Rhode Island Pension Investment Board Reviews Hedge Fund In Closed-Door Meeting

Rhode Island flag and mapRhode Island governor-elect Gina Raimondo and the state Investment Commission held a closed-door meeting last week to review a particular hedge fund, Mason Capital, in which $61.7 million of pension money is currently invested.

The exact reason for the meeting, and what was said during, is unknown because the session was exempt from the state’s Open Meetings Law.

The minutes of the meeting are sealed to “protect the interest of the state’s pension fund”, according to a Raimondo spokesman,

More from the Providence Journal:

Asked to explain [the meeting], Raimondo spokesman Ashley Gingerella-O’Shea drew attention to the exemption that the state’s Open Meetings Law provides for any “matter related to the question of the investment of public funds where the premature disclosure would adversely affect the public interest.”

The state has had an investment in Mason Capital since January 2012 that has increased in value by an average of 1.02 percent per year in the nearly three years since, according to an Oct. 31 report to the investment commission.

It was one of the hedge funds in which Raimondo, a former venture capitalist, invested an overall $1.176 billion in a controversial shift in strategy that figured prominently during her heated primary and general election campaigns. Her opponents keyed their criticism to the sharp increase in state-paid investment fees since she took office.

When pressed, Gingerella-O’Shea sent a further statement on Monday that said the investment commission “reviewed the calendar year-to-date performance” of all of the state’s hedge fund investments during the open portion of last Wednesday’s meeting.


But a review of the last online Investment Commission report indicates the value of the state’s investment in Mason Capital dropped by about $4.7 million during October, from $66.4 million to $61,751,634.

While the market value of some of the state’s other “global equity hedge funds” dropped in October, none dropped this much.

The closed portion of the meeting was only a segment of a larger, open-to-the-public discussion on the year-to-date performance of the pension system’s hedge fund investments.

The Mason Capital fund returned around 1.02 percent annually over the last three years. Meanwhile, the state pension system’s hedge fund portfolio has averaged returned of 6.9 percent over the same time period.

Rhode Island Panel, Tasked With Improving Local Pensions, Sends Recommendations to Lawmakers

Rhode Island seal

A Rhode Island panel, established three years ago to make recommendations to improve the health of local pension plans, finally submitted its proposals to state lawmakers Monday.

The panel submitted 11 recommendations in all, but only a handful had majority support from the panel. From the Providence Journal:

As drafted, the recommendations and ideas from the Locally Administered Pension Plans and OPEB Study Commission range from the practical, such as establishing a permanent board to oversee locally managed pension and retiree health plans, to the proactive, such as requiring actuarial reviews when a new collective bargaining agreement is going to impact pension or “other post-employment benefit” costs.

Both of those recommendations had support from a majority of the commission members as did others, including recommendations that the state require annual reports on local plan investment returns, and that city and town budgets state the “actuarially determined contribution” for local pension plans and also state how much of that contribution a proposed budget will make.

Some of the recommendations that were submitted without majority support from the panel:

There was no consensus, for instance, on whether having a local pension plan that is in “critical status” — or less than 60 percent funded — be one of the factors that can lead to a state takeover of a city or town’s finances.

Nor was there agreement on whether the state should create a voluntary pathway for locally managed pension plans to become part of the state-run Municipal Employees Retirement System. In that case, the commission recommended further study, and it did the same on the question of requiring funding improvement plans for retiree health funds that are in critical status, even though the improvement plans are required for pension funds that are in critical status.

Rhode Island’s 34 local retirement plans are collectively shouldering $2.1 billion of unfunded liabilities.

Raimondo, Fung Fight Over Pension Funding, Fees

Allan Fung, Rhode Island’s Republican candidate for governor, released an ad last week slamming his opponent Gina Raimondo for paying “high fees” for “poor returns” on pension investments.

[The ad can be viewed above.]

