Category Archives: Government workers and pensions

Stick It to the Hedge Fund Managers!

VRS_management_fees2
by James A. Bacon

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.

Digging into Rate-of-Return Assumptions

vrs_portfolio

by James A. Bacon

House Speaker William J. Howell is rightfully concerned about the long-term health of the Virginia Retirement System. The pension system’s own actuary estimated a year ago that the $68 billion retirement system has unfunded liabilities of $22.6 billion.

On Sunday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Michael Martz described the debate over restructuring the VRS from a defined-benefits system to a defined-contribution system. Today, Martz reports how Howell is questioning the outsized fees paid to outside fund managers, who handle two-thirds of the system’s assets.

“My biggest concern is the unfunded liability and the fact that it’s just going to grow,” Howell said.

Howell has every reason to be concerned. Unfunded liabilities might turn out to be far bigger than the actuary’s estimate. As I have observed many times, the liability is based upon an assumed 7% annual rate of return on the $68 billion portfolio. If the system under-performs expectations, as the VRS has done the past two years, the unfunded liability can grow by tens of billions of dollars. Writes Martz:

For Howell and other lawmakers on the [Virginia Commission on Retirement Security & Pension Reform], however, the retirement system’s recent investment performance has raised questions about whether the 7% assumed rate of return is too optimistic for the longer term, especially with interest rates keeping bond yields low for the foreseeable future. …

The 7 percent return, lowered by the VRS board from 7.5 percent in 2010 is among the lowest in the country for public pension funds, said Katie Selenski, state policy director for the Pew retirement initiative. “At 7 percent, you’re in a good, prudent position.”

Prudent? Not really. The pie chart above shows VRS’s portfolio allocation. Some 17.6% consists of fixed income assets. Barring some bizarre experiment with negative interest rates in the U.S., there is no way in a zero interest-rate environment that these assets can generate a 7% return. Another 39.8% of the portfolio consists of equities. Insofar as the bull market in stocks over the past 30 years has been driven by lower interest rates and an expansion of earnings multiples, there is no way to replicate the stock gains of the past ten years. Indeed, earnings and earnings quality of stocks are deteriorating, not a good sign for near-term price performance. Meanwhile, the performance of hedge funds nationally has been dismal of late. There is no rabbit to pull out of the magic hat of alternative investments.

For another view on the outlook for long-term portfolio performance, it is instructive to turn to the University of Virginia, which, whatever one might say about the Board of Visitors’ strategic priorities, one must credit with doing an excellent job of managing its endowment. The 10-year return of the University of Virginia Investment Management Company (UVIMCO) has been 10.1 %, according to its 2014-2015 annual report. That compares to 5.8% ten-year performance calculated by the VRS in 2014-2105.

How much do UVa’s masters of the universe think they can earn on their portfolio looking forward? As best as I can tell from perusing UVIMCO’s annual report, they don’t say. UVIMCO doesn’t report that assumption because it isn’t relevant:  Although UVIMCO does have unfunded commitments, it is not a pension fund in which shortfalls must be made up by taxpayers.

Still, it is possible to get a sense of UVa’s expectations from comments made by university officials that they expect the controversial $2.2 billion Strategic Investment Fund to throw off $100 million a year to pay for programs to advance the university’s strategic goals. University officials have not explained what rate-of-return assumptions they are using. But a simple calculation reveals that $100 million is only 4.5% of $2.2 billion.

From that, one can draw one of two conclusions. Either UVa’s investment mavens are assuming a much lower rate of return than the VRS, or they expect a higher-than-4.5% rate of return but plan to retain a substantial fraction of the earnings, presumably in order to grow the size of the portfolio.

It appears that the second conclusion is true. Here’s what the UVIMCO annual report says: “Each year a portion of the endowment value is paid out to support the fund’s purpose, and any earnings in excess of this distribution help build the fund’s market value over time. In this way, an endowment fund grows and provides support for its designated purpose in perpetuity.”

For legislators digging into UVa’s controversial Strategic Investment Fund, which is managed by UVIMCO, it would be interesting to know what rate-of-return the university is assuming for its endowment and what percentage it figures on spending and what percentage it figures on retaining. The numbers should be equally interesting to Speaker Howell. It would send out a flashing yellow caution signal if the UVIMCO’s assumption about of future performance was more conservative than that of the VRS.

Virginia Retirement System — Trouble Ahead

Last week as I was watching the business channel, I was very interested in the comments of AIG’s head of investments about the effects of low interest rates on his firm. For those involved in life insurance and other long-term products, today’s historically low interest rates pose a significant problem. With negative rates on investment-grade bonds, insurers have no choice but to raise prices to the consumer or leave markets where bond yields are not high enough to support interest-sensitive products.

