North Carolina Fund Draws Fire For Fees, Conflicts of Interest

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North Carolina Treasurer Janet Cowell is the sole trustee of the state Retirement System. That gives her power and control over the state’s pension investments that very few Treasurers share—but it also puts her in a position to take the brunt of the blame when things don’t go as planned.

Cowell is drawing an especially large amount of flak the past few months from critics condemning for her habit of accepting donations from investment firms—and then outsourcing investments to some of those same firms. Tom Bullock of WFAE reports:

During Cowell’s two successful campaigns to be North Carolina’s state Treasurer, 41 percent of her campaign donations came from out-of-state. Much of that money came from investment firms, insurance companies and lawyers…

The national average for state treasurers over the last two election cycles? Just shy of 11.5 percent.

In fact, over that same period 89 candidates vied to be a state’s treasurer. Only four had a higher percentage of out-of-state contributions. But in terms of total dollars, Janet Cowell is squarely at the top of that list.

Cowell declined to be interviewed for this story. Instead, her spokesman, Schorr Johnson, was made available.

“I’ll say that throughout Treasurer Cowell’s term in office she has been a consistent and vocal advocate for public financing for the office of state treasurer,” Johnson says.

Critics say there’s a reason for the influx of out-of-state cash (particularly from New York)—investment firms want the pension fund’s money, and Cowell is the one who makes those investment decisions.

Accordingly, Cowell is drawing fire for the fees paid to investment managers. Critics say the fund’s performance doesn’t justify the fees being shelled out—and some even claim that North Carolina is paying more fees that it’s letting on. David Sirota writes:

According to documents from the North Carolina Treasurer’s office, taxpayers paid $1.6 million in fees (or 0.7 percent of the $230 million Innovation Fund) to Credit Suisse for managing the fund last year. That, however, may not be the entire outlay on fees. As [Ted] Siedle’s report notes, the Innovation Fund directs capital through “fund of funds.” Those investments can also extract fees, which can be hidden in the lower returns passed on to investors.

Assuming these underlying funds charge the standard 2 percent management fee and 20 percent fee for investment performance, and taking into account private equity’s typical transaction, monitoring and operating fees, Siedle estimates that the fund is paying as much as $15.2 million in management fees each year (and that’s without factoring in any additional fees for investment performance). In all, Siedle estimates that since North Carolina’s Innovation Fund launched in 2010, as much as $65 million that was billed as going to local entrepreneurs may have gone to financial middlemen in the form of fees.

[…]

While there is no publicly available independently audited evidence of the Innovation Fund’s returns, fund officials said in 2013 that it had generated a 15 percent return so far. By comparison, the Russell 3000 has generated a 16.5 percent return since 2011, and the S&P 500 has shown a 58 percent return since 2011.

Ted Siedle, whom Sirota mentions above, has claimed for months that North Carolina was under-reporting the fees they paid to managers. He submitted his report to the SEC.

Photo by Emmanuel Huybrechts

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