Raimondo’s campaign issued the following statement refuting Fung’s claims and accusing Fung of mismanaging Cranston’s pension system:

“Allan Fung is recycling the same tired, misleading attacks on Gina that Rhode Islanders have already rejected. Everything Gina has done as Treasurer is to protect workers’ pensions. The fact is, Gina’s investment strategy is working and is providing strong returns with less risk.”

“In contrast, as mayor, Fung has failed to make full payments to the Cranston pension system and is proposing that we actually default on a debt the state owes. That’s reckless, risky and will hurt taxpayers,” she said of his stance on the 38 Studios bonds.

She cited annual financial reports indicating that the city never paid more than 87 percent of its required pension contribution the first four budget years Fung was mayor.

Fung’s spokesman responded to that attack with a subsequent statement:

“Cranston’s locally administered pension plan had been severely underfunded for years before Allan was elected mayor. … He increased contribution levels and negotiated a responsible pension reform plan,” and is “proud of the fact” the city budgets have had enough money to make full payment the last two fiscal years.

The Raimondo campaign has previously acknowledged that the pension system’s investment fees totaled $70 million in fiscal year 2012-13. Around $45 million of those fees were from hedge funds.

The Raimondo campaign has also clarified that the pension system’s hedge fund investments returned 8.8 percent in 2013. The system’s overall portfolio, meanwhile, returned 15 percent.

Chart: The Cost of Rhode Island’s Underperforming Investments

RI returns vs median

The chart above illustrates how Rhode Island’s pension fund returns stack up against the typical plan – Rhode Island has underperformed relative to the national median in three of the last four years.

The chart below illustrates the actual cost of that performance:

money lost due to RI trailing median

Chart credit goes to the International Business Times.

Craig Douglas: Massachusetts Candidates Need To Take Page Out of Gina Raimondo’s Book

Gina Raimondo

Rhode Island’s pension system, and the race for governor surrounding it, has been grabbing all the headlines of late. But it’s neighbor, Massachusetts, is probably just as deserving of the press.

Data from the Center for Retirement Research suggests that Massachusetts’ various retirement systems are among the most underfunded in the country. And, like Rhode Island, the state will soon vote for its new governor.

Craig Douglas, the managing editor of the Boston Business Journal, says Massachusetts’ candidates for governor would do well to take a page out of Gina Raimondo’s book. From his editorial in the Providence Journal:

It’s high time Massachusetts had a governor who actually acknowledged the state pension system for what it is: a ticking time bomb.


Whereas Raimondo fought to overhaul Rhode Island’s worst-offending pension plans, Massachusetts has been a serial can-kicker. In 2011, Gov. Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo were quick to dole out the back slaps after amending the state pension system’s funding schedule and benefits for newly hired employees. The moves, they said, would lower the state’s annual pension payments by a cumulative $5 billion through 2040.

What they didn’t mention is that, by extending the system’s payoff period by 10 years, they were baking in an additional $26.4 billion in costs for the state, according to an analysis by The Pioneer Institute. Welcome to the Bluto Blutarsky School of Pension Math.

I asked Baker and Coakley to reflect on Raimondo’s approach and whether it jives with their own pension policies. Their responses? Egh.

The Coakley camp “applauds” Patrick’s efforts to address the state’s retiree obligations, and used all sorts of buzz words and nuance to make clear that she is no Gina the Reformer. When politicians couch pension reform with terms such as “we need to take a serious look” and “additional reforms for new workers,” you can bet they are peddling yesterday’s meatloaf as today’s sloppy Joe.

As for Baker, well, his response was at once promising and disappointing. While he hit all the right talking points — better funding ratios, smarter investment strategies, an end to kicking “the can down the road” — Baker’s blueprint to tackle those problems is both vague and short on specifics. He even suggested more local aid could help address the equally frightening pension crisis affecting Massachusetts towns and cities. Come on Charlie, you’re better than that.

Or maybe not. If candidates are unwilling to take a tough stance on the fiscal straits facing Massachusetts today, when will they?

Massachusetts’ pension systems were 61 percent funded in 2013, collectively.