This morning’s Richmond Times Dispatch brought the issue a little closer to home. House Speaker William J. Howell wants to shift from the current structure to a self-managed system. In other words, employees would manage their own retirements and, as is the case with 403b plans or IRAs, would take their accounts with them when they shift jobs. (As a retired teacher, I receive a small pension from the Virginia Retirement System.)

It is unclear from the article how, under Howell’s proposal, the employee would fund this. Would employees receive a stipend equal to the amount that school districts currently contribute on their behalf to VRS? Or would they be totally on their own? If the latter, the state would be shifting not only market risk but the actual cost to teachers and its other employees.

Teaching has always been a relatively low wage profession. One of the unspoken deals always was, “You work for a low wage now and we will help you out in your later years.” The article leads me to conclude that Howell wants to destroy that bargain. Sure, we all want to be on our own, but attracting skilled folks to the teaching profession, which has seen a decline in real wages since the Great Recession, will be even more difficult. Funding their own retirement is a risk that few will be able to afford.

— Les Schreiber

Petersburg’s Other Fiasco

petersburg_city_hall

Petersburg City Hall

by James A. Bacon

Poor Petersburg. The economically depressed Southside city of 32,000 serves as a vivid warning of just about everything that can go wrong for a local government in Virginia. Not only is the city running a massive General Fund budget deficit, it is falling millions of dollars behind in the collection of revenues for its water system.

The heart of the problem is a botched rollout of a meter-reading system that was pitched as a low-risk way for the city to overhaul its aging infrastructure without a tax increase. The city contracted with systems-controls giant Johnson Controls to install meters that would transmit usage figures electronically, obviating the need to send employees door to door to collect the numbers. Supposedly, the overhaul would pay for itself through more accurate readings and personnel reductions.

But something went wrong. First, the $3.9 million project experienced overruns of $1.4 million, bringing the final cost to $5.3 million. Second, it didn’t work properly. A year and a half later, surely enough time to work out the kinks, some people are reporting that they haven’t received water bills for months, while others say they have been billed too often, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars.

City officials blame the vendor, Johnson Controls. Yesterday City Council voted to hire an outside attorney to pursue litigation against the company to seek remedy, and has asked for assistance from the Virginia State Police.

While it is possible that Johnson Controls bungled the installation of the meters (Full disclosure: I own 400 shares of Johnson Controls stock), the City of Petersburg’s track record and evidence in the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s reporting of the story suggest that the city itself might have contributed to the problem.

First, the article mentions that more than a fifth of the cost overrun came from a $300,000 change order the year after the contract signed. No mention of whether there might have been other change orders.

Second, the contract was negotiated by then-City Manager William E. Johnson III, under whose watch the city’s General Fund plunged into such chaos that City Council fired him. If his oversight of city books was dismal, the same might well have been true for his oversight of the contract.

Third, it’s not clear from published accounts that the billing problem can even be traced to the meters. Meters report water usage; they do not send out billing statements. Perhaps the billing problem arose from the integration of the meters with the billing process. If so, responsibility gets murky. A successful launch of the system would have required collaboration between Johnson Controls and the city administration.

Fourth, Mayor W. Howard Myers admitted that he and other council members were unaware that the project had experienced cost overruns, or that city administrators had approved Johnson Controls’ work months after the system went live and residents had began complaining about faulty billing. This is the same mayor who declared, after being informed that the city had closed the year with a 20% deficit, “I had no idea. I’m like, wow, where is this coming from?” This is not a mayor who is on top of things, and if he blames the vendor for the mayhem, there is no reason to take his appraisal very seriously.

Fifth, in February, Myers hired Paul Goldman, law partner of former state Del. Joseph Morrissey, to investigate the matter at the rate of $330 per hour. But the city terminated the contract before Goldman could complete his job — more money down the drain. (I would conjecture that Goldman couldn’t finish the job because he found the matter to be an indecipherable morass that would take far more time than anyone had initially imagined.)

The business of government is complicated — and getting ever more so. I admire the everyday citizens who dedicate their time to running for office, helping constituents and overseeing government. They don’t get paid enough for what they do. But many of them, especially in smaller jurisdictions, are ill equipped to master the complexities of the job. Frankly, it’s a wonder we don’t see more fiascos like Petersburg’s.

When Balanced Budgets Aren’t Really Balanced

hide_the_peaby James A. Bacon

The politics of fiscal implosion are ugly. Just look at what’s going on in Petersburg and Richmond.

  • Confronted with a massive budget deficit last year in contravention of the state constitution and the prospect of a deficit in the year ahead, Petersburg City Council bravely agreed to cut the compensation of the city’s 600 employees — but carved out exemptions for senior city officials and themselves.
  • Another trustee has resigned from the board of the city of Richmond’s severely under-funded retirement fund, which has been embroiled in governance issues over who calls the shots over investment decisions.
  • City of Richmond officials say they have nearly completed their comprehensive annual financial report for 2015 — seven months late! The city has not completed the required report on time since 2014. City officials blame IT issues.

