As China's appetite for coal is booming, American investors and businesses are cashing in.
American pension and mutual fund money is being invested in the Chinese coal industry, which is lucrative but in general has a poor record for pollution and worker safety.
The biggest Chinese coal company is China Shenhua Energy of Beijing, which produces about 170 million tons of coal a year from 21 mines and builds power plants. While about 80 percent of the company's stock is owned by Shenhua Group in Beijing, the rest of its shareholders reads like a who's who of U.S. investors: Fidelity Investments, OppenheimerFunds, Merrill Lynch, even the Teachers Retirement System of Texas.
The performance of Shenhua's Hong Kong-listed shares explains why U.S. investors love Chinese coal. Shenhua gained almost 65 percent from July through September, while Peabody -- a favorite of analysts who follow U.S. coal companies -- lost more than 3 percent over the same period. Shenhua's initial public offering in Shanghai in September raised $8.9 billion, a record for mainland China.
Shenhua has noted that its record for worker safety is far above the average in China, and that it is exploring ways to make coal cleaner.
U.S. investment in Chinese coal stocks has gone largely unnoticed. Individual investors such as the retired Texas teachers probably don't know that's where their money is going, says corporate government expert Nell Minow. But whatever their concerns about Chinese coal companies, investors find poor returns upsetting, she notes.
"You're really on the horns of a dilemma," she says. "You can't afford not to be in China."
A spokesman for the Texas pension fund declined to comment.
Even environmental groups that have criticized the U.S. coal industry for practices such as mountaintop-removal mining have been largely silent on investing in Chinese coal. The Rainforest Action Network, for instance, focused on the U.S. in its criticism of Citigroup. and Bank of America's involvement with the coal industry.