Putin, Russian Pals “Mystery” Partners In Public Pension Deals?

Link: https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsiedle/2022/03/10/putin-russian-pals-mystery-partners-in-public-pension-deals/?sh=3057aa8524af

Excerpt:

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.”

Author(s): Edward Siedle

Publication Date: 10 Mar 2022

Publication Site: Forbes

‘We Don’t Have Actuarial Numbers Relative To This Amendment’: Illinois’ Tier 2 Pension In Their Own Words

Link: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ebauer/2022/02/20/we-dont-have-actuarial-numbers-relative-to-this-amendment-illinois-tier-2-pension-in-their-own-words/

Excerpt:

In Illinois, this resulted in a Blue Ribbon Pension Commission under Gov. Rod Blagojevich, which issued a report in 2005 with some recommendations which were adopted and others which, well, never saw the light of day. As might be guessed, the changes actually implemented were small scale, but included an anti-spiking measure, a reduction in the guaranteed interest rate used to calculate a minimum pension benefit, and a reduction in the categories of state employees eligible for the more generous alternative formula. This legislation, Public Act 94-0004, also required that any new benefit increase henceforth must be paired with a corresponding funding increase, and must sunset after five years (though recall that this didn’t stop the legislature from increasing benefits for Chicago Firefighters or non-Chicago Police and Fire pensions, both of which involve the state dictating benefits and localities funding them).

In recognition of the small nature of these changes and the very large debts still remaining, the bill also created yet another commission, with no effect, and in subsequent years, still more commissions met. In 2009, the Illinois Pension Modernization Task Force held a series of public meetings, but produced no majority-approved report, only a work product with findings and minority reports.

It is in that context that the Illinois Tier 2 pension system came into being — which avid readers will recall is a new set of benefits for public-sector employees in Illinois hired after January 1, 2011, a set of benefits with changes made that “looked good” to legislators at the time but had no actuarial review, and as a result will sooner or later fail the “safe harbor” test, in which state and local public pensions must provide better benefits than Social Security in order to opt out of the Social Security system. And why didn’t the law have an actuarial review? Because it was created behind closed doors — which makes it all the more worthwhile to repeat the exercise of reading the legislative transcripts of the day it was brought to the floor of the Illinois State House and Senate for a vote.

Author(s): Elizabeth Bauer

Publication Date: 20 Feb 2022

Publication Site: Forbes

‘The Pension Bill Has Something For Everybody’: A Look Into How Illinois Lawmakers Justified Their Pension Benefit Boosts

Link: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ebauer/2022/02/03/the-pension-bill-has-something-for-everybody-a-look-into-how-illinois-lawmakers-justified-their-pension-benefit-boosts/?sh=207f9a5233bb

Excerpt:

In my prior article, I laid out the Illinois General Assembly’s repeated unanimous, near-unanimous or strong bipartisan majority support for a series of bills increasing pension benefits for public employees from 1989 – 2000.

….

With respect to the SERS benefit increase, the Senate debate centers around collective bargaining. As Senator Jones says in the May 31, 1997 transcript, “I think Senator Collins had worked hours, and many hours and years to sponsor this piece of – this legislation so that we can arrive at the point we are today. So I – I stand up gladly and proudly to – to support you in this endeavor, but I think we should know where the real, real support originally came from and how it all came about. And it came about as a result of collective bargaining legislation.” (Again, all transcripts can be viewed online.)

On the House side, there was more discussion. The CGFA’s summary notwithstanding, there were a number of benefit boosts, including a “30 and out” provision. It was explained by Rep. Poe that the bill was “funded” by the fact that during the AFSME contract negotiations, the union accepted a reduced wage increase (relative to what they’d otherwise have demanded) in order to achieve this pension benefit increase, and it was taken on faith that the bill was indeed therefore truly “paid for,” when it ought to simply have been met with incredulity instead.

….

This is, of course, exactly the core of the reason why public sector unions are fundamentally so ripe for abuse, when the individuals who nominally have the role of “employer” gain so much politically from providing these generous benefits.

This brings us to the Teacher’s equivalent and the transcripts of May 21 – 22, 1998. Here the path of the bill was not as simple, as the speaker delayed moving the bill out of the Rules committee.

….

Finally, we have transcripts of the 1989 COLA/pension funding bait-and-switch bill to read. Again recall that this bill was wholly rewritten through negotiations, and presented in its final form on the day it was voted upon, June 30, 1989. 

….

“The pension bill has something for everybody, folks. It’s been designed in such a way that everybody’s got something in here.” 

