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EXCLUSIVE: State Pension Fund Lost $200M under Raimondo

Thursday, April 25, 2013

 

The state pension fund lost more than $200 million in fiscal year 2012 as the state moved into hedge funds and other alternative investments under General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, raising questions about the investment strategy she has pursued and the viability of the pension reforms she has orchestrated.

The assets in the state pension fund dropped from $7.488 billion in June 2011 to $7.284 billion a year later, a decrease of $204 million, according to the independent annual audit. Overall, the fund had a positive rate of return of 1.55 percent during the same period. But the fund still lost money because the benefits paid out wiped out the modest gains for the year and exceeded the amount of new contributions to the fund from workers and the state.

It was the first time the fund suffered a net loss since the recession. The accompanying rate of return was the lowest for a non-recession year in a decade. (See below table.)

Before Raimondo took office, the state pension fund was on track to recover the $2.5 billion it had lost in the recession.

In fiscal year 2010, the fund gained $508 million with a return rate of 13.46 percent. In 2011, assets increased by $911 million, fueled by a return rate of 20.4 percent, with the bulk of the growth occurring in the first six months of that fiscal year, before Raimondo took office in January 2011.

The lower returns coincide with higher fees the state is paying to investment managers.

During the Caprio era, the investment fees were among the lowest of any state pension fund in the country, with .215 percent of net pension assets going towards fees for investment managers in fiscal year 2010. Under Raimondo, the cost of investment fees has nearly tripled to .58 percent of pension assets, according to documents her office provided to GoLocalProv yesterday.

Missed opportunity to recover recent losses

A state labor leader called the pension fund losses ‘outrageous’ given the continued recovery of the markets in 2012. “You would expect that the people investing our pension money would have capitalized on that,” said Frank Flynn, the president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals.

“It kind of makes you wonder about the management of the fund,” he added.

In the first six months of Raimondo’s tenure, the state’s pension investments remained largely unchanged from her predecessor. But in June 2011, the State Investment Commission, which Raimondo chairs, approved a plan that made significant changes to where the state allocated its assets.

One year later, a quarter of state pension assets were in alternative investments, including $1 billion in hedge funds, state records show. Raimondo has said one of her chief aims in the new investment strategy is to reduce risk.

But one member of the State Investment Commission, Marcia Reback, worries that the strategy is so risk-averse that the state is not making the 7.5 percent assumed rate of return—one of the key assumptions on which pension reform was predicated. She said the state has to balance out its investment portfolio so that it can capitalize on the post-recession uptick in the markets.

“What we’re doing is being so [risk-averse] in our investments, we’re not capturing the up-market,” said Reback, the former president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals.

Is Raimondo right about hedge funds?

Others are questioning whether investing in hedge funds even reduces risk, as Raimondo claims. One critic who has emerged recently is Forbes.com columnist Edward Siedle, who has launched a blistering broadside against Raimondo’s pension reform. Siedle has specifically taken her to task for moving pension assets into hedge funds, which he says are “high” not “low” risk. He has described her approach as using "unsustainable investments" to solve "unsustainable pensions."

Siedle’s position appears to be in line with one of his former employers, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which has noted that many hedge funds use “leverage … short-selling and other speculative investment practices that are not often used by mutual funds.” The SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy describes leverage as “borrowing to increase investment exposure as well as risk.”

“The thing about hedge funds is that they make a ton of money—for the people who own them. For their customers, not so much,” said Tom Sgouros, a progressive blogger and past candidate for state treasurer. “Their fees are quite high, and so is the risk, which is funny, since the point of hedging is supposed to be reducing risk. This is not to say there are no lucky customers, but the odds are clearly on the side of those who think our investments in hedge funds are not going to perform well.”

How other states compare

Raimondo spokeswoman Joy Fox noted that the state’s performance in 2012 was “comparable to other public pension plans similar to Rhode Island.”

A cursory review of other similar-sized states shows Rhode Island behind some peers and ahead of others in fiscal year 2012. Vermont had a rate of return of 2.2 percent or higher for the three pension plans it has. Delaware had a 2 percent rate. Two other New England states did worse than Rhode Island: New Hampshire and Maine were both between one percent and half a percent. (See table.)

