One of the voices urging reform of the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) is a semi-retired University of Virginia economics professor, Edwin T. Burton III, who served 18 years on the board. He argues that the VRS pays too much in management fees to outside investment firms that pursue labor-intensive strategies and should rely on low-overhead funds that index stock and bond markets.
In fiscal 2016, the VRS generated a 1.9% return but lagged the 3.99% return on the S&P 500. The year before, the VRS generated a 4.7% return compared to a 7.4% return for the S&P. “We haven’t come close” to the 7% rate of return assumed by the VRS in reaching its calculation of $22.6 billion in unfunded liabilities, he told Michael Martz with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Getting a higher rate of return is the best way to boost the financial health of the state retirement fund. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Everyone would like to boost returns on their financial investments, but very few investment managers have outperformed the market consistently. While pension funds can tinker with their portfolios, shifting funds between stocks, bonds, real estate, private equity and hedge funds, often chasing yesterday’s hot categories, they can’t control their returns. But they can control how much they pay outsiders to generate those returns.
As it happens, the VRS paid $362 million in management fees in 2015, according to its 2015 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. (The 2016 report is not yet online.) That sum is divvied up between ten major investment categories such as U.S. and foreign equities, fixed-income, real estate, hedge funds and other alternative investments.
Hedge fund managers stick out like a sore thumb — they collected $87 million in management fees. Hedge funds delivered outstanding returns for many years, which justified their sky-high management fees, but they have stubbed their toes in recent years. With some 10,000 funds playing in the sandbox, typically betting on movements of currencies and commodities, competition has squeezed industry profit margins to nothing. After years of sub-par returns, there is no justification for the overly generous fee structure.
VRS also paid exceptionally high fees to “alternative investment” managers and for its “strategic opportunities portfolio.” Taxpayers might wonder if those fees are worth the returns they generate.
Remarkably, the VRS staff, which manages one third of the portfolio, cost one-tenth that of the hedge-fund and alternative-investment managers. If the entire portfolio were managed that efficiently, management fees would have cost only $81 million in 2015 — a savings of about $280 million! Over the years, that could amount to billions of dollars.
So, why don’t we fire the hedge fund managers?
It gets complicated. First of all, you don’t mind paying higher fees to managers who outperform the market averages. Unfortunately, the VRS annual report doesn’t tell us the performance of its individual funds, and even its discussion of investment categories (stocks, fixed-income, hedge funds) doesn’t match up with the categories listed in its table of management fees. So, there’s no way the public can tell if the management-fee differentials are worth it or not.
Second, you shouldn’t judge a fund manager based on one year’s performance. Even the best can have a bad year. What most interests me is the internal VRS performance. Does its track record over the years equal that of other fund managers? If so, why we paying the other fund managers?
Third, there is a benefit to diversifying a portfolio. The idea is to limit exposure to wide swings in any single investment category. Strong performance in one category offsets weak performance in another. A pension portfolio that invested only in stocks and bonds would be distressingly volatile.
Still, Professor Burton has a point. The VRS may be paying way more than it needs to. Saving $280 million a year won’t bail out a pension fund with $22.6 billion in unfunded liabilities (probably an optimistic assessment), but it sure would help, creating less pain for Virginia’s public-employee pensioners and taxpayers. The idea is definitely worth a closer look.