A plan by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) to run its own multibillion dollar private debt investment program is dead for now after the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee rejected a bill that would have allowed the pension system to keep borrowers’ closely guarded financial information confidential.
The rejection by the committee last week is a major setback for the $469 billion pension system. CalPERS officials had planned to give out as much as $23 billion to companies seeking loans in the private debt market in an effort to boost financial returns for the system.
A day after the legislative committee’s vote, CalPERS Board Vice President Theresa Taylor asked at a board meeting whether the pension system could create an asset allocation that would allow it to earn its assumed rate of return without the in-house private lending program. Its current rate of return is 6.8%.
CalPERS does not need legislative permission for its investment program, but it needed state lawmakers to carve out an exemption to the state’s public disclosure laws to create the private debt program.
Walters’ piece has been picked up by the Mercury News and other in-state papers. Since the bill has yet to go to the Senate, his intervention will make it much harder for Sacramento insiders to simply waive the legislation through and pretend they didn’t know about its rancid features.
We wrote up last week in part because the Judiciary Committee staff took the unusual step of sharply questioning whether CalPERS could and should be trusted with the powers it would provide. CalPERS wants to make loans and be exempt from disclosure…including who got the loan, in what amount, what the terms were (such as interest and collateral). The latter is important not just to determine if CalPERS is making proper credit judgments but also to see if it is handing out sub-market loans to cronies. There’s a proud history of this sort of thing. Remember, for instance, the “Friends of Angelo” scandal, when Countrywide gave out mortgages on extremely favorable terms to powerful politicians including Senate Banking Committee chair Christopher Dodd (D-CT), and Senate Budget Committee chair Kent Conrad.
Similarly, the reason yours truly has not been an advocate of public banks is they were tried in the US and virtually all failed. Most states and even some cities had them. All save North Dakota’s were eventually shuttered due to large-scale corruption and losses. I have not seen any of the proponents of public banks in the US demonstrate any awareness of their history of becoming piggy-banks for local notables, much the less recommend how to stop that from happening again. What CalPERS is proposing is an even more degraded version of the old, crooked, insider-controlled public banks.
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.