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Church of England endowment fund divests from Wonga

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The Church Commissioners, whose £6.1bn (€7.7bn) endowment fund finances the Church of England’s activities, as well as some of its pension obligations, have sold the fund’s indirect holding in Wonga, the controversial payday lender.

The investment was held within the fund’s venture capital portfolio as part of a shareholding in US-based Accel Partners, a global private equity firm specialising in technology companies.

It was uncovered a year ago by the Financial Times, a particularly embarrassing revelation as it followed a public vow by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury – head of the Church of England – to “compete [Wonga] out of existence”.

The Commissioners said they had not made any profit from their investment exposure to Wonga.

They said the holding, valued at £75,000, represented much less than 0.01% of the value of the payday lender. 

They also emphasised they had no direct investments in Wonga or any other payday lenders.

The 12-month gap between the discovery of the holding and its eventual sale shows the difficulties involved for investors extricating themselves from unlisted assets.

It is estimated that if the Commissioners had had to sell their entire venture capital holdings, they might have lost £3m-9m in removing the exposure to Wonga via a secondaries deal.

The Commissioners said: “We are pleased another way forward has been agreed, given our fiduciary duties to clergy pensioners and to all the parts of the Church we support financially.”

They declined to give further details as to the precise nature of the deal, but they added: “We believe venture capital to be a good and useful instrument with significant potential to serve the common good. It gets new businesses up and running and supports the economy and jobs.”

The Commissioners have recently tightened their ethical restrictions for direct investments and will announce new controls on indirect investments later this year.

They have also created a new post to lead the implementation of the Commissioners’ ethical investment policies and responsible investment commitments. 

This post will be assumed in August by Edward Mason, currently secretary to the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group, which shapes investment policy.

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