Business

Can I take my money out of oil?

Workers putting down booms in Louisiana to try to halt the oil spill
Image caption Is investing in oil firms no longer such a good idea?

We might not think of ourselves as shareholders in a big oil company, but many of us are.

If you hold an occupational pension you probably own shares in BP.

Investors will have watched last week's news that the company is to delay a decision on its next dividend payment with concern.

BP accounts for about 8% of all the income going into the UK's pension funds.

But just as the financial crash raised concerns over banking stocks, BP's Gulf of Mexico spill is leading some to worry about the risks of owning shares in oil companies.

Leading economist Lord Stern recently suggested environmental risks including climate change should be factored into long-term investment decisions.

"Investing long-term in 'dirty' technologies is actually risking their clients money," he said referring to pension funds. But is there an alternative?

'Higher risks'

Most British pensions are partly invested in shares linked to the list of the country's biggest firms, the FTSE 100.

BP is one of the largest on the list. Before the oil spill it accounted for around 9% of the FTSE 100's value.

It is also one of relatively few stocks to pay a high dividend.

But as new oil gets harder to find, international firms are trying to find it in ever more hazardous locations - a mile under the sea, the Arctic and tar sands.

"Oil companies are increasingly being forced into these extreme frontier environments where the inherent risk is going up and up," says Seb Beloe, head of socially responsible investing at fund management firm, Henderson Global Investors.

"Maybe this will prove to be an isolated example, but I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't."

Oil-free pensions?

Many pension funds do now take into account social, political and environmental risks.

Image caption Some ethical investment funds don't buy shares in tobacco companies

But avoiding such stocks entirely is difficult.

Other big players on the FTSE include fellow oil company Shell, mining giant Rio Tinto, cigarette firm British American Tobacco and defence contractor BAE systems.

Leaving out shares in such firms could leave a portfolio unbalanced, and so vulnerable to problems in a particular industry, such as banking.

Instead some pension trustees focus on pushing for companies they own to reform practices.

"It comes down to whether BP are doing the right and responsible thing when they are trying to improve safety and so on," says Adrian Lowcock an investment advisor from Best Invest.

Even companies critical of BP, such as the Co-operative Group, own shares in the firm for their employee pension scheme.

"We engage with management on performance on environmental and social issues," says Mike Fox its head of UK equities.

There are some private income funds which avoid BP - available to a small number of people.

Hendersons has a fund which sold out of the stock after BP's last safety incident in 2003.

Since the incident it had out-performed the FTSE by more than 2% - most of that down to not owning plummeting BP shares.

But even that fund owns shares in a gas firm.

"If you want a dividend and you don't want to be in oil and gas… I don't know if there is a fund that can meet those criteria," says Mr Beloe.

Oil-free investments

The situation is different when it comes to investments - such as a share ISA.

Image caption BP boss Tony Hayward has delayed a decision on the dividend

Here a range of products offer "sustainable" or "ethical" ways to invest.

There is considerable choice as to what areas you may want to focus on or avoid, from animal testing, to climate change, to encouraging renewable energy.

But these investments carry their own risks.

"Funds that choose not to invest in certain markets will always carry some volatility," says Mr Fox from the Co-op.

To begin with they sometimes exclude many of the companies which do relatively well during a recession.

"Ethical funds suffer from a lack of diversification," says Mr Lowcock.

"Defensive companies which are protected from downsides in the market such as alcohol or gambling may not be included."

Ethical choices

During the credit crunch some "ethical" investments which avoided oil and mining shares instead held shares in banks and small companies - two big losers.

Individual funds vary, but figures from the Investment Management Association (IMA) show £1000 invested in an ethically filtered group of UK companies earned marginally less over the last one, three, five and 10 years than those in a generic basket.

The reverse was true for international investments.

The recovery has also been led by commodity companies - such as BP.

"That presents a real challenge," says Mr Fox. "And we've not been exposed to that, so the sustainable market has not been the best-performing."

Currently £5.9bn is invested in ethical funds - an all-time record.

But new sales have not been increasing.

Gross sales figures from the IMA showed ethical funds accounted for 1.3% of gross sales in 2007. That figure had almost halved by the first quarter of 2010.

Away from oil

Many believe the economic recovery and BP oil spill could see a change in this pattern.

BP's shares lost a third of their value after the spill - nothing comparable happened after the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989.

"Things like socially responsible investment and corporate responsibility move in jumps due to shocks to the system," says James Marriot from Platform, an NGO critical of the oil and gas industry.

He calls stocks such as BP and Shell "national treasures", held by investors because of their reputation for reliable high returns.

Some, such as Lord Stern, are now arguing these should be seen as rather more risky investments than they were before.

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