That’s just in the Richmond region, which I am familiar with because I read the Richmond Times-Dispatch as my daily newspaper. Who knows what’s happening elsewhere? While Virginians pride themselves for their fiscal rectitude, it is increasingly clear that some jurisdictions don’t hew to standards much higher than Chicago, Cleveland or Detroit.

In theory, the state constitutions requires the state government and each political jurisdiction to balance its budget each year. Virginians should be concerned that Petersburg failed to do so in fiscal 2016, that it shows every sign of failing to do so again in fiscal 2017, and that there appears to be no sanction or penalty in sight. Likewise, we should be concerned of the various tricks the state and its localities can use, if so inclined, to hide long-term structural budget deficits. Here are three:

  • Under-fund employee pensions. The Commonwealth drastically under-funded the Virginia Retirement System in the last recession, although it is now doing penance by accelerating repayments. The City of Richmond has under-funded its government-employees pension, which it operates independently of the VRS.
  • Slow pay creditors. This tactic comes straight out of the Illinois Fiscal Irresponsibility Playbook. Petersburg, it has been revealed, delayed payments of millions of dollars not only to the VRS but schools and the regional jail.
  • Defer maintenance. Rather than properly maintain roads, streets, buses, water systems, sewer systems, school buildings and the like, save money by scrimping on maintenance, even if it means even higher costs down the road.

To what extent do local governments rely upon these and other budgetary sleights of hand to balance their budgets? Nobody knows. Let me rephrase that: The public doesn’t know.

The bottom line here is that citizens cannot take at face value that their local governments are truly balancing their budgets. Some might be. I have faith that my home county of Henrico, whatever its other failings, runs a tight fiscal ship and doesn’t play bookkeeping games. But I don’t know it for a fact. Speaking generally, not specifically about Henrico County, government administrators are subject to the temptation of hiding bad news. And in most cases, local elected officials are either too timid or too untutored to ask tough, probing questions about how money is being spent.

Citizens unite! There are active taxpayer groups in Arlington, Fairfax County and Virginia Beach that I know of. I hope and pray that there are others of which I remain ignorant. Rather than fight lonely fights, they need to pool resources and expertise. I invite like-minded citizens to join Bacon’s Rebellion to create a platform to share knowledge and hold state and local governments more accountable than our elected officials seem able to do on their own. If anyone is interested in such a collaboration, please contact me at jabacon[at]baconsrebellion.com.

The Seven Percent Assumption

U.S. Fed Funds Rate. Source: Trading Economics

U.S. Fed Funds Rate. Source: Trading Economics

by James A. Bacon

The Virginia Retirement System earned an estimated 1.5% return on its $68 billion portfolio of investments last year, spurring discussion over whether state and local governments are contributing enough to maintain the long-term financial integrity of the retirement plan for Virginia school teachers and government employees.

For purposes of calculating the system’s financial integrity, VRS officials assume that the return on investment will average 7% annually over the long term — an assumption that is more conservative than many government pension plans. But is it conservative enough? After earning 1.5% the past year and only 4.7% the year before, is the 7% assumption still defensible?

VRS Chief Investment Officer Ronald D. Schmitz assured lawmakers that it is. “Over a 20-year horizon, we’re comfortable with a 7 percent return,” he said at the first meeting of the Virginia Commission on Employee Retirement Security and Pension Reform created at the urging of House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford.

Getting that assumption right is no easy task. Investment returns fluctuate widely from year to year, losing money one year and then making spectacular gains the next. Investment performance varies considerably, depending on the time frame used. According to the VRS 2015 report issued a year ago (the 2016 report is not yet available), annualized investment returns averaged 10.6% over three years, 10.3% over five years, but only 6.7% over ten years.

The question is whether the past twenty or thirty years is a useful yardstick for predicting the next twenty or thirty years. The United States has benefited from a 35-year bond market boom, over which time interest rates have trended consistently lower to the near-zero rate that it has held steady for the past seven years (as seen in the graph above). All other things being equal, lower interest rates push stock and bond prices higher. Consequently, U.S. pension funds have enjoyed 35 years of rising prices for stocks and bonds (with short interludes of falling prices) in their portfolios. But as interest rates approach zero, it is impossible under conventional economic theory for them to drop any lower. Perhaps, as we are seeing in some places around the world, it is possible for central banks to engineer below-zero interest rates, but we have no historical experience by which to judge how economies, bond markets and stock markets will perform under such circumstances.

