Most of the media coverage of the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank was focused on the long lines of depositors who feared losing their money and the eventual bailout by the FDIC. The sequel to that story is that the failure of that bank and several others left a gaping void in the nation’s entrepreneurial economy — the place where new jobs spring out of the innovators’ alchemy of novel technologies, management skill and risk capital.
As a result, many early-stage growth companies in America are now stranded in a financing no man’s land between the highest-risk seed capital stage funded by individual angel investors and the multibillion-dollar private equity sector that still looks for eight- and nine-figure deals featuring companies already making sales on their way to a stock exchange listing. The startups’ cash cliff has been cited as the cause of a “mass extinction event” — a dead cylinder in the U.S. economy’s growth engine.
That’s where the idea of an “innovation fund” partnering with a dozen or so midsize local government pension funds could fill the void in this still-risky growth stage. Pension trustees could harvest lush investment returns on a nationally diversified portfolio with lower fees than the venture capital industry typically exploits. As a bonus, they could collectively fuel the engines of economic growth nationwide. Emergent businesses based in a state where a pension fund participates would have a fair shot at some of that capital if they could pass stringent due diligence reviews and fiduciary governance oversight by angel investment experts in their industries.
It’s a concept that originated years ago from the now-retired founder of one of the nation’s most prominent pension consulting firms. Today, the drawback on his original vision is that the larger public pension funds have outgrown the startup economy. As the chief investment officer of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, the nation’s second-largest public pension fund, recently noted in a TV interview, they manage so many billions in each asset class, and with so many rules, requirements and restrictions, that it’s difficult for them to effectively put money into the venture capital marketplace. And even then, it’s got to be the chunkier, later-stage money earning a lower return than angel investors are seeking. Accordingly, my proposals here are a second-generation revision for which I alone am accountable.
What’s missing today is early-stage Series A and B funding. Putting money into promising firms raising $5 million to $20 million of fresh capital in these transition stages following their angel funding round would never move the dial on the Goliath pension portfolios’ investment returns. For their trustees and staffs, it’s just not worth the effort and headaches of monitoring hundreds of pubescent companies that are too young for them.
Meanwhile, in Congress the Retirement Savings Modernization Act was just introduced to allow cryptocurrency and just about anything short of lottery tickets into America’s 401(k) accounts. The alternative asset industry — private equity, hedge funds, venture capital, real estate, and more — has been trying for years to offer their speculative products — and reap huge fees in the process — through personal retirement accounts as they are already able to do in some public pensions, such as Ohio’s.
There has been no legal barrier to these investments, and the Trump administration’s Department of Labor went so far as to specify that alternative investments could be part of 401(k)s, a decision affirmed by the Biden Administration. But companies administering 401(k) accounts are fiduciaries, and they’ve avoided alternative investments in fear of getting sued for breach of fiduciary duty for offering them to workers. For decades, prudence has prevailed and 401(k) retirement accounts have not allowed high-fee, illiquid funds as a 401(k) option.
The proposed bill simply states that alternative investments, despite the higher fees associated with them, are “covered” investments that do not establish fiduciary breach by their presence in a 401(k) plan. The cloak of congressionally created cover for alternative investments is needed because the current commonsense assumption is that the mere presence of these investments is strong evidence fiduciary duty has been breached.
Alarm bells should be ringing about the Ohio Police & Fire Pension following the release of a fiduciary audit of the fund, finished six years after the legal deadline.
Ignoring the law falls on the Ohio Retirement Study Council and their creator, the Ohio General Assembly. But the warnings on investment risk within the OP&F portfolio demand immediate, widespread attention.
The combined pension contribution for police is 31.75 percent of their salary and with firefighters the employer-employee combination is 36.25 percent.
Ohio Police & Fire is “clearly thinking outside the box,” according to Funston Advisory Services. “OP&F is among a very small number of major institutional investors to have adopted a risk parity investment approach across the plan’s entire investment structure,” Funston tells us. Ohio’s police and fire pension is also a pioneer in an investment strategy called “portable alpha.”
In each case, the characteristic that separates OP&F from the rest of the public pension pack is “meaningful use of portfolio leverage.” The Ohio safety forces pension is using one of the riskiest investment strategies in America. The 25 percent of leverage showing on the balance sheet is actually much higher because the alternative investments also include leverage.
