By David Dayen, a lapsed blogger, now a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, CA. Follow him on Twitter @ddayen
David Sirota has carved out a much-needed niche lately by poking around in the unseemly deals between public pension funds and Wall Street predators, and he brings yet another scoop, this time in New Jersey:
Gov. Chris Christie’s administration openly acknowledged that more New Jersey taxpayer dollars were going to land in the coffers of major financial institutions. It was 2010, and Christie had just installed a longtime private equity executive, Robert Grady, to manage the state’s pension money. Grady promoted a plan to put more of those funds into riskier investments managed by Wall Street firms. Though this would entail higher fees, Grady said the strategy would “maximize returns while appropriately managing risk.”
Four years later, New Jersey has secured only half the promised results. The state has sent more pension money to big-name Wall Street firms like Blackstone, Third Point, Omega Advisors, Elliott Associates and Grady’s old firm, The Carlyle Group. Additionally, the amount of fees the state pays financial managers has more than tripled since Christie assumed office. New Jersey is now one of America’s largest investors in hedge funds.
The “maximized returns” have yet to materialize… Had New Jersey’s pension system simply matched the median rate of return, the state would have reaped roughly $3.8 billion more than it did between fiscal years 2011 and 2014, says pension consultant Chris Tobe.
The $939.8 million million in Wall Street fees from 2010-2013 are bad enough, especially for below-market returns, but the sheer riskiness of these bets, essentially letting fund managers gamble with public money, is truly nauseating. As Sirota points out, New Jersey has authorized over one-third of its pension funds to alternative investments, from hedge funds to private equity firms to venture capital funds. That is alarmingly high. Calpers, the largest pension fund in the country, has dropped their alternative investment stake to less than half that. These investments don’t outperform the market, but they’re great to grease the palms of the managers with fees. In this case, those managers happen to be ket backers of Chris Christie:
The above-average costs for New Jersey are a direct result of Christie administration officials moving more pension money to Wall Street firms. The management fees those firms charge are far more expensive than the fees for passive index funds and the costs associated with equities being managed by in-house pension staff. Investments with Wall Street managers comprise less than half of New Jersey’s pension portfolio — but those investments’ attendant fees account for 96 percent of the pension system’s total overhead expenses, according to State Investment Council documents […]
As previously reported by IBTimes, campaign finance records show that employees and others affiliated with firms managing New Jersey pension money made $167,000 worth of donations to New Jersey Republicans since 2009. Employees of those firms have also donated more than $11 million to the Republican Governors Association and the Republican National Committee. Christie is the chairman of the RGA and both organizations spent heavily to support his 2013 reelection campaign.
This amounts to Christie funding his presidential ambitions with New Jerseyite’s taxpayer money. He funnels that money to Wall Street managers, and they recycle a chunk of it back to him and his causes. As Sirota points out, the donations line up with when the firms got the contracts to manage the pension money. In one case, a contract went to the venture capital firm General Catalyst Group right after one of their partners made a $10,000 donation to the state Republican Party.
It’s more than amusing seeing Orin Kramer try to justify these practices to Sirota. Kramer, the hedgie and former chair of the State Investment Council, ran the pension fund into the ground by dumping money into Lehman-related assets, leading to $115 million in losses. (We got a very fun phone call from Kramer the last time we had the temerity to mention that on this site, so keep your line open, Yves!)
The amount of back-patting and favor-making in New Jersey, done with public money, which all then justifies cutting the meager pensions of state employees, deserves a ton more scrutiny. So it’s good that Sirota’s been on the case.