But as Schuneman continues to speak, it is clear that he is cynical about this design and in fact he is concerned about the cost, and he continues talking about the pension debt as the equivalent to paying the minimum payment on a credit card – but gets no traction. The next speakers are far more interested in clarifying the (even more generous) benefit boosts for General Assembly members, and after some side-tracking Jones picks up his “something for everything” point but not with Schuneman’s cynicism but sincerely calling for passage, citing the governor’s support (and with no mention of costs or the funding plan): 

“Sure, there is something in here for everyone. The Office of the Governor came out very strongly for the workers of the State of Illinois and in strong support for the compounding of the increases for State Employees and retirees. So, let’s give me a favorable vote on this bill, and we will do good for the people who work hard for the State of Illinois.”

Author(s): Elizabeth Bauer

Publication Date: 3 Feb 2022

Publication Site: Forbes

The Pension Combine? Illinois’ Public Pension Unfunding Has A Long And Bipartisan History

Link:https://www.forbes.com/sites/ebauer/2022/01/30/the-pension-combine-illinois-public-pension-unfunding-has-a-long-and-bipartisan-history/

Excerpt:

Newcomers to the state of Illinois may find it odd to see the word “bipartisan” show up anywhere in reference to Illinois, but they forget that the state’s history includes jailed governors from both political parties.

….

Nothing especially persuasive emerges from these studies, except for one: “Polarization and Policy: The Politics of Public-Sector Pensions,” by Sarah Anzia and Terry Moe, published in 2017 at Legislative Studies Quarterly.

Their main argument: before the Great Recession, in those states with un/underfunded pensions, both parties were the cause of the underfunding. Simply put, the public at large simply had no interest in pension funding, but was very much interested in a high level of government services and a low level of taxation. There was therefore no incentive for politicians of either side to fund pensions.

….

And a review of the history of Illinois’ pension funding is a case study in how this pre-Great Recession bipartisan pension funding indifference played out. The whole history was outlined in great detail in a 2014 report by Eric Madiar, who at the time served as Chief Legal Counsel to Illinois Senate President John J. Cullerton; while the objective of much of his document is to argue a political point, his history lesson is extremely helpful, and starts with a 1917 report by the Illinois Pension Laws Commission lamenting that pension plans were not being funded and calling for the legislature to begin to fund pensions when benefits are earned. Throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s, dire reports were issued by similar commissions, to no avail, with the result that the Illinois constitution of 1970 essentially treated the pension protection clause as an alternative to funding pensions.

….

So there you have it: a century-long legacy of unfunded pensions in Illinois.

Author(s): Elizabeth Bauer

Publication Date: 30 Jan 2022

Publication Site: Forbes

Facebook International Man Of Mystery And GoFundMe Fraudster Disrupt $115 Billion Ohio Pension Forensic Investigation

Link:https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsiedle/2021/12/20/facebook-international-man-of-mystery-and-gofundme-fraudster-disrupt-115-billion-ohio-pension-forensic-investigation/?sh=3ef0ed262c78

Excerpt:

Who is Facebook international man of mystery Robert Parkle and why is he advising Ohio Public Employees Retirement System stakeholders not to follow through with an expert forensic investigation of their state pension? Why did Kasandra Ward from Aurora, Colorado create a fraudulent OPERS Forensic Investigation GoFundMe page apparently to divert funds from the real project? Our nation’s public pensions have never been more precarious and there are powerful interests working hard to keep pension stakeholders in the dark.  

Earlier this year, a forensic investigation of the $90 billion-plus State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio commissioned by the Ohio Retired Teachers Association and performed by my firm, was completed. The damning preliminary findings were reported to Ohio legislators, regulators and law enforcement in a 100-plus page report entitled The High Cost of Secrecy.

….

In conclusion, I won’t speculate who may be seeking to derail the proposed forensic investigation of the $115 Billion Ohio Public Employees Retirement System on behalf of pension stakeholders, or why. One thing is for certain: One or more persons is seeking to disrupt the investigation into potential mismanagement and malfeasance at the massive pension.

Stakeholders in all 5 Ohio public pensions, including OPERS, should be alarmed and securities regulators and law enforcement ought to investigate any apparent violations of law through social media.

Author(s): Edward Siedle

Publication Date: 20 Dec 2021

Publication Site: Forbes

Washington State’s Celebrated Long Term Care Program Is Headed Towards Trouble

Link: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ebauer/2022/01/09/washington-states-celebrated-long-term-care-program-is-headed-towards-trouble/

Excerpt:

A requirement to have paid into the system is characteristic of a social insurance program, and the 10 year contribution requirement is essentially the same as the eligibility requirement for Old Age benefits in Social Security. However, true social insurance programs pay out benefits to those eligible regardless of residence — again, once you’ve paid into Social Security long enough to have earned your benefit, you can collect regardless of where you live, even if you have moved abroad. In fact, even noncitizens who worked in the United States long enough to have accumulated sufficient Social Security credits, can receive benefits after having moved back to their home countries. What’s more, many social insurance systems provide some sort of refund mechanism for workers who do not accumulate enough contribution years to be eligible.