But, like Rhode Island, at least three of those four other states saw dramatic reductions from rates of return that were in double digits in the previous fiscal year.

When asked to explain why the pension fund lost money in 2012, Fox said the benefits paid out to retirees exceeded the total contributions from workers and the state itself by approximately $400 million. The financial audit for the year shows that $881.1 million was paid out in benefits against $582.7 million in new contributions—a difference that could not be made up by $115.6 million in investment returns for the year.

Impact on pension reform

“Passing the Rhode Island Retirement Security Act of 2011 has put the pension on a path to fix this situation over the long term,” Fox said.

But some worry that the low rate of return undermines the just-passed pension reform, which included as one of its key assumptions an assumed rate of return of 7.5 percent. “The numbers obviously have been overestimated,” said state Rep. Karen MacBeth, D-Cumberland. “When we passed pension reform this was an expectation and we’re not meeting it with our rate of return.”

The rate of return for pensions is often viewed as a five-year average. As of 2012, that average was 1.19 percent, according to the annual audit. One year earlier, it was 4.02 percent.

“Any five-year average that includes 2008 and 2009 is going to be below the target,” Sgouros said. “It’s a shame we weren’t able to move the return back closer to the target range in a year that saw dramatic gains in the equities markets.”

The final returns for fiscal year 2013 are months away, but so far, in the fiscal year to-date the rate of return is about 11 percent, according to Fox. However, that still won’t be high enough to raise the five-year average to 7.5 percent.

MacBeth said the state can’t afford to wait too far into the future to address the low rate of return. “We’re not meeting our rate of return,” she said. “We need to figure that out now.”

She said state lawmakers owe it to the public who have entrusted them with reform, as well as the state retirees who have already taken a hit in their pension income.

The landmark pension reform legislation that passed in fall 2011 took effect in July 2012. Changes to benefits, including a suspension of cost of living adjustments, are expected to save about $4 billion over 20 years, according to Fox. That translates into an annual savings of $200 million.

Stephen Beale can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @bealenews

Excerpts from Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Fiscal Year 2012

 

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Comments:

past-performance-is-no-guarantee-of-future-results, even liberals have heard that one.

Comment #1 by David Beagle on 2013 04 25

Now all you municipal pigs know what the rest of America has had to deal with for years.
It sucks not having a taxpayer base to go to, to simply raise taxes and pay for it, doesn't it.

Comment #2 by pearl fanch on 2013 04 25

Stephen Beale: Please explain the asterisk next to Alaska in the six-state comparison table. The footnote clearly applies only to Vermont. How can we have confidence in your reporting of a detail-oriented topic, if you can't get the details right? And don't tell us that is the way it is in the source document; if that is so, you should have asked the same question before using that document.

Comment #3 by Charles Beckers on 2013 04 25

It is refreshing to look at that little table and see Rhode Island in the middle of the pack on ANY economic issue instead of dead last, as too often is the case.

Comment #4 by David Beagle on 2013 04 25

Interesting that GoLocal used Frank Flynn (RI Federation of Teachers) for a comment, one of Treasurer Raimondo's most vocal critics and opponents. Combined with your headline, it's pretty clear where your editor (Josh Fenton), who worked for former US Senator John Chafee, sympathies lie! You guys need to do a better job hiding your advocacy.

Comment #5 by Harold Stassen on 2013 04 25

How about we investigate the fact that the government borrowed money from the pension system and refused to pay it back. Along with the fact that those who contribute to it never get a change to opt out, while the government simply forgoes paying in some years. They make teachers, policemen and firefighters out to be the bad guy because their demanding the contract to be up held, but they have been robbed. Had this been the private sector the company would have no choice but to pay into the fund. As long as the pension system makes conservative investments, and continues collecting money from both parties it would be solvent, even with a bad year here and there. The problem is most people are listening to conservative media outlets (I'm looking at you 10, 12 and 6!) about the pension system and social security and are freaking out thinking this is causing the country and states debt, when these are solvent.