While no one knows with any certainty where interest rates, bond prices and stock prices are headed — perhaps changes in the global economy have repealed the laws of classical economics, and below-zero interest rates will do no harm — it is safe to say that a reversion of interest rates to historical norms would be disastrous for stock and bond prices, indeed asset prices of all kinds. And it is reasonable to say that there is at least a risk that such a reversion could take place. Whether such a reversion to historical norms takes places or not, is indisputable say that central banks cannot replicate the past 35 years of falling interest rates, and that the primary driving force behind the bull market era of the past 35 years has run out of steam.

It is almost inconceivable that the future 35 years of investment returns will match that of the previous 35 years, one of the great bull market eras of U.S. financial history. Therefore, the VRS (and other all pension funds) are reckless to assume that recent history will be any guide at all to future performance. Stretch out the frame of analysis for 50 years, 100 years, or longer, and the case for equities and bonds may be as favorable as ever. But the VRS cannot look out 100 years. Baby Boomers in the state workforce are retiring in large numbers now: One quarter of the state workforce will be eligible to retire within five years. Virginia will need the money in the next 20 to 30 years.

At least one state official in a position of responsibility, House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, is worried. As the Times-Dispatch quoted him: “I’m thinking that 7 percent might be aggressive at the end of the day.”

Jones is absolutely right. The VRS needs to lower its assumption, and the General Assembly needs to allocate more money to the VRS than in the past. Such an action surely will be painful, given all of Virginia’s other budgetary constraints. But Virginians will be grateful that the legislature acted with foresight when investment returns tank. It won’t get easier to do later what we should be doing now.

Detroit on the Appomattox

Downtown Petersburg is rich in historical architecture, not much else.

Downtown Petersburg is rich in historical architecture, not much else.

by James A. Bacon

For its 2016 fiscal year, which closed June 30, the Petersburg City Council enacted a $75 million General Fund budget. Somehow, the city managed to close the year with a $17 million deficit.

Last week, council members knew the situation was dire. Staring at what they thought was a measly, $7.5 million deficit, they unanimously approved a 20% cut in personnel costs. Then, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, they learned that the deficit was actually $17 million.

Holy moly! In a state that constitutionally requires a balanced budget, how can a government body be 20% off? How can things go so far wrong?

Mayor W. Howard Myers sounded clueless. “I had no idea. I’m like, wow, where is this coming from,” he told the Times-Dispatch. Vice Mayor Samuel Parham only hinted at the problem: “This is a problem that has compounded over many years, so the  balloon has blown up and it has popped here on us.”

The city’s financial woes became apparent early this year when an audit found overspending in the General Fund by $1.8 million and anticipated a budget shortfall of $6 million. City Council fired City Manager William E. Johnson III, and appointed Dironna Moore Belton in his place on an interim basis. With Belton at the helm, a team of state auditors dug deeper into the books and found that about $4.5 million had been depleted from some “internal accounts” without the city’s knowledge.

Petersburg is a case study in how a municipal government can run up deficits without calling them deficits. The Times-Dispatch article refers to $2.5 million in financial obligations to the city school system, the regional jail and the Virginia Retirement System carried over from the 2016 budget to the 2017 budget.

“When you have a deficit, it just keeps rolling forward, Belton said. “We are working very diligently to do long-term finance restructuring, and we’re still trying to break down exactly the causation (of the deficit), but we do know the number of delinquent accounts that we have.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Fiscal negligence of this magnitude is just extraordinary for Virginia, and it raises all sorts of questions.

First, is this incompetence unique to Petersburg, or is it widespread and Petersburg is just the first to “blow up,” as Vice Mayor Parham put it? The situation calls to mind the chronic inability of the city of Richmond to complete its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which suggests that at least one other jurisdiction’s finances are in disarray. If I were a resident of the City of Richmond, I would be very concerned.

Second, Petersburg apparently used a number of tricks to hide the deficit, which allowed liabilities to build up unbeknownst to elected officials. Stretching out payments to vendors is a classic — Illinois is notorious for the late payment of its bills, incurring more than $900 million in late payment interest over six years. Petersburg apparently did the same thing on a smaller scale. How many other Virginia jurisdictions are slow-paying their vendors?

Third, what can be done when a deficit this large has built up? Petersburg, a jurisdiction of about 32,500 people, is already down on its luck. The city has a hollowed out economy, a large population of poor minorities, and one of the worst-performing school systems in the state. Its challenges are immense. Going into drastic budget-cutting mode can only make matters worse. For now, city officials seem determined to take drastic action to get their fiscal affairs in order. But the task will be painful. Which brings us to the fourth question…

Fourth, what happens from a constitutional perspective if a jurisdiction runs a deficit? Are there any sanctions? Or is the requirement to balance budgets every year merely aspirational — desirable but not mandated? What provisions are there for the state to step in? Who initiates the process — the governor or the General Assembly? We’d better get answers because my guess is that the problem is not going to go away.