And this hybrid system will likely prove to be unsustainable politically. Even if ordinary Washingtonians are not well-versed in social insurance concepts and theories, it will not sit right with them that those who retire with 10 years of payroll taxes have “earned” their benefits but those with 9 years have not, and, likewise, that those who have “earned” benefits would lose those “earned” benefits merely by moving out of state. How precisely this will play out over the long term remains to be seen, but the new bills are not likely to be the end of the story.

In any case, these problems will not be easy to remedy.

Author(s): Elizabeth Bauer

Publication Date: 9 Jan 2022

Publication Site: Forbes

Revisiting The ‘Retirement Crisis’ And Retirement Legislation In 2022 – What’s In Store In The New Year?

Link: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ebauer/2021/12/31/revisiting-the-retirement-crisis-and-retirement-legislation-in-2022whats-in-store-in-the-new-year/

Graphic:

Excerpt:

First, we need to keep a distinction in mind between efforts to ensure the elderly do not suffer actual material deprivation, whether that’s lack of nutritious food or adequate housing or medical needs, for instance, and efforts to help Americans plan for retirement and alleviate their expressed worries about the unknowns of retirement.

Second, issues of well-being, such as social isolation, and larger questions of the “right” form of provision of long-term care assistance, are not simple issues of finances but are nonetheless important as Americans age, and these topics should not be drowned out by a “retirement crisis” narrative. It should also go without saying that we will urgently need to turn our attention to the Medicare system as well.

And, third, in one crucial respect our models may fail us: experts have worked out a set of recommendations for asset allocation and income spend-down in retirement, and a set of projections for building those models, which fall apart if our new low-interest world continues, Japan-like, rather than being a temporary situation that resolves itself as we recover from the pandemic. Whether this is a result of government policies or an inevitable consequence of the changing economy, this could upend both Biggs’ projections of retiree well-being and the path to retirement security envisioned by legislation like the SECURE Act 2.0.

Author(s): Elizabeth Bauer

Publication Date: 31 Dec 2021

Publication Site: Forbes

States Are Seeing Steep Income Tax Revenue Growth. Will It Last?

Link:https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizfarmer/2021/12/01/states-are-seeing-steep-income-tax-revenue-growth-will-it-last/

Excerpt:

States collected nearly $455 billion in total income tax revenue in fiscal 2021—an astounding 14.7% increase over the prior year. That’s according to the latest report from the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO), which covers spending through June 2021. Over two years, income tax revenue is up 15%.

However, these numbers are highly influenced by unusual economic times. For starters, states delayed their tax filing deadline by several months when the pandemic began. For most, this pushed their 2020 income tax revenue into the next fiscal year. This artificially deflated 2020’s numbers while inflating 2021 collections.

The federal stimulus has also played a role. Since March 2020, the feds have doled out $867 billion in cash to households via three Economic Impact Payments. While those payments weren’t taxable, they could indirectly increase state tax liability for some. (The New York Times NYT +1% has a good explainer on that.) Plus, unemployment insurance — which most states do tax — received a massive boost for about 15 months.

Author(s): Liz Farmer

Publication Date: 1 Dec 2021

Publication Site: Forbes

Call Your State Securities Regulator And NASAA, Demand To See Public Pension Prospectuses

Link: https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsiedle/2021/11/30/call-your-state-securities-regulator-and-nasaa-demand-to-see-public-pension-prospectuses/?sh=d277a077f881

Excerpt:

State securities regulators and NASAA have historically had very little to say about Wall Street looting of these pensions. That’s not altogether surprising given that state securities regulators almost universally serve at the whim of elected politicians—politicians who depend upon Wall Street campaign contributions. If a state securities regulator aggressively pursues Wall Street pension looting, she may be swiftly out of a job.

However, since NASAA believes “every investor deserves protection and an even break” the organization should focus upon the disturbing fact that today public pension stakeholders in all 50 states are routinely denied prospectuses and other material investment information related to their pension assets—the very same information which is widely disseminated globally to wealthy individuals. In the absence of prospectuses, public pension stakeholders cannot possibly evaluate whether pension assets are prudently invested.

…..