Comment #6 by Laura Coelho on 2013 04 25

Whaaa? Investments can't be expected to make 20% every year? I'm stunned.

Comment #7 by Russ C on 2013 04 25

Can't wait until she is governor... what's next pork futures??
Notice that the capital losses in 2009 and 2008 have all been recouped with recovery of the market in 2010 and 2011 and some. Also note that the 10 year average return even with the loss years is still over 8%. .... so the need to rapidly drop the investment return assumption was not necessary except to create a firestorm and garner votes. If the return needed to decline it could have been done far more gradually... but results haven't proven that a decline is needed even with her poor performance.

mainliner

Comment #8 by John Mainville on 2013 04 25

Alternative investment managers are exploiting the last great marketing opportunity: public pension plans. I am saddened to see Rhode Island fall into this trap.

I was the Chief Investment Officer for the State of North Carolina, when our pension plan was first authorized to invest in alternative investments a bit more than ten years ago. Unfortunately, we went ahead and implemented a program of investing in hedge funds and private equity. While our program didn't do any harm, it didn't help anyone but the money managers. Edward Siedle has it right. Rather than disparage Mr. Siedle, Treasurer Raimando should be answering his questions. Alternatives aren’t the answer to a pension’s woes.

You only have to go to South Carolina to see how this story will end. South Carolina plowed their pension into alternatives, driving up their fees without improving performance or risk. In South Carolina, a new Treasurer, Curtis Loftis, has challenged their Investment Commission’s decisions. For his efforts, Treasurer Loftis has faced a withering attack from the SC Investment Commission. Sadly, a future Treasurer in Rhode Island will probably wind up waging the same uphill battle.

Alternative investments can play a positive role in an investment portfolio. However, when they are applied at a huge scale as they are being applied in Rhode Island, any benefit disappears, and the plan is simply left with a big bill. By the way, the management fee is only a fraction of the cost. In addition, to paying 1.5% to 2% in management fees, the Rhode Island pension plan faces hidden costs (quietly deducted from their investment) in the form of trading costs, carried interest, and various fund expenses. When it’s all said and done 35% to 40% of any gains will go to the money managers and Wall Street. You can guess who loses.

There's one more irony, the very money managers who are winning alternative mandates are generally opponents of defined benefit plans. While it's in their short-term business interest to manage money for RI's pension, they're long-term political ideology would have RI convert its DB plan into a DC or 401(K) plan to the detriment of the employees and retirees.

http://meditationonmoneymanagement.blogspot.com/

Comment #9 by Andrew Silton on 2013 04 25

You have to be a pretty crappy investor if you didn't make better than 10% return in last year's stock market. I'm not so sure her investment strategy is to blame for the $200M loss. It sounds like the real problem is that too much is being paid out in benefits while too little is being paid into the plan by the union members. So ft that's the case...what the hell do you all expect? By the way, a very conservative investment strategy (bonds for example) would have widened the loss dramatically.

Comment #10 by Captain Blacksocks on 2013 04 25

@Laura, I agree! The working man needs to be allowed to opt out of being in the unions. I feel the same way about being forced to pay into a pension plan and now the government wants to change the rules. I've been paying into (and my employer) social security my whole working life and now the government says there isn't enough money to pay me and my generation what has been paid out in the past. Looks like all Americans are getting a raw deal from the government. I have an idea, next election lets vote for fiscal conservatives.

Comment #11 by george pratt on 2013 04 25

As I wrote yesterday, the game begins. Golocal should stop trying to act like it is a news organization. The ties between golocal and Taveras administration is well-known and now they are the attack machine for Taveras's (and East Side supporters) political aspirations. A reader can handle disclosure of one's bias but this holier-than-thou Progressive smoke-screen is insulting and disingenuous. Also, the article is obviously one-sided, hyperbolic, and intended to persuade by its sensationalism and fear-mongering. Tell me again what Taveras has accomplished?

Comment #12 by Kati Loreen on 2013 04 25

Raimondo will have to release the requested pension fund information eventually... she can only stall so long. Truth in numbers may actually end up landing her in jail. Lets hope so.

