Church loses pounds 9m in Asian recession

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THE CHURCH of England has pulled out of nine Far East investment trusts after their value dropped by more than pounds 9m in less than a year during the financial crisis in the region.

Other funds held by the Church Commissioners in the Far East dropped in value by more than pounds 4m last year, figures given in answer to an MP's questions reveal.

While the commissioners' spokesman said the investments were part of a well- balanced strategy and represented a tiny proportion of their holdings, an MP reopened criticism o f the church's investment policy.

The commissioners lost pounds 500m after a series of disastrous property deals during the Eighties. Since then they have been moving funds out of property and into stocks and shares. Last year, they put an extra pounds 80m into overseas equities.

The in-house management of the commissioners' overseas equities portfolio has now been brought to an end.

Instead, three fund managers have been appointed to run it - Capital International, Wellington and Schroders.

In their annual report, the commissioners said the increasing complexity of overseas markets and a wish to increase overseas investment had prompted that decision.

Of pounds 150m in overseas equities at the beginning of last year, around pounds 50m was in 18 funds, most of them in the Far East. By the end of the year the commissioners had sold their holdings in nine of the funds. At the beginning of 1997 they were worth pounds 26m, but when sold, the investments were worth just pounds 17m.

The information was released in reply to a question by Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes. He claimed the details had not been contained in the commissioners' annual report and accounts.

"This shows yet again that the Church Commissioners' investment policy lacks credibility and performs badly in certain areas ... this information had to be wrung out of them. It seems they have caught Asian flu," he added.

The Church Commissioners' spokesman suggested that the losses were insignificant as normal market movements could cause the body's holdings to fluctuate by as much as pounds 25m in one day.

Over the course of last year, the commissioners' funds increased in value by a total of pounds 505m to almost pounds 3.5bn, he said.

Both their North American and European portfolios had produced good results, and the investments as a whole had performed better than standard benchmarks.

"It is very insignificant in terms of overall sums," the commissioners' spokesman added. "Everyone knows what has been happening to the Japanese economy.

"In terms of public perception, people who don't appreciate things from a financial point of view will look at it and think pounds 9m is a large sum of money."

The spokesman added that the Church Commissioners had held the funds for some time and that the figures for the end of 1996 did not show how much they bought them for.