Borja Barragan: “Risk is taking your bag and going without a euro to the missions”.

*Interview by María José Atienza. Published in Omnes on 06/07/2023

Founder of Altum Faithful Investing, Borja Barragan, together with a team of professionals both young and old, helps and advises religious institutions in the field of investment and financial asset management with a criterion based on the Social Doctrine of the Church.

How can a religious institution or a diocese professionally manage an investment portfolio, and is it possible to know whether the companies or funds in which they invest are fully aligned with the Magisterium of the Church? To answer and help with these questions Altum Faithful Investing was born, a financial advisory firm that combines solid and stable wealth growth and the application of Catholic principles founded by Borja Barragán.

The idea was born out of Barragán’s awareness of his own personal and matrimonial vocation. As he points out in this interview with Omnes, he was surprised to learn about the abusive commissions charged to religious for these services and the lack of alignment of some investments with the Social Doctrine of the Church.

How was a company like Altum Faithful Investing born?
-Seven or eight years ago, I was studying for a Master’s degree in Family Pastoral Care at the John Paul II Institute. For me, on a personal level, it was an absolute rediscovery of the vocation to marriage: God is once again at the centre of your vocational married life… And, therefore, the rest of things are also coming into order.

Among the Master’s students there were also religious men and women. They knew that I was involved in financial matters, because I have always worked in investment banking, financial markets, investment portfolios, etc., and they consulted me on these matters. In that respect, there were two things that really caught my attention. The first was the issue of commissions, the very high commissions charged to religious people. On the other hand, there was also the lack of coherence between some of the portfolios of the religious and the faith professed. This was not due to bad intentions, but because they trusted those who had “advised” them.

I believe that one of the first aspects that we have to take into account in the logic of the gift is to manage it correctly. Many religious institutions have a large part of their patrimony derived from donations made by the people and, faced with the gift received, you have the task of managing it well.

I noticed a vacuum. There was no one who had the vocation and the will to try to manage this heritage in a way that was coherent with the faith in order to help religious institutions in a professional way. Because we are very clear that being “Catholic” does not exempt us, on the contrary, from being very professional.

From that point on, there was a powerful process of discernment. I spoke with my wife, with several priests and also in front of the Tabernacle, thinking about how to put my talents, what I am good at – financial management – at the service of institutions that have accompanied me throughout my life.

Until relatively recently, it was rare to hear the terms “investments – Church” combined. Do you think there is professionalism in this field or is there still a long way to go?
-I believe that management in dioceses, religious institutions, etc., is done in the best possible way. The fact that there are trained bursars at the head of these institutions is already an achievement. It is true that there are very big cultural differences between the Anglo-Saxon or Central European world and the one that has existed for a long time in Spain.

The approach is completely different in Anglo-Saxon culture. For them, from the “gift received”, for example, of wealth, comes the obligation to manage and administer it in the best possible way, with professional people.

On the ethical side, the push has come in recent years. In 2018, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life published “Economy at the service of Charism and Mission” and, also in 2018, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development published “Oeconomicae et Pecuniariae Quaestiones. Considerations for an ethical discernment on some aspects of the current economic and financial system“. Those were the first major steps that were later developed in the recent document “Mensuram Bonam“.

Clearly the Church is realising that there is a patrimony to manage well and it is not for religious to buy Ferraris. But because, in order to do good, you need goods. You have to see how to make those goods bear fruit in the best possible way.

The main difference with the Anglo-Saxon world is that they have been working for 300 years with the concept of endowment.

Before setting up Altum, I went to Harvard for training. There I got to know the concept of endowment in depth. In the case of universities, for example, the endowment is managed with the needs of students in 50 years’ time in mind, so that they have the same opportunities as today’s students. Something similar happens in the congregational and diocesan world: these assets are there to meet the needs of vocations in 50 years’ time. In order to take care of such a long time horizon, the tolerance for risk has to be greater.

If we look at which assets have performed best, which have given the best returns, in the long term there is no doubt that the assets that have best withstood inflation are equities, not bonds. That is where financial science comes in to help religious entities to have a balanced management of their assets. It is not saying that everything should go into equities and that all risk should be taken, but that they should be able to take a risk appropriate to their own risk tolerance. In line with their capacity and, above all, good for their time horizon.

If we are short-sighted and focus only on taking on risk-free portfolios, the objective of guaranteeing the same opportunities in 50 years’ time, I guarantee you, will not be achieved. Inflation will simply eat up that wealth.

