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Fearing loss of public money, North Dakota to gradually divest from Russia amid Ukraine invasion

"Everybody is on board with divesting from Russia and Russian investments," Troy Seibel, a member of the State Investment Board, said Thursday. "Sometimes it's not as easy as clicking the 'sell button,' and ... we just have to make sure the public is aware that this is going to take time."

Civilians train to throw Molotov cocktails in Zhytomyr
A civilian trains to throw Molotov cocktails to defend the city, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Zhytomyr, Ukraine on March 1, 2022.
VIACHESLAV RATYNSKYI/REUTERS

BISMARCK — North Dakota has a plan to pull public funds from investments with ties to Russia, but during a virtual meeting of the State Investment Board on Thursday, March 3, officials gave no indication that they intend to immediately fully divest from Russia and did not provide a timeline for doing so as the country continues its invasion of Ukraine.

The 12 members of the State Investment Board, which oversees investments of North Dakota's $8.7 billion Legacy Fund, voted unanimously to divest the roughly $10 million in combined Legacy Fund, state pension pool and insurance pool dollars linked to Russia.

However, the board said it intends to do so "in an orderly way" that won't "cause overdue hardship" to the Legacy Fund and lose money by divesting too fast, said board member Troy Seibel on Thursday. An estimate of those potential losses was not immediately available.

"Everybody is on board with divesting from Russia and Russian investments," Seibel said. "Sometimes it's not as easy as clicking the 'sell button,' and ... we just have to make sure the public is aware that this is going to take time."

In contrast to North Dakota, a few states have already pulled their investments with Russian ties despite any losses, according to Bloomberg. In Colorado, the state’s Public Employees’ Retirement Association divested $7.2 million from the Russian bank, Sberbank, and the Pennsylvania Treasury Department began selling off its $2.9 million invested in Russian companies, Bloomberg reported.

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"We cannot continue to provide financial support to a regime that so brazenly disregarded international law and launched such an indefensible attack," Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement.

On Wednesday, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum told reporters in Casselton that North Dakota does not want to provide funds to Russia amid the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, but if the state rushes to sell, it could lose money.

“We also don’t want to be panic sellers at a time when if we dump these resources right now that it wouldn’t do a thing to the Russian government. It would only hurt us,” Burgum said.

During the State Investment Board's special meeting on Thursday, officials reiterated that Russia's invasion of Ukraine is deplorable. The officials said they will not create any new contracts or investments with Russian ties for the foreseeable future, adding that staff is working to expedite the state's withdrawal from Russian investments.

On Monday, the North Dakota Retirement and Investment Office said the Legacy Fund had about $16 million of investments with connections to Russia, but as of Thursday that figure had dropped to $10 million, a 37% decrease.

Retirement and Investment Office Executive Director Jan Murtha told The Forum the 37% decrease is likely a combination of fluctuating market values and investment managers exiting contracts, but she said the exact reasons behind the decrease are not immediately available.

The State Investment Board stressed that it takes time to divest from these Russian investments because many of them are in "commingled funds," or funds with multiple investors. Nearly 80% of the $10 million in Russian investments is in commingled funds, meaning the State Investment Board doesn't have the sole authority to divest from single securities.

For the State Investment Board to divest "immediately from the Russian investments," it would need to pull out the entirety of its investments wrapped up in commingled funds, which adds up to $950 million, according to Burgum's office.

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Murtha said immediately withdrawing that $950 million could be costly. "We don't invest or divest in a panic," she said. "We do it with prudence."

She said the investments with Russian ties are not investments into the nation of Russian, rather transactions made through secondary markets.

North Dakota is also following guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department to cease future secondary transactions involving Russia, and Murtha said the state will follow further guidance from the federal government, which is fluid and ever-changing due to the invasion.

The board reiterated on Thursday that the amount of Legacy Fund dollars with Russian ties is small relative to the state's overall investments.

Former Democratic-NPL gubernatorial candidate Shelley Lenz called on officials Wednesday to ditch the state's Russian investments. On Thursday, she told The Forum that North Dakota should have never had investments connected to foreign interests in the first place.

"This money that we have connected to the murderous regime of Russia should have been invested in North Dakota for tangible assets," Lenz said.

In addition to the roughly $10 million from the Legacy Fund, state pension pool and insurance pool that have Russian ties, the North Dakota Board of University and School Lands has about $9.7 million invested in Russian-based companies, according to Burgum's office. Earlier this week, the Land Board's investments with Russian ties were worth more than $28 million — the decline occurred for similar reasons as the State Investment Board investments, Burgum's office said.

State Treasurer Thomas Beadle, who sits on the Land Board and State Investment Board, said the Land Board is "actively" working to divest from Russia.

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As of Thursday, more than a million people had fled Ukraine, and Russian troops had gained control of their first major Ukrainian city, Kherson, since the invasion began a week ago, according to The New York Times. Russia is ramping up its attacks on civilian areas, indicating that the country is progressing into a more “brutal phase” of violence to pressure Ukraine and its people to surrender, the Times reported.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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