Bad Investments Are Plaguing Kentucky’s Pension Systems–and One City Has Had Enough

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In 2009, the Kentucky Retirement System (KRS) made two bold investments. The first: a $100 million investment in a newly formed hedge fund called Arrowhawk Durable Alpha.

Next, the System placed $24 million in another, more established hedge fund—Camelot Group.

The investments were supposed to produce big returns and lift some weight off the shoulders of Kentucky’s woefully underfunded retirement system. But the reality was quite the opposite.

Less than three years after KRS’ initial investment, Arrowhawk Durable Alpha Fund failed and closed.

Around the same time, the founder and then-head of Camelot Group, Lawrence E. Penn III, was indicted on 32 counts of various fraud charges—he’d allegedly stolen more than $9 million of his investors’ money, according to prosecutors.

The KRS was eventually able to recover the $100 million it had invested in ArrowHawk. But when it came to Camelot Group, they weren’t so lucky.

That’s because the SEC froze Camelot’s assets in January, making it became impossible for KRS to withdraw its money.

Not that it mattered: predictably, Camelot hadn’t managed its investor’s money very well.

According to KRS documents, its initial investment of over $23 million was valued at a mere $12 million as of March—a 48 percent loss.

This string of poor investment decisions by KRS hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last week, the City of Fort Wright filed a class-action lawsuit against the Kentucky Retirement System, seeking restitution for the increased contributions required from the city due to investment losses associated with the ArrowHawk and Camelot funds, among others:

In its lawsuit, filed in Kenton Circuit Court, the city of Fort Wright said KRS violates the law with risky investments in hedge funds, venture capital funds, private equity funds, leveraged buyout funds and other “alternative investments” that have produced small returns and excessive management fees, possibly in excess of $50 million over the last five years.

KRS, which is publicly funded, is legally required to stick with relatively safe common stock and bond investments, at least with the local government pension and retiree health care money that it manages through its County Employees Retirement System, the city said.

“Some of the alternative asset investments selected by the board were start-up funds with virtually no track record,” attorneys for the city wrote in the suit.

Fort Wright wants a court order keeping its money out of alternative investments; an accounting of where its money has gone so far, including the disclosure of all investment management contracts; and restitution in excess of $50 million, to compensate it for allegedly improperly paid fees.

KRS manages investments for the two largest state-level and local-level pension systems: the Kentucky Employee Retirement System (KERS) for state employees, and the County Employees Retirement System (CERS), for local employees.
One of Fort Wright’s goals in filing the suit is to force KRS to separate its investments into two pools: one for KERS investments, and the other for CERS investments. According to Fort Wright attorneys, the CERS pool would involve less risky investments.

You only need to glance at the numbers to see the motivation for the proposed separation: KERS is dangerously underfunded (23 percent funded ratio), while CERS remains healthier by comparison (60 percent funded ratio).

That’s a direct result of local governments making their required contributions, in full, into the system. The state government, on the other hand, has consistently skimped out on such payments. This chart from Ballotpedia tell the whole story:

KERS chart

The dire health of KERS means money is more likely to be allocated toward riskier investments with promises of higher returns. When those returns don’t materialize as expected, however, the loss must be offset somehow. That burden unfairly falls on the cities and counties of Kentucky, argues Fort Wright’s lawsuit.

Indeed, ballooning pension costs were the scapegoat when the town of Covington laid off 22 employees in 2011. From the Cincinnati Enquirer:

The city’s pension costs accounted for $6.2 million out of its $47 million budget this year, Covington City Manager Larry Klein said. That’s double what it was 10 years ago, he said. Health care cost the city an additional $6 million.

“Imagine a private business having 25 percent of its revenue spent on pension and health care, not paychecks,” Klein said. “That is a drag on the budget. It means less of everything, less reinvestment, less infrastructure and less services.”

Fort Wright, and by extension CERS, want no part of that game.

“It’s a sinking ship over there,” said [Jerry] Miller, [a Louisville Councilman]. “My argument is, let’s cut our losses and separate CERS from the rest of the system and let CERS be managed more prudently, using plain-vanilla investment techniques instead of these risky equity funds that have enormous fees.

Attorneys for Fort Wright said they filed the lawsuit on behalf of all cities and counties in the state, but it remains to be seen whether others will take up arms.

 

Picture courtesy of PurpleSlog via Flickr Creative Commons License

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2 Responses to “Bad Investments Are Plaguing Kentucky’s Pension Systems–and One City Has Had Enough”

  1. click to go says:

    The very next time I read a blog, I hope that it won’t disappoint me just as much as this particular one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, however I actually believed you’d have something helpful to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of moaning about something you could possibly fix if you weren’t too busy seeking attention.

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