And is this idea of avoiding short-termism and taking on risk catching on?
-Little by little. Our own clients tell us so. Many come from the “deposit world” before 2008. In 2008, with the big crisis, interest rates disappeared, nobody gave anything for the money. Now they can give a little more for these deposits, and the request they make is to see how to assume a little more risk in order to be able to look beyond 5 years.

Another thing we see is that, more and more, the people who are in charge of the administration of these types of institutions are looking to be prepared. They are asking for training to be able to have a conversation on an equal footing with the banks they sit down with.

Don’t you think that, even so, words like “risk” or “profit” in the Church give rise to some hesitation?
-The word risk in the Church can be a bit scary, but it is the missionaries, the religious, who have taken a bag and, without a euro in their pocket, have crossed the world to go on missions in hostile countries. For me, that is a risk.

In any case, we should be more concerned, not so much about whether Church institutions make a profit on investments, because we know that this profit is to be invested in the upkeep of churches, in aid to charity, etc., but about how this profit is obtained and what it is being used for.

You have recently launched a system of certification of funds under criteria based on the Social Doctrine of the Church. How do you carry out this certification?
-You cannot analyse a company by the private life of its CEO or the behaviour of its employees. To do it in an objective way – we are talking about investments – we have to look at two aspects.

The first is to know whether the activity of the company conflicts with the Magisterium of the Church or not. We are looking for companies to be what they are. Not that they should be flying the cross and praying the Angelus, but that they should provide a series of goods, services, quality products, at affordable costs, that they should treat their employees well and pay them, and so on. That is what is required of a company. This is what we mean when we say that the activity it carries out does not conflict with the Magisterium. The second part refers to the practices of the company as a company and whether or not they conflict with the Social Doctrine of the Church. For example, we can invest in a company that makes tables; something that, at first glance, does not conflict with the Social Doctrine of the Church. But what if this company’s philanthropic policy includes making large donations to Planned Parenthood; does it make sense for me, as a Catholic, to be financing a company that donates to projects that are clearly contrary to the Church’s morals and Magisterium?

The first step is to analyse the companies, through a whole methodology that we have and through Altum’s investment guidelines, so that neither the practices nor the activities conflict with the Social Doctrine of the Church. We work mainly through direct dialogue with companies, which is called engagement. In 2022 we made more than 600 engagements with companies to “walk in truth”. When faced with controversial information from a company, we want to know their opinion. Not because we are the fairest but because, also in our methodology, we are guided by the see – judge – act approach that the Social Doctrine of the Church supports. In order to judge and act, in our case, we first have to see.

What points are important for an institution when it comes to investment advice?
-I think there are three key points.

The first is trust – independence. They have to have full confidence in the person who is going to advise them. That trust has to come from independence. In many cases, financial advisors are paid by the banks, or in the case of non-independent entities, they are paid by the banks and the investment funds they place with the client, and there is a clear conflict of interest: what is offered to the client, what suits him best or what generates the most commission for the bank or banker?

In addition to this, professionalism must be added to this first point. Any financial advisor must be an advisor regulated by the Comisión Nacional del Mercado de Valores (National Securities Market Commission) in the case of Spain.

Secondly, not everything goes. When the banker comes along and presents investment products, socially responsible investment is sold a lot to religious people, but the current approach to socially responsible investment can conflict with the Magisterium. For example, you can have a company that has a very good ESG (environmental, social and governance) rating because it has no toxic emissions, the shareholder board is 50/50 male and 50/50 female and all stakeholders are delighted. But if that company is doing embryonic stem cell research, should we invest there? No. Not everything goes, and this is one of the reasons why investment fund managers have asked us for this qualification.

Thirdly, real estate. In many cases, you have to let go of past attachments to be able to look to the future. Houses or communities have to be closed to ensure the survival of the institute for the next 100 years. This management, in which we find assets that are complicated from an urban planning point of view, but also very juicy for investment funds, requires professional accompaniment, unless they are experts in real estate issues.

Perhaps less well known but equally striking is your involvement in projects such as Libres. A new patronage?
-Within the large multinationals, there is the possibility of charities, acts of donation. When I worked in banking, I always found that when I wanted to donate to religious institutions, the answer was “No”. Why? Because they are religious. I thought that, when I had my company, I wanted to help religious life, which helps me so much.

In Altum we have the Altum100x1 programme: As a company, the dividends that would be paid to the shareholders (I am the only one), are donated to evangelisation projects that have to have at least one of these three characteristics: promotion of prayer, promotion of the mission and the formation of vocations.

We have been supporting projects for several years now and in the case of Libres it was absolutely natural. From a seed, a production such as Libres has come out, which makes known the lives of those people who, quietly, support us and it is a way of promoting all this.

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