Maryland Officials Warn Against Plan to Cut State Pension Payments

scissors cutting one dollar bill

Maryland lawmakers are considering cutting the state’s payments into its pension system, citing strong investment performance.

The cuts would total $2 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Maryland Reporter.

But several key government officials are wary of the plan, including the state’s Budget Secretary and Comptroller.

From the Maryland Reporter:

Comptroller Peter Franchot and Gov. Larry Hogan’s budget secretary are both raising objections to a proposal reducing state pension payments, saving money that may be used to increase education aid and state employee salaries.

“It is a bait and switch on rank-and-file teachers and state employees,” said Franchot, as well as “bait-and-switch” on the state’s rating agencies and taxpayers.

“It is gaming the system to constantly switch from one system to another,” Franchot said, with the state constantly seeking ways to set aside less money for the retirement system.

“If we perform exceptionally well [on investments], this will be a good decision,” Budget Secretary David Brinkley told the House Appropriations Committee Friday. “If we don’t perform as we have been or hope to … it will be a disastrous decision.”

Both men sit on the Board of Trustees of the State Retirement and Pension System.

The system is currently 68 percent funded.

If the state doesn’t cut pension payments, the system is on track for 80 percent funding by 2021.


Photo by via Flickr CC License

Report: Maryland Fund Lost Billions Due To Underperformance

Wilshire Trust Universe Comparison Service
Credit: Maryland Public Policy Institute report

The Maryland State and Retirement Pension System returned 14.4 percent last fiscal year – a return that the Chief Investment Officer praised as “strong” and that doubled the fund’s expected rate of return of 7.75 percent.

But a new report from the Maryland Public Policy Institute claims that the returns weren’t good enough From the Maryland Reporter:

In a report, Jeffrey Hooke and John Walters of the Maryland Public Policy Institute say the failure to match the 17.3% return on investment made by over half the public state pension funds cost the state over $1 billion. As they have in the past, they also complained about the high fees paid to outside managers of some of the funds used by the State Retirement and Pension System, which covers 244,000 active and retired state employees and teachers and their beneficiaries

“As the table shows, the underperformance trend is not only continuing but worsening as the percentage divide widens,” said Hooke and Walters. “Part of problem may be due to the fund’s large exposure to alternative investments, such as hedge funds and private equity funds, that have tended to perform worse in recent years than traditional investments such as publicly traded stocks and bonds.”

A spokesman for the Maryland pension fund offered his response to the report:

[Spokesman] Michael Golden said the institute’s report was “flawed,” “not supported by facts,” and mischaracterized the agency’s investment performance.

“These returns have resulted in greater progress toward full funding of the system that was projected last year,” Golden said. The five-year return on investment was 11.68%, while the target for the fund is 7.7%.


Golden admitted that Maryland’s investment performance is “unimpressive” compared to other state funds.

“However, the reason for this ranking is not due to active management and fees,” Golden said. “After the financial crises of 2008-2009, the board determined that the fund had too much exposure to public equities, which historically has been one of the riskiest, most volatile asset classes, and wanted a more balanced and diversified portfolio.”

See the chart at the top of this post for a comparison between the returns of Maryland’s pension fund versus the Wilshire’s Trust Universe Comparison Service (TUCS), a widely accepted benchmark for institutional assets.

Report: Maryland Fund’s Below-Median Returns Coincide With Shift to Alternatives

Maryland Proof

The Maryland State Retirement and Pension System experienced a 14 percent return in the 2013-14 fiscal year. The fund’s then-Chief Investment Officer, Melissa Moye, touted the returns as “strong” – but a new report suggests not only that those returns were below-median level, but also that they were driven by a shift in investment strategy that put more money in alternative investments.

From David Sirota at the International Business Times:

According to [report authors] Walters and Hooke, a former Lehman Brothers executive, that shift [of assets to Wall Street] coincided with below-median returns for Maryland’s public pension system.

“Ironically, as the fund’s relative performance has declined, its Wall Street money management fees have risen,” the report says. “In fiscal year 2014 alone, the Maryland state pension fund paid out roughly $300 million in fees to Wall Street money managers. Over the past 10 years, these money management fees amounted to over $1.5 billion, according to the fund’s annual financial reports. Nevertheless this high-priced advice resulted in 10-year returns that were $3.22 billion (net of fees) below the median.”