Investigating Gina Raimondo’s Ocean State Investment Pool

twenty dollar bill under a magnifying glass

GoLocalProv today published the results of an investigation into an investment pool – called the Ocean State Investment Pool – set up by Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo to help towns and cities “maximize investment returns”.

GoLocalProv writes that the fund certainly saw gains – but it also racked up investment expenses:

The investment pool is being run by Pyramis Global Advisors, LLC, a company owned by Fidelity Investments. The firm was paid a fee of $757,701 for fiscal year 2013 to manage what was by the end of the year $545.1 million in assets, according to the annual report for that year. After the fee, the pool generated a net investment income of $698,263, according to the report. (The pool earned a total of $1,450,050 in interest income that year.)

For the first three months of the pool’s existence—from March to June 2012—Fidelity Investments fetched a fee of $199,690, almost as much as the $448,680 in interest earned by the pool, according to the last annual report.


Pyramis’ fee ranges from .138 percent to .148 percent of the average net assets. The rates for the fiscal years 2012 and 2013 were on the higher end of that range, at .147 and .148 percent, respectively. The rates decrease as assets increase, meaning that the more money that’s in the pool, the lower the cost.

More on the creation and purpose of the Ocean State Investment Pool, from GoLocalProv:

Known as the Ocean State Investment Pool, the program was launched in the spring of 2012. Two years later, just three municipalities have signed up: Bristol, Cranston, and Lincoln. The remaining six governmental members are all state entities and include the state pension fund and the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority, for which the treasurer is a board member. Money from the state general fund also accounts for more than half of the assets in the fund.

The Ocean State Investment Pool was designed to help cities and towns maximize investment returns on so-called liquid assets—cash that cannot be invested over the long-term because it needs to be used for day-to-day expenses, like payroll.

GoLocalProv reached out to several cities and towns, asking why they had not signed up.

Answers varied. In Warwick, a city official said the investment pool does not meet all the city’s criteria for its liquid investments. William DePasquale, the acting chief of staff for Mayor Scott Avedisian, said that after the 2008 recession the city had a adopted a policy of only making liquid investments that were FDIC-backed. For that reason, he said the investment pool was not considered by the city.

Read the entire investigation here.


Photo by TaxRebate.org.uk

Rhode Island, Raimondo Defend Hedge Fund Position After CalPERS Pullout

Gina Raimondo

Rhode Island’s pension fund invests nearly $2 billion in hedge funds, or 14 percent of its overall portfolio.

In light of CalPERS high-profile pullback from hedge funds, The Providence Journal asked Gina Raimondo, Rhode Island’s Treasurer, for her thoughts on CalPERS’ decision and the fate of hedge funds in Rhode Island’s portfolio:

State Treasurer Gina Raimondo sees no immediate reason to pull Rhode Island’s pension money out of hedge funds, just because the largest public pension fund in the U.S. – the California Public Employees Retirement System – has announced plans to do so over the next year.


Asked Tuesday if Rhode Island would take its cue from Calpers, Raimondo chief of staff Andrew Roos said: “We will continue to learn from best practices around the country and will look closely at the CalPERS decision.’’

But he said: “Rhode Island’s pension fund is less than 3% the size of Calpers and has very different funding and cash-flow needs. Given our fund’s different characteristics, we will continue to pursue strategies that pursue the best outcomes for Rhode Island pension participants.’’

Roos acknowledged that the state’s hedge-fund-heavy strategy brings loads of fees. He also admitted that the hedge funds have under-performed in 2013 compared to the rest of the pension fund’s portfolio. But he stood by the investments. He told the Providence Journal:

“Every action the State Investment Commission has taken during this administration has been to promote retirement security and ensure funds will be available to pay pension checks to our retirees,’’ he said.

“After the financial collapse of 2008-2009 when the fund lost over $2 billion dollars, the SIC reviewed its policies and unanimously adopted a plan to reduce volatility while continuing to pursue strong long-term returns … As a part of the strategy to reduce volatility while maintaining strong long-term returns, the SIC improved the pension fund’s diversification, which included making allocations to hedge funds….’’

