Federal prosecutors have been investigating the financial transactions of the D.C. Retirement Board, which manages the city’s $10 billion pension fund for retired teachers, police officers and firefighters.
The fully funded municipal employee pension plan has long been the jewel in D.C.’s financial crown, the envy of other cities and a signal of the trustworthiness of the District’s finances to the credit rating agencies that issue municipal bond ratings.
The existence of the investigation was disclosed in a whistleblower lawsuit filed in December against the D.C. Retirement Board by Erie Sampson, the agency’s general counsel since 2008.
Sampson alleges that she was placed on administrative leave in October in retaliation for alerting officials at the retirement board and in D.C. government, including the city’s chief financial officer and members of the D.C. Council, about problems in the retirement board’s accounting and governance — as well as for cooperating with the federal investigation.
A spokesperson for the retirement board declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
The Texas Teacher Retirement System recently announced that it would make its first investment in a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) totaling $200 million. Pension funds across the nations have spent the last decade seeking out higher investment yields from alternative investments like private equity in response to stagnating returns from more traditional investments. Recently a few funds have started to experiment with even more non-traditional vehicles such as cryptocurrencies and NFTs to improve investment results. Texas’ SPAC investment signals pension funds’ continued interest in these alternative assets.
SPACs are a perfect example of a high-risk, high-reward investment. Risk and transparency issues associated with this type of investment have even motivated the creation of SPAC insurance. Companies like HubInternational sell this insurance to investors for each stage of the SPAC process, ensuring they come out whole. Public pension funds like Texas TRS could theoretically buy this type of insurance on their SPAC investments, thus reducing the risk of the investment. The problem is the cost of SPAC insurance is rising fast, and the return adjusted for these costs is dwindling.
The risks associated with SPACs should make public pension funds very weary. Rather than continuing to take on riskier strategies to achieve lofty investment return goals, policymakers and those managing the retirement investments of public workers should lower assumed rates of investment returns and make other funding reforms that secure the long-term stability of retirement systems.
Leaders of Pennsylvania’s beleaguered teachers’ pension fund are requesting that board members sign oaths of secrecy before receiving a critical update on the botched investment calculation scandal that has led to multiple federal investigations.
On Thursday morning, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System board told members in an email that they must sign a yet-to-be-drafted non-disclosure agreement to participate in a closed-door meeting later this month.
The meeting, scheduled for Jan. 31, is pivotal: Board members are poised to be presented with the findings of a taxpayer-funded inquiry into an investment calculation mistake in late 2020 that wrongly spared teachers a potential hike in their pension payments, leaving taxpayers to make up the difference over time. The calculation was later fixed, and teacher payments increased.
Martello Re Limited (“Martello Re”), a licensed Class E Bermuda-based life and annuity reinsurance company with initial equity of $1.65 billion, has been launched with the financial support of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (“MassMutual”), Centerbridge Partners, Brown Brothers Harriman, and a pre-eminent group of institutional investors and family offices, including Hudson Structured Capital Management Ltd. (doing its re/insurance business as HSCM Bermuda). Barings and Centerbridge will act as asset managers for Martello Re.
Through a commitment to long-term financial strength, creative solutions, and unique investment capabilities, Martello Re plans to offer a differentiated value proposition to its counterparties. The company will initially focus on providing MassMutual and its subsidiaries with reinsurance capacity on current product offerings, after which it will offer its services selectively to other top insurers in the life and annuity space.
MassMutual and its subsidiaries will initially reinsure approximately $14 billion of general account liabilities to Martello Re and also enter into a flow arrangement to reinsure new business. Both transactions are expected to close in February 2022 and have received regulatory approval.
Oregon’s public pension fund, which manages tens of billions of dollars in retirement savings, appears to have privately given its blessing to a 2019 deal by an investment fund to acquire NSO Group, the controversial spyware company.
A source with close knowledge of the matter and emails seen by the Guardian suggest that a senior official at the pension fund signalled his strong support for the takeover of NSO as early as 2018, months before the deal was announced.
Last month, Oregon officials said they were “deeply disturbed” by reports that NSO Group “enabled widespread human rights violations”.
When CalPERS does something as obviously nonsensical as planning to dump $6 billion of its private equity holdings, nearly 13% of its $47.7 billon portfolio, when it just committed to increasing its private equity book from 8% to 13%, it’s a hard call: Incompetent? Corrupt? Addled by the latest fads (a subset of incompetent)?
And rest assured, the harder you look, the more it becomes apparent that this scheme is as hare-brained as it appears at the 30,000 foot level. But unlike another recent hare-brained private equity scheme, its “private equity new business model,” beneficiaries won’t have the good luck of having it collapse under its own contradictions. CalPERS has loudly announced that Jeffries & Co. will be handling these dispositions, so they will get done….at least in part. But the fact that CalPERS’ staff has gone ahead and merely informed the board, as opposed to getting its approval, is yet another proof of how the board has abdicated its oversight and control by granting unconscionably permissive “delegated authority” to staff.