Recently I filed a complaint with the Ohio Department of Commerce, Division of Securities regarding the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio which has failed since February to provide prospectuses and other offering materials related to the teachers’ pension investments in response to my public records request filed on behalf of 19,000 Ohio teachers. Not a single page of a single prospectus has been released to me by STRS Ohio since February. The Division is investigating my complaint at this time.

In Rhode Island, my request for the prospectuses regarding that state’s pension investments was also denied by Treasurer Seth Magaziner last week as the pension perversely asserts, on behalf of Wall Street, that widely distributed prospectuses can somehow be “trade secrets.” I intend to file an appeal and a lawsuit challenging Magaziner’s secret pension dealings in Rhode Island.

Given that public pensions in all 50 states today refuse to provide some or all prospectuses to stakeholders, including both participants and taxpayers, publci pension secrecy is a national problem that needs to be addressed.

Author(s): Edward Siedle

Publication Date: 30 Nov 2021

Publication Site: Forbes

19,000 Retired Ohio Teachers Want Pension Prospectuses, Wall Street Wolves Say No Way

Link:https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsiedle/2021/11/09/19000-retired-ohio-teachers-want-pension-prospectuses-wall-street-wolves-say-no-way/

Excerpt:

For nearly two decades, alternative investment managers have been permitted to handle public pension money while they refuse to play by the rules applicable to these funds and submit to public scrutiny.

Wall Street alternative managers have successfully argued that the very same investment information widely distributed to wealthy individuals somehow amounts to “trade secrets” exempt from public records laws… when requested by state workers.

While it’s not surprising Wall Street’s biggest gamblers want to keep investors in the dark as to their misdeeds, it’s unconscionable that STRS Ohio and other public pensions around the nation are willing to abandon transparency, exposing workers to unfathomable risks and jeopardizing their retirement security.

Alternative investment managers may seek to keep secrets, but it’s no secret what’s often in these well-guarded documents: excessive and illegal fees; outrageous conflicts of interest and self dealing; fiduciary breaches and outright violations of law—even criminal conduct. For example, eight years ago the SEC staff found that a majority of private equity firms inflate fees and expenses charged to companies in which they hold stakes.

Author(s): Edward Siedle

Publication Date: 9 Nov 2021

Publication Site: Forbes

Private Equity’s Mighty Battle Against Public Pension Transparency

Link:https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsiedle/2021/11/15/private-equitys-mighty-battle-against-public-pension-transparency/

Excerpt:

Private equity firms widely distribute their prospectuses and offering materials to prospective wealthy investors as they trawl globally to raise capital for their costly, high-risk funds. Yet when state and local government pension stakeholders request prospectuses of the funds in which their pensions invest, PE firms claim these very same broadly disseminated documents are “trade secrets” exempt from disclosure under state public records laws. On the one hand, PE risks, fees, and questionable business practices are fully disclosed via prospectus to wealthy investors who can afford to gamble. On the other, government workers in severely underfunded pensions (many of whom have already seen their retirement benefits cut) and taxpayers who are on the hook for any public pension gambling losses, are intentionally kept in the dark. SEC and state securities regulators should demand that every PE investor, including public pension stakeholders, be provided with all material investment information related to these risky investments and end PE secret fleecing of government workers’ pensions.

Author(s): Edward Siedle

Publication Date: 15 Nov 2021

Publication Site: Forbes

Biden’s Falling Approval Ratings Are Bad News For The Municipal Market

Link:https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizfarmer/2021/10/16/bidens-falling-approval-ratings-are-bad-news-for-the-municipal-market/?sh=7c3aed496a80

Excerpt:

Advanced refunding bonds allowed governments to refinance debt earlier, thus letting them take advantage of lower interest rates years sooner and save taxpayer money. The 2017 tax reform eliminated their tax-exempt status which effectively nixed their cost-saving value for governments. But the move increased federal government revenues by billions of dollars each year. Reinstating the bonds, according to a report from the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), would cost $11 billion over the next five years.

A federally subsidized taxable bond — what market watchers are calling BABs 2.0 — works differently. Unlike tax-exempt municipal bonds, BABs are taxable, and, as a result, open up the municipal market to new investors, such as pension funds or those living abroad. More buyers is a good thing, but BABs are also more expensive for governments. So to defray the added cost, the federal government in 2009 offered a direct subsidy of 35% of state and local governments’ interest payments on BABs.

That is, until sequestration in 2013 dramatically cut the subsidy and left state and local governments scrambling to fill the void.

BABs 2.0 would work similarly, but also lock in the federal subsidy — a much better deal for governments. They’re expected to cost the federal government more than $22.5 billion between 2022 and 2031, according to estimates from the JCT. 

Author(s): Liz Farmer

Publication Date: 16 Oct 2021

Publication Site: Forbes