“This strategy is working,’’ Roos said. “Over the last three years we have reduced the volatility of this portfolio by 50% and achieved strong returns (1 year: 15.12%; 3 year: 9.05% as of June 30, 2014) … [But] like every other investment the state makes, the SIC and staff are constantly evaluating and making adjustments to the hedge fund allocation to ensure it is performing as intended.’’

Rhode Island’s pension fund paid $70 million in investment fees in the 2012-13 fiscal year. Meanwhile, the state’s hedge fund investments returned around 8.8 percent in 2013-14, while the pension fund’s overall portfolio returned 15 percent over the same period.

Rhode Island Gov. Candidate Allan Fung Is A Pension Reformer, Too

Mayor Allan Fung

By now, everyone knows about Gina Raimondo’s track record on pensions. Despite the controversy surrounding her 2011 reform efforts and subsequent investment strategies, she made pensions a central facet of her campaign for governor.

Her Republican opponent, Allan Fung, is now taking up a similar strategy. Fung, currently the Mayor of Cranston, has this week begun touting his own record of pension reform. From Public Sector Inc:

Like Raimondo, Fung, who served on a reform panel that helped craft the 2011 state pension changes, has been an ardent backer of trimming pensions to make them more affordable. The difference is that the media hasn’t seemed to consider that such an unusual story for a Republican politician. Raimondo, by contrast, has benefited from a barrage of stories hailing her as a Democrat willing to take on public employees and their unions.


Cranston’s current employees participate in the state’s retirement system, so the city had a stake in the state-engineered reforms. But Cranston fire and police retirees and those workers who were hired before July 1, 1995 participate in a separate city-directed plan that was deeply in debt . Although the plan has just 483 members, the vast majority of which were already retired, the plan was so expensive that it cost the city $22.3 million to support this year, amounting to 20 percent of the city’s operating budget, excluding its school system.

Earlier this year Fung struck a deal with the majority of plan members to suspend cost of living adjustments and to cap any future COLA’s at 3 percent. The deal is expected to save Cranston about $6 million a year for a plan that was so expensive that the city began winding it down in 1995. When Fung took office in 2008 the pension system had just 15 percent of the assets on hand necessary to pay its current liabilities, and Fung warned beneficiaries that a day could come when the fund went bankrupt. Now the system is on track to be fully funded, but it will take two decades.

Cranston is also saving money because Fung struck a deal to place new city employees in a 401(k) style defined contribution plan.

A side note: this election will be a historic one for Rhode Island no matter who wins. Raimondo is vying to become the first woman governor in the state’s history. Fung, meanwhile, would be the first Asian elected to that office.


Photo credit: “Mayor Allan Fung visits Providence” by Office of Mr. Fung. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Gina Raimondo Wins Rhode Island Democratic Primary; Pensions Remain Campaign Issue

Gina Raimondo

Rhode Island Governor candidate Gina Raimondo has beaten out challengers Angel Taveras and Clay Pell to win the state’s Democratic Primary. From Politico:

With 96 percent of precincts reporting, Raimondo led Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, 42 percent to 29 percent, with first-time candidate Clay Pell at 27 percent.

Rhode Island Democrats are hoping Raimondo can break a long streak of gubernatorial heartbreak: It’s been since 1992, when Bruce Sundlin earned a second two-year term, that a Democrat won an election for governor. Current Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who is not seeking reelection, took office as an independent but later became a Democrat as he pondered his electoral future.

The primary was of particular interest because of the pension issues surrounding the candidates, and the lack of public-sector union support for Raimondo.

Some further analysis of the outcome, courtesy of Daniel DiSalvo at Public Sector Inc:

Raimondo won for three reasons. First, in a three way race that included the Mayor of Providence Angel Taveras and Clay Pell, the 32-year old scion of former Senator Claiborne Pell, Raimondo enjoyed greater name recognition and outraised and outspent her opponents.

