More than 100 state, city, county and other governments borrowed for their pension funds last year, twice the highest number that did so in any prior year, according to a Municipal Market Analytics analysis of Bloomberg data. Nearly $13 billion of these pension obligation bonds were sold last year, which is more than in the prior five years combined.
The Teacher Retirement System of Texas, the U.S.’s fifth-largest public pension fund, began leveraging its investment portfolio in 2019. Next month, the largest U.S. public-worker fund, the roughly $440 billion California Public Employees’ Retirement System, known as Calpers, will add leverage for the first time in its 90-year history.
While most pension funds still avoid investing borrowed money, the use of leverage is spreading faster than ever. Just four years ago, none of the five largest pension funds used leverage.
Investing with borrowed money can juice returns when markets are rising, but make losses more severe in a down market. This year’s steep slump in financial markets will test the funds’ strategy.
It’s too soon to tell how the magnified bets are playing out in the current market, as funds won’t report second-quarter returns until later in the summer. In the first quarter, public pension funds as a whole returned a median minus 4%, according to data from the Wilshire Trust Universe Comparison Service released last month. A portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds—not what funds use—returned minus 5.55% in the quarter, Wilshire said.
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?”
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.”
Due to an active group of retirees and the assistance of a former Ohio attorney general, both the Ohio state auditor and the Ohio Department of Securities have launched inquiries into the Ohio State Teachers Retirement System (STRS Ohio), a $100 billion pension that has launched billions of dollars of investments into the riskier corners of the market, namely private equity and hedge funds.
“Ohio could be the first place where the secrecy surrounding public pensions and their investments in risky, speculative, and high-fee investment vehicles could be looked at in a serious way,” said Ted Siedle, a former SEC attorney and longtime pension whistleblower.
Pointing out that pension funds across the country have routinely invoked “trade secrets” exemptions to deny the public information about investment performance and fees, Siedle said the actions taken by the state auditor and securities commissioner “could be the beginning of the end” of such secrecy — not just in Ohio, but nationwide.
The lawsuit notes the difficult position the retirement system was in, saying that “there was no prudent investment strategy that would allow KRS to invest its way to significantly improved funded status,” and that “the trustees were trapped in a demographic/financial vise.” However, while acknowledging there was no prudent investment strategy for KRS to get out of the hole it was in, the plaintiffs are simultaneously critical of Carlson and the other defendants for taking what they consider to be “longshot imprudent risks.”
The lawsuit also criticizes the hedge funds of funds for not providing high enough returns for the entire KRS portfolio to meet or exceed its 7.75% assumed rate of return. However, the same could be said for fixed income and many other assets in the KRS portfolio. Broad hedge fund portfolios are generally created to reduce risk, not beat equity markets.
“The Black Boxes did not provide the investment returns trustees needed for KRS to return to or exceed on the average its AARIR [assumed annual rate of investment return] of 7.75%,” says the lawsuit, which is targeting approximately 3% of KRS’ overall investments, while saying they should carry the entire portfolio to meet or outperform a rate of return the state acknowledged as “unrealistic and unachievable.”
The lawsuit also claims the investments “lost millions of dollars in 2015 to 2016,” which was more than two years after Carlson left, and which was a particularly bad time period for the entire hedge fund industry. The lawsuit criticized one of the investments, known as the Henry Clay Fund, for providing “exceptionally large fees for Blackstone”; however, the suit also states that “the amount of the fees could not be calculated and were not disclosed.”
You can find all the major filings at Kentucky Pension Case. The two below are over the most heated current issue: whether the Tier 3 Plaintiffs can move forward. Judge Shepherd said effectively that he needed to see what the attorney general planned to do before he decided that.
Given that the justification for the attorney general repeated extension requests was to wrap his mind around the case, and the Calcaterra report looked like Kentucky Retirement Systems hiring an outside firm to brief the attorney general, the new filing is entirely old hat. It has not only has no new arguments, it is even more openly cribbed from older plaintiff filings that the original attorney general intervention, where his office at least re-wrote a fair bit of the material into white shoe tall building lawyer style. Here, nearly all of the filing is a cut and paste, including the charts.
Assembly Bill 386 sailed through the Assembly Judiciary Committee last week on a unanimous vote with virtually no discussion about its provisions.
Potentially it opens the door to insider dealing and corruption in an agency that’s already experienced too many scandals, including a huge one that sent CalPERS’ top administrator to prison for accepting bribes.
CalPERS, which is sponsoring the bill with support from some unions and local governments, claims that the exemption is no big deal since the money it lends through “alternative investment vehicles” such as venture capital funds and hedge funds is already partially exempted from disclosure.
However, there is a big difference. Using outside entities to invest means they have skin in the game. Direct lending by CalPERS means that its board members, administrators and other insiders would be making lending decisions on their own without outside scrutiny.
The term shadow bank refers to things like hedge funds, venture capital firms, and private equity, which all have relatively less oversight than traditional financial institutions. These are all lending intermediaries, or institutions that lend money that fall outside of the mainstream regulatory structure of finance. They’re either situated outside of investment banks, or they exist in less regulated arenas of investment banks, perhaps in offshore settings. One example you might be familiar with is the big private equity firm Blackstone. Another is the big hedge fund Bridgewater.
The “shadow” label implies a degree of opacity, because frequently they make investments that are harder to understand, often in private markets rather than public markets. But it also refers to the fact that they’re lending in the shadow of larger institutions. This partially because they’re deemed to have sophisticated investors by the Securities and Exchange Commission and are therefore designated as subject to less oversight.
Author(s): Megan Tobias Neely interviewed by Meagan Day
Torsella also was at the center of a burgeoning bloc of hedge fund and private equity skeptics on state pension boards. He has publicly criticized Wall Street firms for charging too many fees for too little gain.
Cameron’s filing was almost entirely dependent on the original plantiffs’ documents. It’s become increasingly evident that Cameron never intended to litigate. The best guess is that Cameron needed a distraction from bad Brionna Taylor headlines, and also saw the Mayberry v. KKR case as an opportunity to engage in a little shakedown by making a potentially explosive case go away via a cost-of-doing-business settlement.
But Cameron appears to have badly underestimated his opponents, led by the formidable attorney Michelle Lerach and her husband, the disbarred but still very much feared Bill Lerach, who acts as a consultant. A quick and cheap settlement can occur only if the defendants can escape what they fear most, discovery. But the latest order from Judge Philip Shepherd shows he is moving forward with the reconfigured case, now involving “Tier 3” beneficiaries in a hybrid plan that does not have a state guarantee. That upsets Cameron’s plans to settle the case before the Tier 3 plaintiffs go going, which would allow his to go lowball based on public information and the limited discovery to date.