Comment #13 by William Berube on 2013 04 25

So now she's a criminal? Jesus, where do you people come from?

Comment #14 by Kati Loreen on 2013 04 25

I come from Rhode Island Kati and I've lived here my whole life... which means I've seen a lot of dirty politicains come and go. But I have to say, Raimondo is turning out to be the worst of them all. Innocent people do not conceal information, they are forthcoming with it so as to validate their claims. You hero is going down in flames and there isn't a thing you or anyone else can do about it.

Comment #15 by William Berube on 2013 04 25

She is not my hero, I'm just not buying the hype. Golocal only writes these articles to support their guy. This article is speculative and mostly misleading and people are acting like its gospel. That's my point. And your point about criminal is hyperbole. And if your from RI then you know she has too many friends to "go down in flames" as you so eloquently put it. Ms. Raimondo may not be governor but she certainly isn't going to prison. Are you really serious?

Comment #16 by Kati Loreen on 2013 04 25

This isn't hype Kati, it's truth in numbers as the treasurer has been trumpeting since this all began. Problem is, the numbers aren't adding up, not at all.

Too many friends to go down in flames? I watched over for Governor Ed Diprete for years at the ACI, he had a lot of friends too.

Comment #17 by William Berube on 2013 04 25

Kati, Did you happen to see the article in Golocal that compared Ms. Raimondo to the Pope? I think there is hype on both sides.

Sadly, it is too difficult to get the truth these days. However, I am inclined to believe that only Wall St benefited from the reform.

Comment #18 by Jason Howard on 2013 04 25

"Truth in numbers may actually end up landing her in jail. Lets hope so." That's NEVER true in RI. If it were true, the entire leadership of the General Ass-embly would be in the ACI, along with many city Mayors and most union bosses. At least Gina has tried to fix a system that is almost sure to go bankrupt before another person steps in with the courage to fix it. Every day that your pension is still not bankrupt is a day you should be sending Gina R a Thank You note. So she put 15% of the total pension into hedge funds. That's still conservative. How do you think the pension is going achieve your dreamed-of 10% annual rate of return without taking some risks. Conservative investments like bonds are yeilding almost 0% for past 2 years.

Comment #19 by Captain Blacksocks on 2013 04 25

She's fixed the system alright, so the money that would have been paid to retirees is now going to her Wall Street friends. That's some fix alright.

I've never found it in my nature to thank people who steel from me. As a matter of fact, Gina should be thanking me. I served my state honorably and held up my end of the bargain, she's just another wealthy crook who's in hot water. I hope she burns!

Comment #20 by William Berube on 2013 04 25

Its irresponsible to compare Ms. Raimondo to Ed Diprete who I believe rummaged through a trash bin for a wad of money he threw away. And Wall Street always wins, just look at the mortgage crisis. What are we Communists now. And I believe any praise for the Treasurer was before golocal made its decision on who to support.

Comment #21 by Kati Loreen on 2013 04 25

Please don't try to lecture me on the differences between former governor Diprete and Treasurer Raimondo. I've spoken with the governor at length and I know quite a bit about what let to his incarceration. There is so much more to his case that most will never, ever know. The man is brilliant and a pleasant gentleman to boot, but he's still a convicted felon, and it seems that Mr. Raimondo may be headed down the very same path.

Comment #22 by William Berube on 2013 04 25

That should have been 'Ms.' Raimondo and not Mr. Raimondo in my last post. Maybe it was her eyebrows that momentarily threw me off.

Comment #23 by William Berube on 2013 04 25

William. The pension fund collapses if it just earns 1% per year, and that's what it will earn if Gina had invested entirely in low-risk, low yeild bond funds that don't have any significant management fees. To be sustainable, the pension fund needs to earn quite a lot more than 1%. So that forces investments in high-risk, higher potential yeild funds like stocks. You want it both ways...you want high returns and no risks and guarantee of pension stability forever. That just doesn't add up. Can't send Gina to jail for trying to save your under-funded and mismanaged pension fund.

Comment #24 by Captain Blacksocks on 2013 04 25

You're right, she can't go to jail for trying to save the state retirement fund, but she can go to jail if she's stealing from it, which is just what she's doing.

