On cluster bombs and data journalism

Before we get started, I want to be clear. I don’t support tobacco, cluster bomb manufacturers, nuclear weapons manufacturers, and the other socially harmful businesses mentioned in the recent brouhaha about Kiwisaver investments into the aforementioned companies. However, I think the reporting that NZ Herald did on this was misleading, in search of a good story at the expense of accuracy.

To recap: the Herald has recently been reporting on Kiwisaver, the NZ government retirement savings scheme (like an IRA). Their big headline was that $150mm has been invested by the major Kiwisaver providers into companies that produce cluster bombs, landmines, and other socially harmful products, and that they may be breaking a law banning investments into cluster bomb manufacturers. When you look into the details, their bold claims don’t look so strong.

Here are a few points that should have been included in the reporting:

Data journalism can be used to illuminate complex topics and explain them for a wide audience. It seems in this reporting that the story came first, and the numbers were presented in a misleading way to back it up. There is a nuanced discussion that could have been had about the ethics of index funds, and socially responsible investing, but that wasn’t what we got here.

N.B.: I may have read the article wrong, and all of the figures provided were active investments (it’s not clear at all to me which is being included). If that’s the case my conclusion would be quite different.

Update: More discussion index/active investments may be coming later this week.

  1. Westpac has $3.2 billion invested in their funds, ANZ has $5.5 billion, ASB has $5 billion↩︎

  2. Northrop Grumman is blacklisted by the NZ Superannuation Fund for selling mines. They had sales last year of $23.5 billion. $15 billion in products and $10.5 billion in services. This is split amongst Aerospace systems, Electronic systems, Information systems, and Technical services. Northrop Grumman doesn’t break out a landmine line item (and only mention mines once in their annual report, to say they have nothing to disclose about mine safety), but it looks like it is part of the Electronic systems segment, which did $5.5 billion in product sales and $1.3 billion in services (23% of total sales). Electronic systems also includes radar, space intelligence, navigation, land & self protection systems (probably where mines go, but also includes missiles, air defence, e.t.c.). ↩︎

  3. General Dynamics is blacklisted by the NZ Superannuation fund for selling cluster bombs. They had $31.4 billion in sales in 2015. They also don’t break out a clusterbomb line item (I’m sensing a pattern here), but it probably fits into the Combat Systems group which had $5.6 billion in sales (18%), and which also includes wheeled combat and tactical vehicles, tanks, weapons systems, and maintenance. ↩︎