“HUGE volatility” in international politics, including stances on trade, means that “there has never been a more uncertain time” for global investment markets, the secretary and chief executive of the Church Commissioners, Andrew Brown, has said on announcing his retirement.
Mr Brown, who was appointed in 2003, will step down at the end of January 2020. Managing the Commissioners’ £8.2-billion investment portfolio in a “very uncertain time” would be a key challenge for his successor, he said on Wednesday.
“The Church has thrived on sustainable levels of support from the Commissioners; so a challenge going forward is to ensure that the funds are managed in a sustainable way in a very uncertain time.
“Investment markets will respond to global trends; this year, investment markets have seen huge volatility in political issues — stances that governments take on trade, for example. The Commissioners invest in those markets; so we need to ensure that we have good active managers.”
Another challenge, Mr Brown said, would be maintaining the Commissioners’ role as a responsible investor, “the part we play in trying to make a difference in corporate Britain”.
In a survey of asset owners who contribute most to sustainable investment, published by the Independent Research in Responsible Investment this week, the Commissioners and C of E Pensions Board came second — behind CalPERS, the Californian state pension fund. “That is about the Church using its resources beyond how money can make a difference,” Mr Brown said.
He often remembers the children’s hymn “Jesus bids us shine” — specifically the line “You in your small corner, and I in mine” — which he would sing at Sunday school.
“For the Church Commissioners, our small corner is the responsibility for what we do: not just how we invest our £8.2 billion on behalf of the C of E, but our relationship with business to encourage greater responsible practice, and the role we have as shareholders.
“That challenge is only going to increase: my successor will have that. We need to properly resource it; we’ve invested heavily in the past, and we need to carry on doing that.”
Part of this is engaging with oil and mining giants at board level to encourage transparency about the management, safety, and their environmental impacts (News, 24 May, 12 April). “I am fully supportive of Edward Mason travelling to the Exxon meeting in Dallas; that is part of the investment we make in being a responsible investor.”
Mr Brown joined the Commissioners as chief surveyor in 1994 from a private practice firm of chartered surveyors in London.
“In those days, real estate was about 55 per cent of the Commissioners’ assets. In 2003 [when he was appointed secretary and chief executive], it had reduced, through intentional sales, to about 35 per cent.
“I was keen, with others, to broaden our asset base from just property and securities equities to a range of other investments, and to become more global . . . We now have an extremely diversified investment portfolio which helps us manage the risk in any one market at a particular time.”
A significant challenge of his tenure was maintaining the same level of distribution in 2008, during “the deepest depression recession in this country since the 1930s. That has been a major challenge: we didn’t grow, but we didn’t cut it either.”
Another challenge has been recruitment “to expand the professionalism of the investment team: finding people who are committed to responsible, long-term investment”, as well as building relationships. “It can be a challenge, because the Church is very broad.”
Mr Brown is most proud of his part in bringing the Commissioners and the Church closer together — not only practically (the Commissioners moved from Milbank to Church House in 2007), but by involving the Archbishops’ Council and House of Bishops in deciding how and where its funds were distributed.
“I was keen that our distributions, where we had discretion, could be more intentional, and that there could be greater alignment between the priorities and resources of the Church.”
Most recently, this has included funding mission in new housing areas, and the strategic development fund set up in 2017.
“Not all projects are going to work, we understand that, but there is a much greater alignment between resources and priorities. . . Like a venture-capital approach, it is the dioceses and parishes that drive the projects. . .
“It is match funding; so it comes back to alignment. It has been a healthy change to see the Commissioners in partnership with the Archbishops’ Council.”
Mr Brown felt gratitude and privilege on approaching retirement, he said. “I will be sad at leaving. I have been very fortunate. We have some very talented people here, and it has been a privilege to work with them. It sounds quaint, but I believe it.
“I am very grateful that I have been able to serve the Church in this way, and have such an interesting career that, I hope, has made a difference.”
Mr Brown does not plan to be idle in retirement. He has been appointed chair of the charitable investment company William Leech; is an accredited mediator and trustee of Mediation Hertfordshire, which does pro-bono community mediation; and is open to taking up non-executive positions. Besides spending time with his family, he has also just taken on an allotment.