And as far as advice about pensions, I have to defer to Ted Siedle and Andrew Silton over an anonymous poster name Blacksocks who doesn't have the guts to reveal his true name. What did you do, hang banners for EngageRI during their rallies?

Comment #25 by William Berube on 2013 04 25

All of this just goes to prove the point that private businesses have known and have been acting on for the past 20 years: Pension systems are unstable and unsustainable and return rates are unreliable and these systems should be dissolved and converted into other systems that put the investment choice more in the hands of the beneficiaries and remove ALL of the risk from the backs of taxpayers.

Comment #26 by Russ Hryzan on 2013 04 25

No, but I would have helped to hang those banners if asked. Pissed off RI taxpayers have to stay anonymous in RI sometimes, because we are so outnumbered by angry public employees who are upset that their union leaders let there pension funds crumble to near bankrupcy. I don't think you are reading Siedle's comments right. He's not saying Gina R broke any laws. He's saying she took on more risk in the investments (which almost always entails higher fees), and she's doing that to try and save "unsustainable pensions." If you want to toss someone in jail, look back over the past 20-30 years and find out who created the current unstainable situation where the pension payouts far exceed the long-term ability of the fund to make those payments. Just terrible financial management. Who to blame for that? Gina R who is just trying to fix decades of mismanagement? That's like holding the next president of the US responsible for the terrible debt created by GW Bush and Obama. They are both awful financial managers who will leave a giant mess behind for the next "leader" to clean up.

Comment #27 by Captain Blacksocks on 2013 04 25

If the Treasurer is making so much money off the pension system, why would she want to be Governor?

Comment #28 by Kati Loreen on 2013 04 25

And the "eyebrow" comment is "low-brow."

Comment #29 by Kati Loreen on 2013 04 25

I'm sure you would have had a great ol' time hanging those banners for EngageRI... particularly during the mega-rally Gina held at the statehouse where she showed everyone just how well she can pump her fist in contempt of state workers. You could have rubbed elbows with the paid to attend Brown University students and the anonymous businessmen who stood by her side, wearing dress suits that cost more than the car that I drive every day. You're a pissed off RI taxpayer? Join the club, bub, but please don't give me that craven excuse for anonymity by claiming to be out numbered by union workers, when 'truth in numbers' be told, we only account for 17% of the population. No it's cowardice plain and simple, but I guess there are sores things than being a coward... it's just that I could never live the way you and those people from EngageRI do... so lacking in character and lacking in your convictions that it's your voice they are hearing. That's no way to live.

Comment #30 by William Berube on 2013 04 25

Kati, the answer to your question is POWER. I don't believe that she has personally gained from the pension reform, but I do believe she has fattened the wallets of her political supporters. Many Wall St supporters would love to see her in an influential position so that they protect and further their financial positions. It is a mutually beneficial relationship - one hand washes the other sort of thing.
She is a Wall St puppet.

I agree, the eyebrow comment was inappropriate.

Comment #31 by Jason Howard on 2013 04 25

Don't all politicians pad the wallets of their supporters? I mean, one cannot deny the relationship between money, power, and politics. Its just which one do you like. I personally find most that I've met superficial and obvious. Just different levels of sophistication.

Comment #32 by Kati Loreen on 2013 04 25

It's always a race against time to post at this site, and so a correction from my last post, which should have read.

"... so lacking in character and ashamed of your convictions that you won't even let people know that it's your voice they are hearing."

Comment #33 by William Berube on 2013 04 25

Kati Loreen - I agree, the eyebrown comment was inappropriate and I shouldn't have said it.

Comment #34 by William Berube on 2013 04 25

William. There can be good reasons for being anonymous. We are not all retired and collecting a pension like you, and some of us are not in a position to be so open about our political views, especially if our work brings us into contact with public officials and unions. The state doles out retribution to those who don't obey the party line. I promise you that once I retire, I will change over to my real name.

