Pennsylvania Pension Officials Defend Investment Strategy After Governor Calls for Overhaul

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Last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf released his first budget proposal.

Wolf has said many times that he doesn’t support a full overhaul of the state’s pension system. But his budget did contain some pension-related changes.

Wolf is calling for the state’s pension funds to take a more passive approach to investing and to cut down the fees it pays to managers. The proposal was short on specifics but called for the funds to “prudently maximize future investment returns through cost effective investment strategies.”

PhillyDeals columnist Joseph N. DiStefano talked to spokesman for the state’s two pension funds – SERS and PSERS – and got their official reactions to the budget proposal.

SERS reaction:

“We are working to gather details on the Governor’s plan, so I can’t speak to it specifically,” SERS spokeswoman Pamela Hile told me. “What I can tell you is that last year, a little more than 0.5% of the total fund value went to management fees. This, in the view of the Board, does not represent an excessive amount.”

“Looking at the issue from a long-term perspective, over the past decade, SERS paid $2.4 billion in fees, while earning $19.7 billion net of fees and expenses AND paying out $23.2 billion in retirement benefits.

“Compare that performance to an industry standard 60% equity/40% bond index fund, SERS’ performance added $4.9 billion of value to the fund with 0.5% less volatility.

“To further illustrate this value, our alternative investment program, built with top-tier investment managers, outperformed the U.S. public market equities return by 5% net of all fees over the decade ended 2013… Over the past five years, we reduced fees 30%. We get good value for the fees we pay…

“In 2013, SERS earned $3.7 billion, after all investment management fees and expenses of $175 million were paid. From a basic dollar perspective, that’s like paying $175 over the year to net $3,700 in your pocket at the end of the year.”

The PSERS spokesperson told DiStefano:

“We are not aware of the details of the Governor’s proposal on investment management fees. We have not met with him,” and won’t comment on details of the proposal until they are available.

“Our investment management fees are not excessive relative to the incremental value generated. PSERS paid $482 million in investment expenses for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2014. This amounts to 0.93% of our fund.

“By spending those fees, we earned an additional $1.27 billion (net of fees) ABOVE the index return,” Williams added in an email. “We would not have that additional $1.27 billion or 2.8% in additional investment performance if we did not use active managers.

“Looking longer term for the past 15 fiscal years (2000-2014), PSERS incurred $4.96 billion in investment management fees. In exchange for those fees, the Fund received the index returns plus an additional $16.42 billion in excess performance gross of the fees incurred. So, net of fees, PSERS generated $11.46 billion of incremental performance above the applicable index returns.

Read more of their remarks, including reaction to Wolf’s pension bond proposal, here.

 

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Pennsylvania Gov. Budget Proposal: Overhaul Pension Investment Strategy and Cut Fees, Managers

Tom Wolf

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf released his first budget proposal last week, and there were several items of interest related to pensions.

On Wednesday, Pension360 covered Wolf’s proposal for issuing $3 billion in pension bonds to attempt to shore up the funding of the state’s two major pension systems.

But Wolf is also proposing an overhaul of the systems’ investment strategy.

Specifically, Wolf is calling for the systems to take a more passive approach to investing and to cut down the fees it pays to managers.

The proposal was short on specifics but called for the funds to “prudently maximize future investment returns through cost effective investment strategies.”

More from ai-cio.com:

The “commonsense reforms” mean its two state pension plans would have to “seek less costly passive investment approaches where appropriate,” according to the budget.

Pennsylvania’s employee and teachers’ pensions together have upwards of $50 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. Wolf’s budget blamed the growing gap primarily on “repeated decisions by policy makers to delay making the required contribution to fund our future pension obligations.”

The state has not paid its full pension bill for more than 15 years, the budget document noted.

While the proposal was light on specifics for reforming pension investment strategy, the outcome would “significantly reduce taxpayer costs for professional fund managers,” it claimed.

The state largest plan, the $52 billion Public School Employees’ Retirement System, already managed roughly a quarter of its assets in-house, as of June 2014. Its portfolio included relatively standard allocations to fee-heavy asset classes, such as private equity (16.3%) and real estate (13.8%).

Net-of-fees, the teachers’ pension returned an annualized 10.3% over the last five years.

The executive director of the state’s Public School Employees Retirement System defended the fund’s investment strategy in a newspaper piece last year.

 

Photo by Governor Tom Wolf via Flickr CC License

New Orleans Pension Considers Index Investing After 2014 Performance Lags

Graph With Stacks Of Coins

The New Orleans Municipal Employees Retirement System returned less than 5 percent in 2014, a number that is pushing some board members – including the city’s finance director – to consider a more passive investment strategy.