The one bit of possible upside would not just be unintended, but the result of CalPERS acting in contradiction to its expressed objectives: that its allocation to private equity would undershoot its targets by an even bigger margin than otherwise.
The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) has engaged financial services company Jefferies about the potential of selling up to $6 billion of its private equity stakes, according Buyouts magazine. This comes just after CalPERS announced it would be increasing the percentage of its portfolio allotted to private equity to 13% from 8% in November.
CalPERS board member Margaret Brown told Secondaries Investor in November that the fund is considering investing in secondaries and divesting from some of its legacy private equity investments.
“We have some really old private equity that’s just sitting there and doing nothing,” she said.
A new analysis shows the city of San Diego’s pension system is in strong financial shape compared to similar systems across the state and the nation.
While the city’s pension debt is nearly $3 billion, most pension systems face similar gaps between their investment assets and long-term projections of what they will owe employees when those employees eventually retire.
The comparative analysis, which was presented to the city’s pension board Friday, shows that San Diego has been in the top half of the nation’s largest 175 pension systems for “funded ratio” every year since 2013.
And the city’s ratio, which just climbed from 70.2 percent to 74.3 percent thanks to the robust stock market, has been in the top quarter of those national pension systems several times in recent years.
The city’s pension system, formally known as the San Diego City Employees Retirement System, also has among the most conservative policies regarding projections of long-term investment returns.
San Diego’s projected rate of long-term investment growth is 6.5 percent, which is at the very low end of the group of 175 pension systems.
Despite a 32% investment return in the last fiscal year, Marin County’s public pension fund is playing it safe.
The board of the Marin County Employees’ Retirement Association decided to factor in the extraordinary gain over four years rather than immediately when assigning annual employer contributions.
The association includes Marin County and eight other public entities. Its net investment return was $829.8 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30.
Last year, when the association’s board voted to cut the fund’s assumed annual rate of return from 7% to 6.75%, Block advocated reducing it to 6%. At that time, the association also lowered its assumed annual rate of inflation from 2.75% to 2.5%.
The Cheiron actuaries, however, said the association’s assumptions regarding inflation and the annual rate of return remain valid.
In what is the product of the sustained low-rate environment, many municipalities are considering addressing their pension position through bonds. This should be encouraged by policymakers and explored by pension systems.
Bond markets are offering municipalities the opportunity to exchange discount rates of 6, 7 and sometimes even 8 percent for bonds with yields below 3 percent. The spread between the discount rate and the bond yield is the root of the appeal of pension obligation bonds.
California’s two biggest pension funds have invested a staggering $43 billion in fossil fuel companies, and their opposition to divesting from the industry — including fighting legislation that would have stopped them investing in firms involved with the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) — has cost retirees and taxpayers billions, research shows.
The findings hammer home the fact that the divestment movement isn’t just about protecting the planet from the worst effects of climate change. With the oil, gas, and coal industries all on the decline, pension funds’ refusal to divest from fossil fuels is also endangering the retirement savings of teachers, government employees, and other rank-and-file public workers who have paid into these funds.
While it is common knowledge that fossil fuel stocks have underperformed the broader stock market, large bank stocks have been lackluster as well — including the banks that helped finance DAPL.
If CalPERS and CalSTRS had not opposed the original DAPL divestment legislation, they could have instead put pressure on the companies involved not to move forward with the pipeline, and such efforts might have been enough to stop the project, given the pipeline project’s turbulent history.
In May of 2020, Hoenig published a paper that spelled out his grim verdict on the age of easy money, from 2010 until now. He compared two periods of economic growth: The period between 1992 and 2000 and the one between 2010 and 2018. These periods were comparable because they were both long periods of economic stability after a recession, he argued. The biggest difference was the Federal Reserve’s extraordinary experiments in money printing during the latter period, during which time productivity, earnings and growth were weak. During the 1990s, labor productivity increased at an annual average rate of 2.3 percent, about twice as much as during the age of easy money. Real median weekly earnings for wage and salary employees rose by 0.7 percent on average annually during the 1990s, compared to only 0.26 percent during the 2010s. Average real gross domestic product growth — a measure of the overall economy — rose an average of 3.8 percent annually during the 1990s, but by only 2.3 percent during the recent decade.
The only part of the economy that seemed to benefit under quantitative easing and zero-percent interest rates was the market for assets. The stock market more than doubled in value during the 2010s. Even after the crash of 2020, the markets continued their stellar growth and returns. Corporate debt was another super-hot market, stoked by the Fed, rising from about $6 trillion in 2010 to a record $10 trillion at the end of 2019.