The entire portfolio is managed by outside managers, 135 fund managers by our count, who pulled down “mind boggling” fees according to pension expert Richard Ennis. If Mr. Ennis’ name sounds familiar you probably remember he was the expert Ohio turned to for comprehensive analysis of the Coingate scandal at the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation. Mr. Ennis gave us an assessment of the OP&F performance over the last 10 years that indicates the pension matched the results of an index fund despite the high fees.
A new era in the decade-long battle by retirees and whistleblowers to halt massive transfers of wealth out of retirement funds and into Wall Street firms could be at hand, thanks to the case of Katie Muth.
Muth, a Democratic Pennsylvania state senator, is one of fifteen trustees who oversees Pennsylvania’s largest public pension fund, the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PennPSERS). Not long after her February 2021 appointment to the board, Muth began questioning the fund’s investments in areas like private equity, hedge funds, and real estate.
Over the past thirty years, public pension funds have moved $1.4 trillion of retiree savings into such high-risk, high-fee “alternative investments,” enriching finance industry moguls like Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group and Robert Mercer of Renaissance Technologies while often shortchanging retired public employees and teachers.
But Muth says that when she asked the fund’s investment staff for more information about its high-risk investments, she was rebuffed — so in June 2021, she sued the fund for basic information about its investments.
The State Teachers’ Retirement Board of Ohio shifted its asset mix at its board meeting last week, announcing it will now target 26% of its assets to U.S. equities, down from 28%. It also decreased its international equity allocation to 22% from 23%. The fund increased its allocation to private equity to 9% from 7% and its allocation to fixed income to 17% from 16%.
The increase in private equity, which had record returns this past year, is part of a broader trend. STRS Ohio saw 29% returns in fiscal year 2021, in part driven by a 45% return on alternative assets. These returns were topped only by domestic equities, which returned 46.3% for the fund.
The pension plan is also beginning to share some of these returns with pension beneficiaries. At its board meeting last week, the pension approved a 3% one-time cost-of-living increase for beneficiaries who retired before June 1, 2018. The 3% adjustment is still less than half of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ official inflation calculation of 7% in 2021.
The U.S. insurance industry’s reported BACV of $522.8 billion in other long-term invested assets on Schedule BA represented an increase of 14.8% at year-end 2021 compared to year-end 2020 (see Table 1 and Table 2). Schedule BA assets have experienced strong double-digit growth in recent years, with 2021’s 15% increase in exposure following YOY growth of 13% and 10% in 2020 and 2019, respectively. Total Schedule BA exposure as of year-end 2021 represented 6.5% of the industry’s total cash and invested assets, an increase from 6.1% as of year-end 2020 and 5% as of year-end 2012.
Like previous years, hedge fund, private equity, and real estate investments represented most of the industry’s Schedule BA exposure. Together, they accounted for 75% of total exposure at year-end 2021 compared to 70% at year-end 2020. Exposure to private equity investments experienced significant growth, increasing by 34% YOY to $173 billion as of year-end 2021. Private equity’s share of total Schedule BA exposure rose to 33% from 28% at year-end 2020, surpassing hedge fund investments to become the largest component of the industry’s exposure.
Author(s): Michele Wong and Jean-Baptiste Carelus
Publication Date: 3 June 2022
Publication Site: NAIC Capital Markets Special Report
New York City’s comptroller is the latest public official trying to change laws aimed at limiting risk in pension investments, as U.S. state and local pension funds try to plug shortfalls in a low-return environment.
Comptroller Brad Lander, who oversees about $260 billion in retirement money for city police, firefighters, teachers and other public workers, is asking New York lawmakers for more flexibility to invest in private markets, high-yield debt and foreign stocks. The state comptroller’s office, which supervises another $280 billion in retirement assets, views the idea favorably, with a representative saying such flexibility “is key in times of market volatility.”
Pension funds, like household investors, are facing a relatively bleak environment for stocks and bonds, the bread and butter of a traditional retirement portfolio. In the face of historic inflation and Federal Reserve efforts to contain it, these funds are finding they can no longer rely on bonds to rise when equities fall and vice versa. In the first quarter, the S&P 500 returned minus 4.6% while the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate bond index returned minus 5.93%.
“Those two things taken together is what’s scary: the prospect of both going down at the same time,” said Steve Foresti, chief investment officer at Wilshire Associates, which advises large public pension funds. Retirement portfolio managers, he said, are asking “in that environment, do I have anything that actually goes up?”