Trustee and city finance director Norman Foster argued this week that the fund should be investing in funds that passively follow indices like the S&P 500, which saw double digit returns in 2014.

From NOLA.com:

Several board members expressed some frustration with the fund’s investment performance, none more than Norman Foster, the city’s finance director.

Foster argued that the city would have been better served by investing in index funds, passive investment vehicles that track the market and eliminate costly management fees. “I’ve made the case for passive investment, and I’ll be making it more and more,” he said.

[…]

Some of the performance lag can be attributed to the fund’s asset mix. Like many pension systems, the retirement system invests heavily in bonds, a strategy that minimizes risk but also limits returns during market booms.

Foster pointed out, however, that even when the asset mix is taken into account, the fund’s performance fell short of index benchmarks by nearly 3 percent, which means the managers failed to beat the market, despite collecting handsome fees.

Ian Jones, who advises the retirement system on investment issues, warned against dumping its asset managers based on one year’s worth of data.

The fund assumes a 7.5 percent annual return.

Over the past seven years, the fund’s returns have averaged 4.21 percent annually.

 

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How Hedge Funds Keep Winning Clients Despite Prolonged Slump

Graph With Stacks Of Coins

The average hedge fund has returned 5.1 percent annually over the last 10 years, according to HFR, a hedge fund data firm.

The investment vehicle has even been outperformed by many “balanced” mutual funds. But the flow of clients to hedge funds isn’t slowing down, which begs the question: how do hedge funds keep winning clients when performance is so paltry?

Gregory Zuckerman dives into that question and comes up with some interesting answers:

How to explain the paradox of a superhot investment vehicle producing ice-cold returns for clients more smitten than ever?

Part of the reason for the lackluster returns: Hedge funds don’t have the same incentive to hit home runs they once did. They can charge management fees of close to 2% of assets. As the industry swells, many managers can get rich just keeping their funds afloat. A decent performance and no huge loss will do just fine.

The head of one of the world’s largest funds recently told me his challenge is to get his traders to embrace more risk, not less. Hedge-fund traders are more conservative because it’s in their self-interest to be more conservative.

There are similar ways to explain why hedge-fund clients aren’t up in arms. Some see an expensive market and want to be in a vehicle that should do better in a downturn.

But others simply want to keep their jobs. Recommending low-cost balanced mutual funds can be hard to justify if one has a well-paid job at a big pension fund or endowment. Properly allocating money to hedge funds is seen as a bigger challenge. Investing in brand-name hedge funds instead of big stocks once might have put an institutional investor’s career on thin ice. Today, avoiding popular hedge funds to wager on the market is seen as a risky career move.

Read more from his piece here.

 

Photo credit: www.SeniorLiving.Org

George Soros: Hedge Funds “Not a Winning Strategy” For Pensions

George Soros

Hedge fund guru George Soros said at the Davos Economic Forum last week that he doesn’t think pension funds should be investing in hedge funds. He cited the current market, management fees and recent under-performance as reasons for his view.

More from FinAlternatives:

George Soros echoed Warren Buffett’s concerns about the intersection of hedge funds and pension funds.

Speaking at the Davos Economic Forum last week, Soros said that pension funds should avoid investing in hedge funds and warned of increased risks and concerns about the global middle class and retirees. Soros cited hedge fund management fees in his argument that pushing public employee money into hedge funds is foolish.

“Current market conditions are difficult for hedge funds,” said Soros. “Their performance tends to be equal to the average plus or minus a 20 percent management fee.”

“You will always have some hedge funds that will provide outside performance …” he continued. “To put a large portfolio into a hedge fund is not a winning strategy.”

Soros founded Soros Fund Management in the late 60’s. For decades, it was one of the best-performing firms in the hedge fund industry.

 

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Video: Raimondo Talks Pension Settlement, Defends 2011 Reforms

In this interview, new Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo discusses the amount of fees the pension system pays to Wall Street managers and defends her pension reforms (2:00 mark); she also talks about a possible settlement with the retirees suing the state over those reforms (3:20 mark).

 

Photo by By Jim Jones (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

New Jersey Pension Encounters Difficulty Exiting Investment With Firm At Which Mary Pat Christie Holds Top Job

No Exit

It’s been nearly four years since New Jersey’s pension system terminated an investment with Angelo, Gordon & Co, an investment firm where Mary Pat Christie, wife of Gov. Chris Christie, is managing director.

But as the International Business Times reports, the pension system is still paying fees to the firm because certain portions of the investment are particularly illiquid – the pension system has yet to be able to exit them fully.

Some say the situation is a troubling conflict of interest. Others say it is emblematic of one of the criticisms of alternative investments: pension funds can’t exit whenever they like.