If the fund had matched medianreturns for public pension systems across the country, “the state could have awarded 80,000 poor children with $40,000 four-year college scholarships,” Hooke and Walters wrote.

Maryland’s shift into alternative investments happened while the securities and investment industries made more than $292,000 worth of campaign contributions to Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, who appoints some members of the Maryland pension system’s board of trustees. Vice News has reported that the Private Equity Growth Capital Group is a financial backer of a 501(c)4 group co-founded by O’Malley. In May, Pensions and Investments magazine reported that the Maryland governor appointed a managing director of an alternative investment firm called The Rock Creek Group to head a state task force on retirement policy.

Meanwhile, the chief investment officer of Maryland’s pension system was recently appointed to a senior position in the U.S. Treasury Department overseeing public pension policy.

“Eliminating active managers, selling alternative investments, and adopting indexing for 90 percent of the state’s portfolio would ensure median performance,” his report concludes. “These actions would also save the state huge amounts in money management fees.”

Hooke has testified in front of lawmakers advocating the increased use of index funds in pension investments – a strategy that would have worked well the last 4 or 5 years, but one that offers little protection against market contractions.

Since 2008, Maryland has more than doubled its investments in private equity, real estate and hedge funds. Those asset classes made up 29 percent of its portfolio in 2013.

Maryland Fund Looking For New CIO

board room chair

The Maryland State Retirement and Pension System is looking to hire an executive search firm to hire the fund’s next chief investment officer.

The fund has put the Request for Proposal on their website. The document can also be found at the bottom of this post. According to Pensions & Investments, the proposals are due by September 22 at 2 pm Eastern Time.

The fund’s previous CIO, Melissa Moye, left the fund recently to work for the US Treasury Department. Pensions & Investments reported at the time:

[Moye] is leaving at the end of August to become a senior policy adviser with the U.S. Treasury Department’s office of state and local finance. Deputy CIO Robert Burd will serve as acting CIO. The board has not begun the search process yet, spokesman Michael Golden said.

At the Treasury Department, Ms. Moye will focus on public sector pensions for the office, which was created in May to coordinate efforts to oversee developments in state and local financial markets, including public pension fund liabilities. Maryland pension board chairwoman and state Treasurer Nancy Kopp said in a statement that while the board will miss Ms. Moye’s leadership, “we are thrilled with the opportunity Dr. Moye will have to apply her wealth of knowledge and experience at the national policy level.”

Ms. Moye became CIO in September 2011 after serving as acting CIO since October 2010. Before that, she was deputy treasurer for financial policy and a trustee of the state pension system. Mr. Burd started with the retirement agency in 2001 as an assistant director of externally managed investments and was named managing director of private markets in 2008.

The RFP:

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Maryland’s Top Fund Returns 14 Percent for Year


The Maryland State Retirement and Pension System is the latest fund to release its investment performance data for fiscal year 2013-14, and the fund returned over 14 percent for the year, the System’s second consecutive year of double-digit investment returns. From the Baltimore Post-Examiner:

Maryland’s pension system for state employees and teachers had another strong investment performance for the fiscal year which ended June 30 earning 14.37%, bringing the value of the portfolio to $45.4 billion, a gain of more than $5 billion.

It was the second year in a row of strong performance due to sharp upturns in stocks, according to Chief Investment Officer Melissa Moye. The fund exceeded its target of 7.7% and its market benchmark of 14.16% — what its basket of assets would have been expected to earn.

The System is still in a hole due to its unfunded liabilities, which sit at about $20 billion. But the major credit rating agencies, even while weary of the liabilities, have commented on the improved health of the system of late as the effects of several reform measures have been positively felt. From the BPE:

These liabilities are consistently mentioned as a negative financial factor by all three bond rating agencies as they did earlier this month.

But the three New York agencies also note the improvements made in Maryland’s pension outlook after employee contributions were raised and benefits reduced by the legislature in 2011.

“The funds annual returns continue to reflect the strong market environment that has prevailed since the end of the credit crisis,” State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, chair of the pension board, said in a statement.

Typically, the System released investment performance figures by asset category. This year, the system only released aggregate returns and did not specify returns by asset category, although those figures may be released to the public eventually.

The S&P 500 returned around 21 percent for fiscal year 2014.