Multiplying 'floating' assets

Question: How is the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA) like Christopher Columbus? Answer: Both sought their fortunes with ships.

MEBA will probably be the first pension fund in the world to have its own navy. Some $15 million of its assets are being spent on construction of two ships to ply the ocean blue -- though they're merchant vessels in search of cargo, not galleons hunting for new passage to India.

The ships will be built and partly owned by Levingston Shipbuilding of Orange , Texas, and marketed by General Shipholding of Luxembourg. They will sail under the flag of First American Bulk Carrier, A corporation 56 percent owned by MEBA, 32 percent owned by Levingston, and 12 percent owned by General.

With the loot earned by their ships, MEBA officers hope to keep their pension fund afloat and staying even with inflation.

A 15 percent return is expected from the project when the ships are launched in 1982. That's not exactly Spanish treasure, but it is higher than the 8 or 9 percent MEBA's more prosaic investments, such as bonds and Cummins diesel service centers, have been earning over the last few years.

"We did it based on one single common American heritage -- to make money," says Jesse Calhoon, president of MEBA.

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