interesting to note that two of its top 10 holdings are U.S. Bancorp and 3M Co. While I admire both companies, I hadn’t previously thought of either as remarkably socially responsible.

What’s even sillier about the situation, of course, is that the senator’s reelection strategists were planning to manufacture a political issue out of McFadden’s employer.

McFadden was an investment banker at Lazard who tried to help his clients achieve their business goals by finding a buyer for their businesses. And the Neuberger Berman portfolio managers reached the right conclusion: there is nothing even remotely socially irresponsible about that business activity.

Perhaps the senator’s reelection staffers will be embarrassed enough to quietly drop this whole line of attack against McFadden.

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