Second, the Ocean State’s public employee unions were divided between Taveras and Pell. Traveras had run afoul of the state’s teacher unions after a labor dispute in Providence and he had also supported pension reform, albeit a milder version than Raimondo. In short, the unions could either back Pell–the least experienced candidate–or they could chose between pension reformers. Some went for Pell, most notably the teacher unions, and others for Taveras. The lack of unity weakened the force of the public employee voting block.

Third, the labor movement was divided between public and private sectors–a phenomenon that has occurred frequently in recent years. Many private sector unions, concerned about the state’s business climate, backed Raimondo.

Raimondo will face Allan Fung in the general election. Fung, who is currently the mayor of Cranston, defeated Ken Block in the Republican primary.

Fact-Checking Pension Claims in Rhode Island’s Race For Governor

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Amidst all of the pension sparring going on in the Rhode Island governor race, one question recently came to the forefront: Which candidate more effectively managed their respective pension system?

In a recent debate (the video of which can be seen above), Raimondo made the claim that Taveras did very little to improve the health of Providence’s pension system since he’s been in office.

“The pension fund in the city of Providence is only 30-percent funded, about the same level as when he [Taveras] took office,” she said at the debate. “[I] fixed a system for the long term. He made small changes and the pension system in Providence is still in crisis.”

But is that claim true? PolitiFact checked the facts.

We asked the Raimondo campaign for its evidence.

Spokesman Eric Hyers sent us links to two documents. The first was a Jan. 19, 2012 report from Providence’s pension adviser, Buck Consultants, which tracks funding going back to 1994, when the city had 57.4 percent of the pension money it needed.

Since then, the overall trend has been down. The funded ratio had plummeted to 39.3 percent by the last full fiscal year Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. was in office. It had dropped to 34.1 percent by June 30, 2010, when David Cicilline, now a U.S. representative, was in his last year.

A year later, when Taveras had been in office for six months, the funded ratio had dropped to 31.94 percent.

The second document was the Jan. 31, 2014 valuation report by the city’s new pension adviser, Segal Consulting.

It reports that as of June 30, 2013, with Taveras in office two and a half years, the funded ratio was virtually the same — 31.39 percent. And this was after Taveras won union concessions to reduce pension costs.

But PolitiFact also contacted the Taveras campaign to hear their side of the story.

Michael D’Amico, Taveras’ former director of administration who is now a budget consultant for the city, said it was “a complete oversimplification” to imply that the changes were small because the funded ratio didn’t change significantly.

The actual cost of the pension system was reduced substantially by negotiating changes such as a 10-year suspension of cost-of-living raises and the elimination of 5- and 6-percent compounded cost of living adjustments, D’Amico said.

“We got just about as much as we possibly could have without cutting pensions,” said Taveras spokesman David Ortiz. “In a sense, the administration faced a choice: do we push Providence into bankruptcy to give a receiver the ability to cut pensions?

“The mayor believed the cost and collateral damage of pushing Rhode Island’s capital city into bankruptcy was not worth extra pension savings we would have been able to pursue,” Ortiz said.

Said D’Amico: “If we hadn’t done anything, the funded ratio would have been much lower.”

PolitiFact’s final verdict: Raimondo’s claim regarding Providence’s pension fund is “mostly true.” From PoltiFact:

When Raimondo said, “The pension fund in the city of Providence is only 30 percent funded, about the same level as when he [Taveras] took office,” she was only off by one percentage point, according to the most recent audit of the fund. That funded ratio has not increased since Taveras was sworn in on Jan. 3, 2011.

But that percentage was on a downward spiral at the time, so having it stabilize at 31 percent doesn’t necessarily reflect “small changes,” as Raimondo claimed in the debate. And the changes negotiated between Taveras and the city’s unions are intended to gradually increase the funding ratio.

Because the statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information, we rate it Mostly True.

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