From the International Business Times:

When the New Jersey pension system terminated a $150 million investment in a fund called Angelo, Gordon & Co. in 2011, that did not close the books on the deal. In the three years since state officials ordered the withdrawal of that state money, New Jersey taxpayers have forked over hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees to the firm. As those fees kept flowing, Angelo Gordon made a prominent hire: Mary Pat Christie, wife of Gov. Chris Christie, who joined the company in 2012 as a managing director and now earns $475,000 annually, according to the governor’s most recent tax return.

The disclosure that New Jersey taxpayers have been paying substantial fees to a firm that employs the governor’s spouse — years after state officials said the investment was terminated — emerged in documents released by the Christie administration to International Business Times through a public records request.

[…]

New Jersey’s original $150 million investment in Angelo Gordon was initiated in 2006, under Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat. By October 2011, state records show, the investment — which was in a multi-strategy hedge fund called AG Garden Partners — had generated just a 5.5 percent return in six years. That month, New Jersey investment officials sent a letter telling the firm to “withdraw, as of December 31, 2011, one hundred percent of the [state’s] capital account.” Yet the state subsequently paid Angelo Gordon management fees of more than $255,000 in 2012, more than $132,000 in 2013 and more than $82,000 for the first three quarters of 2014.

[New Jersey Treasury Department] Spokesman Santarelli told IBTimes that while “New Jersey redeemed its interest in the AG fund and ended its investment [in 2011] we still have a remaining market value of $6.6 million invested related to illiquid investments, which have been winding down slowly over the last few years.”

New Jersey State Investment Council chairman Thomas Byrne gave his reaction to the IB Times:

“This is standard; we are not doing something different here that is outside the norms of the financial industry and the world of private partnerships,” he said.

“We are paying fees on whatever money is left in there, so it could be an asset that could be increasing in value,” Byrne said. “So why should the manager work for free if they are hamstrung in the short term but they have made an investment that makes sense? A contract is a contract and presumably both sides are working in good faith to get out of it, and a deal is a deal.”

Read the entire IB Times report here.

 

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Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Calls For Audit of State Pension System

Kentucky flag

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce is pushing for an audit of the Kentucky Retirement Systems – specifically, a review of its investment performance and policies.

Reported by the Courier-Journal:

Chamber President and CEO Dave Adkisson announced Thursday that the group wants a review of the investment performance and use of outside investment managers — among other issues — at Kentucky Retirement Systems, which has amassed more than $17 billion in unfunded liabilities.

While the state has made progress in addressing pensions, “serious problems persist that pose a significant threat to the state’s financial future,” Adkisson said. “The business community is concerned about the overall financial condition of our state.”

[State Auditor Adam] Edelen said in a statement Thursday that he shares the chamber’s concerns, but he also noted that at least three major reviews of KRS have occurred over the past few years.

[…]

KRS Executive Director Bill Thielen said officials will fully cooperate if Edelen decides to perform an audit. But also he pointed out that the system has been subject to continuous examinations, including audits, legislative reviews and a two-year investigation of investment managers by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.

“None of those have turned up anything that is out-of-sorts,” he said. “A lot of the questions or concerns that the chamber seemingly raised have been answered numerous times.”

Thielen added that KRS doesn’t disclose the individual fees it pays managers because confidentiality helps officials negotiate lower rates.

State Auditor Adam Edelen said Thursday he hadn’t made a decision on whether to begin an audit of KRS. He said in a press release:

“For this proposed exam to add value and bring about real fixes to the system, it will require broad, bipartisan support and additional resources for our office to conduct the highly technical work…We have begun discussing the matter with stakeholders. No final decision has been made at this time.”

The founder of one retiree advocate group laid blame for the system’s underfunding on the state’s contributions, not investment policy, and was skeptical that the audit would yield fruitful results. Quoted in the Courier-Journal:

Jim Carroll, co-founder Kentucky Government Retirees, a pension watchdog group organized on Facebook, called the proposed audit a “red-herring” and argued that the financial problems in KERS non-hazardous are the result of year of employer underfunding.

He said KRS investments don’t yield the returns of some other systems because the low funding levels force them to invest defensively.

“I’m skeptical that anything useful would come out of another audit,” he said. “Not to say that there shouldn’t be more transparency, but that’s a separate issue.”

KRS’ largest sub-plan – KERS non-hazardous – is 21 percent funded.

Newspaper: Kentucky Pension Officials Have “Forgotten Whom They Work For”

Kentucky flag

Pension360 has covered the push in recent weeks by several Kentucky lawmakers to make the state’s pension system more transparent.

The secrecy surrounding Kentucky’s pension investments is well documented, and the issue has even spurred a lawsuit.

