New York — Who could be for apartheid? University officials and money managers often get branded as pro-apartheid for not joining the divestment bandwagon. But these officials frequently find themselves unable or unwilling to sell stock of United States companies in South Africa.
They're caught between moral beliefs and a legal responsibility to produce the best investment return for college endowment or public pension funds. And divestment knocks more than 100 of the largest blue-chip companies in America out of a stock portfolio. Many money managers see that as a severe handicap to performance.
Now there is some evidence (albeit short term) to show that a portfolio free of South African-related US stocks does not produce diminished returns.
The Boston Company, a subsidiary of American Express, has compiled a stock index of US companies that don't do business in South Africa. Since mid-1984, this index has outperformed not only the Standard & Poor's 500 index but also a narrow-gauge index of US companies doing business in South Africa.
``Going back 2 years, the SAFE (South Africa Free Equity) index has outperformed the S&P by about 2 percent per year,'' says Richard Crowell at Boston Company. Specifically, the SAFE index was up 60.98 percent from Jan. 1, 1984, through March of this year, while the S&P 500 was up 54.66 percent.
Is the divestment drive succeeding in pushing down the price of South African-related stocks? Are more people buying South Africa-free stocks?
Probably neither, Mr. Crowell says. ``The SAFE index has done better because it doesn't include mainframe computers and international oil stocks.'' IBM is a major component of the S&P and until recently its stock has been depressed by lackluster sales. At the same time, oil prices have plummeted, which has hurt the investment picture for oil companies.
By eliminating these major industry groups, the SAFE index ends up with a heavy weighting of utility stocks, which do well when interest rates fall -- as they have done of late.
So it's not clear how long the SAFE index can outperform the market. For instance, if interest rates should drop, oil prices rise, and computer sales pick up, the SAFE index might end up on the short end of the stick.
Indeed, another firm has compiled an index showing that South Africa-free stocks are not outperforming the market now.
The index, put together by Wilshire Associates, an investment firm based in Santa Monica, Calif., lagged the S&P 500 total return by 2.7 percent last year and trailed it by 1 percent in the first quarter of this year.
The difference between the two indexes seems to be a matter of discerning which US companies are involved in South Africa.
The Wilshire index excludes any US companies doing business in South Africa based on a list by the widely respected Investor Responsiblity Research Center, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit research group.
The Boston Company uses the same list, plus several others and information from clients. As a result, it may list more companies than IRRC does. Also, the Boston Company updates its screening of South African-related companies monthly; Wilshire updates annually.
In any case, Crowell says the point is that ``it's possible to have a well-diversified portfolio with a good performance without having companies in South Africa.''
Wayne Wagner, chief investment officer at Wilshire Associates, agrees: ``Our performance is not significantly different. I would not be surprised in the least if the South Africa-free index outperformed the market over the long term.''
He notes that a South Africa-free fund eliminates the stable, slower-growing multinational companies. ``That leaves you with smaller companies, which are more volatile. But over the long term, small companies tend to yield a higher return.''