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Michigan plans to divest from Russia. It's not that simple.

Posted at 12:47 PM, Apr 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-22 12:47:42-04

LANSING, Mich. — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the State of Michigan Investment Board announced in the beginning of March that they want to divest from Russian businesses, but it's easier said than done.

The state Department of Treasury declined to give an update on how the divestment is progressing.

“I think it is worthy to make those sanctions,” said Tony Doblas-Madrid, an associate professor of economics at Michigan State University. “It is a sacrifice on the part of the rest of the world that is supporting Ukraine, but it is a very minor sacrifice, comparing to the enormous suffering and death and the tragedy that this war is.”

The state’s plan has been to divest the State of Michigan Retirement Systems pension plans from companies based in Russia and Belarus. While the state could not find any Belarusian investments, about $58 million are invested in Russian organizations and institutions out of a total of $98 billion of investments by the state.

“That's a significant amount of money,” said State Senator Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills. “And part of it is this statement to make sure it's known that this is important to us. Other organizations may follow.”

However, Bayer said that, in the long term, laws need to change, which is why she introduced a bill that would add Russia to the list of countries that sponsor terrorism and that the state would need to divest from. State Rep. Darrin Camilleri, a Brownstown Township Democrat, introduced the same bill in the House.

Still, experts say divesting in a situation like this isn't necessarily simple.

“One can decide to pull out of Russia, but it is not a very liquid market right now,” Doblas-Madrid said. “The stock market has been only reopened partially and there are many restrictions; You can't just sell rubles, or sell Russian stocks, the way you can trade euros for dollars or buy and sell Amazon stock.”

Some companies have decided to withdraw from Russia completely. Others are trying to keep their options open.

MSU economics Professor Raoul Minetti said some companies don’t want to lose the possibility of reentering the Russian market. He said what’s going to be interesting is the reaction of investors to a more timid investment approach.

“I think it's super interesting, very important and sensitive, because this shows, in a sense that corporations are not only for profit and business, but that there's some social and moral responsibility towards consumers and investor.”

Leaders of the Ukrainian community in Michigan said the divestment so far isn’t enough.

“But you still have a lot of businesses that are still working and supplying Russia with funds,” said Olena Danylyuk, the vice president of the Ukrainian - American Senate Committee of Metropolitan Detroit and member of the Ukrainian – American Crisis Response Committee. “We know that all blood of killed Ukrainians and our obscene devastated city is on their hands right now.”

As a restaurant owner himself state Rep. Tommy Brann, R-Wyoming, said small businesses should do their part. He says the first thing he and his employees did was check if they have Russian vodka.

“They said, see if got any Russian vodka, which we actually didn't,” Brann said. “We did check that right away. Sadly, Russia is just wrong at what they're doing…So I think we're making the right move on that, and statewide. Some of it is symbolic but in some of it will hurt Russia, too.”

The Yale School of Management publishes a continuously updated list of companies' divestment status and commitment.

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