One Kentucky newspaper wrote Tuesday that pension officials have “forgotten whom they work for” – the public.

The Herald-Dispatch editorial board writes:

Apparently, [pension officials] are in sore need of a reminder that they are employed to serve the public and, as such, how they conduct their business should be open to scrutiny by the public.

[…]

Some want to know more about how the pension funds operate. As of now, Kentucky law allows the systems to operate partly shielded from the public. For example, the public is not allowed to know how much is paid out to individual retirees, nor does the systems have to reveal how much they pay out in fees to individual hedge fund managers who are investing the pension money and other external investment advisers. But we do know they are paying out hefty sums, to the tune of $55 million last year to investment management firms.

The public has a right to know both of those aspects of the pension system.

[…]

Private investment companies doing business with governments also must realize who’s paying their fees and that accountability comes with gaining contracts with government-run pension systems. The excuse put forth by Kentucky officials and others about how revealing the investment companies’ contracts would reveal “trade secrets” doesn’t hold up. That argument simply is not sufficient to conceal how much money they are making from taxpayers and the public employees who contribute to the systems. Until that information is revealed, the public has no way to know whether it’s getting its money’s worth from those companies.

A couple of Kentucky lawmakers plan to introduce bills next month that would require the pension systems to use the state’s competitive bidding process, disclosing terms of the deals and the proposed management fees, as well as shed more light on the pension payouts to the state’s lawmakers. All of those requirements would be steps in the right direction and should be put into law.

Read the full piece here.

Yves Smith on AOI’s Hedge Fund Principles

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This week, the Alignment of Interests Association (AOI) released a set of proposed changes in the way hedge funds do business with their investors, such as pension funds.

AOI, a group to which many pension funds belong, said that hedge funds should only charge performance fees when returns beat benchmarks, and that fee structures should better link fees to long-term performance.

The proposals can be read here.

Yves Smith wrote a post at Naked Capitalism on Thursday weighing in on some of the proposals. The post can be read below.

_______________________

By Yves Smith, originally published at Naked Capitalism

Admittedly, some of [AOI’s] ideas sound promising, such as requiring funds to disclose if they have in-house pools not open to outside investors, or if they are subject to non-routine regulatory inquiries. But their key proposals are around fees. As readers probably know from private equity, the devil for this sort of thing lies in the details.

One of this group’s Big Ideas is requiring funds to meet benchmarks before profit shares are paid out, meaning the famed prototypical 20% upside fees. And they do sensibly want those fees to be based on annual rather than monthly or quarterly performance (with more frequent fees, an investor could have a lot of performance fees paid out in the good periods more than offset by underperformance or losses in the bad ones, and not see a settling up until he exited the fund or it was wound up. Longer performance periods reduce the odds of overpayment for blips of impressive results). But private equity funds have long had clawbacks. Yet as we’ve discussed at length, those clawbacks are virtually never paid out in practice. One big reason is the way the clawbacks intersect with tax provisions that serve to vitiate the clawback. It would be perfectly reasonable for hedge funds to ask for provisions similar to those used by private equity funds, with those clever tax attorneys modifying them to the degree possible to make them work just as well, from the perspective of the hedgies, as they do for private equity funds.

Hedge fund investors also want management fees to scale more with the size of fund. Again, that exists now to some degree in private equity funds, with megafunds charging much lower management fees. But it isn’t clear how much the hedge funds investors will gain. Bloomberg reports that the average management fee in the second quarter of this year was 1.5% of assets. That’s lower than typical private equity fees, which according to Eileen Appelbaum’s and Rosemary Batt’s Private Equity at Work still averaged 2%, and for funds over $1 billion, 1.71%. And of course, the fact that hedge fund agreements are treated as confidential, just as private equity agreements are, impedes fee comparisons and tougher bargaining. If this group really wanted to drive a tougher bargain, they’d insist on having the contracts be transparent. That proposal is notably absent.

In keeping, the AOI also calls for better governance. We’ve seen how well that works from private equity land. “Governance” in private equity consists of an advisory board which is chosen by the general partner from among its limited partners. You can bet that the general partners choose the most loyal and clueless investors. The only way one might take oversight arrangements seriously is if these funds had far more independent boards, as is the case with mutual funds.

So while I would be delighted to be proven wrong, history says that there isn’t much reason to expect this effort to get tougher with hedge funds to live up to its billing. And with new investment dollars continuing to pour in despite mediocre performance (assets under management rose 13% in the last year, with roughly half the increase coming from new contributions/a>. As long as investors are putting more money into hedge funds despite dubious performance, there isn’t sufficient negotiating leverage to push for more than token reforms.

 

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