Comment #35 by Captain Blacksocks on 2013 04 25

I can assure you, having worked in corrections for decades, I have much more to fear than you. Fear is a good thing, it can prevent us from getting killed, but when that same fear controls you, it compromises your life and I just couldn't live that way. Unfortunately, retribution from the state can be pretty harsh, no doubt there. My wife and I filed a harassment suit against the a Lt. Kenneth Viveiros & the Department of Corrections some years ago. When we wouldn't drop the suit the harassment was really ratcheted up... it was relentless. He's now resides in a jail in Georgia after having been shipped out of state.

Comment #36 by William Berube on 2013 04 25

Proving yet again that Gina Raimondo isn't solving problems--she's causing new ones.

She'll rally voters against public servants, using shadowy organizations financed by the Enron tycoons, all to enrich Wall Street traders.

Thus far she's managed to do this all while avoiding the backlash and wrath that accompanied Scott Walker's similar efforts in Wisconsin. Make no mistake--it is the same divide and conquer tactic.

There is something fundamentally wrong with freezing COLAs for hard working Rhode Islanders while taking on greater risk and paying even higher hedge fund fees. Main Street is boarded up and left in the dust in Gina's Rhode Island.

She represents the dark nature of our politics. On the surface, she builds the perception that she is our savior. Only she truly has the requisite skill to save us from ourselves. Meanwhile, she poaches, raids and scavenges what is left. The vultures are circling.

Comment #37 by Thomas Ryan on 2013 04 26

Thomas,

Given the very weak state of RI public pension system, what is your proposal to stabilize it and prevent collapse? All the experts who look at the extremely unders-funded pension funds are appalled. If you were Gina R, what would you do to protect collapse of these. It's easy to sit on the sidelines and complain that her actions are only good for Wall Streeters. Seriously, all managed pension funds charge a management fee. This is not new or unique to Gina R in ANY way. So...what would you do to ensure the pensions survive for all the state workers who are relying on them?

Comment #38 by Captain Blacksocks on 2013 04 26

First off, let's separate a few things out. As I see it, there is the first issue which is her management or mismanagement of the pension fund. Under Treasurer Caprio the state was paying far less in fees. Gina has moved into the universe of hedge funds and alternative investments. Ed Siedle makes this argument far better than I can.

On so-called pension "reform":
I disagree with her process--actual reform of the pension system requires negotiation, dialogue and compromise by all the stakeholders. Instead of that, Gina forced a top-down, I-Know-Best package. She could learn a lot from the example set by Angel and Fung.

Comment #39 by Thomas Ryan on 2013 04 27

Thomas,

The 0.5% fee is about as small a fee as you will ever see for any actively managed fund. If you want a much more passive and lower-yeilding fund (like a simple bond index fund), I guess you could get the fee down to 0.2% like it used to be. However, the problem remains that a low-yeilding fund that has low management fee will not be aggressive enough to compensate for the unsustainable situation of the fund. You all need to come to terms with the fact that your fund, as it is currently organized, will be paying out far more in retirement benefits that it is able to take in through union member contributions or in return on the invested (low risk, low yield funds). You can't fault Gina R for trying to bump up the return on your funds, because that is one of the few things (short of a massive taxpayer bailout) that can keep your pension funds solvent. It's just the math of the situation. What do you think Forbes and others meant when they labeled your pension fund "unsustainable?" That was not a criticism of the current fund managers...it was the past fund managers (unions, gen assembly, treasures and governors) who got you in this mess...WITH the full support of YOUR union leaders.

Comment #40 by Captain Blacksocks on 2013 04 27

So let me understand this...

The pension fund actually made a gain of 1.55% for the year. not great, but not terrible considering the conservative nature of what's in the fund.

And yet, the total value of the fund droped 200 million for 2012.

So how could a fund that gained 1.55% end up 200M lower during the same 12 months. That is EASY to explain. FAR MORE $ was deducted from the fund than was put into it. Duh!!!

And why was that? Also easy to explain. Because the retirement benefits promised to the union member are far beyond what the fund can realistically support, unless you are living in a fantasy world where low-risk investments always generate a yearly 10% rate of return.

You all need to read a short book on investments. They have a cartoon version for kids.

Comment #41 by Katy Sloop on 2013 04 27




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