Pension funds around the U.S. are upping their allocations to private equity after a year of record-breaking returns. According to data obtained from Preqin, the average public pension’s allotment to private equity increased to 8.9% in 2021. In contrast, the average allocation was just 6.5% in 2012.
New York City’s pensions are among those that may see an increased allocation to the asset class in their portfolios should a new law pass. Currently, New York State implements a “basket clause,” which prevents public pensions from investing above 25% of their total portfolios in investments considered higher risk, including real estate, infrastructure, hedge funds, international equities, and private equity. The proposed law would increase that allocation to 35% for all pension funds in the state. If the law passed, the boards of New York City’s five public pensions would vote on whether to increase the “basket” for their own pension funds.
New York City Interim CIO Michael Haddad, who is responsible for overseeing investments in the five pension plans across the city, says that while the change in the law isn’t targeted at private equity exclusively, it’s likely that the asset class would increase.
New York employees and taxpayers are unwittingly financing Russian companies and the oligarch pals of Vladimir Putin with at least $519 million invested in assets now frozen by the war-mongering dictator, The Post has learned.
City and state pension systems have pledged to sell off the holdings in protest of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, but Moscow has prohibited foreign investors from dumping the stocks.
“Putin is a thug and he’s holding our money hostage,” said Gregory Floyd, a Teamsters union leader and trustee of the New York City Employee Retirement System, NYCERS.
New York City’s five pension systems – covering teachers, cops, firefighters and other city employees – have invested a total $284.5 million in 33 publicly traded Russian stocks, according to records released to The Post by city Comptroller Brad Lander’s office.
On Feb. 25, the market value of the Russian assets was $185.9 million, nearly $100 million less than the purchase price, the latest available records show.
America’s state and local government pensions invest as much as 40 percent of their assets in secretive, offshore “alternative” hedge, private equity, real estate and venture funds which warn that certain unidentified “mystery investors” pay lower fees, are provided greater information about investment strategies and portfolio holdings, have been granted liquidity preferences and receive superior net performance—all at the expense of America’s public sector workers. How many wealthy Russians are “mystery investors” in these pension deals which, according to an internal FBI document leaked last year, criminals and foreign adversaries regularly use to launder money? Wall Street refuses to say and public pensions have promised not to ask. Ironically, the invasion of Ukraine and calls to dump Russian investments to punish the country are drawing attention to the ugly fact that America’s public pensions have long consented to being kept in the dark by Wall Street, abrogating their duty to monitor and safeguard workers’ retirement savings.
For example, my second investigation of the Rhode Island state pension revealed in 2015 that contrary to the pension’s financial reports, 40 percent of the pension’s investments—not the 25 percent disclosed—had been allocated to secretive alternative investments.
It’s no secret that the FBI suspects that many alternative investment vehicles are widely utilized for money laundering. In 2019, the FBI compiled a report titled “Financial Crime Threat Actors Very Likely Laundering Illicit Proceeds Through Fraudulent Hedge Funds and Private Equity Firms to Obfuscate Illicit Proceeds.” Then, a leaked May 1, 2020 internal FBI report similarly titled “Threat Actors Likely Use Private Investment Funds to Launder Money, Circumventing Regulatory Tripwires” purported to supplement the January 2019 report “by providing recent reporting of hedge funds and private equity firms used to launder illicit proceeds, and expands the threat context beyond financial threat actors to include foreign adversaries.”
The kinds of messages that are welcomed are “innovative” in terms of telling you that you don’t have to do the thing you really don’t want to do (put more money into the pensions, promise less, cut back on many things, tax more, etc.)
The $95 billion Ohio State Teachers Retirement System (STRS) is facing a special state audit over a report that accuses the pension fund of secretly collaborating with Wall Street firms, lacking transparency, and wasting billions of dollars.
In June, Benchmark Financial Services released preliminary findings of a forensic investigation of Ohio STRS titled “The High Cost of Secrecy.” The report ripped into the retirement system, saying it “has long abandoned transparency, choosing instead to collaborate with Wall Street firms to eviscerate Ohio public records laws and avoid accountability.”
The Ohio Auditor of State’s Office recently sent a letter to Ohio STRS Executive Director William Neville saying it has received “numerous complaints” regarding the report and that it had conducted a preliminary examination into the matter.