By Matthew Cunningham-Cook, who has written for the International Business Times, The New Republic, Jacobin, Aljazeera, and The Nation and has been a labor activist
Chris Christie’s atrocious management of New Jersey’s pension fund has been reported on, including by David Sirota and myself (our reporting revealed the massive uptick in fees paid out in fiscal year 2014). But the impact of his management on the lives of New Jersey workers–who have gone 4 years now without a cost of living adjustment–has yet to see the light of day.
In 2011 Christie oversaw a grand bargain with New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat. The bargain mandated that no cost of living adjustments would be paid out by the state pension fund until it reached a 75% level of funding. In return, the unions won a commitment that the legislature would fund the pension so that it would reach that level of funding.
Of course, Christie had no intention of meeting that obligation. Christie continued to deliberately underfund the pension, winning a court case in June 2015 that allowed him to refuse to fund the pension, instead using that money to prevent any tax increase to his wealthy donors.
The pension for state workers is so underfunded that even had it been fully funded by Christie it’s unlikely that state workers would have seen their COLA. But for local government workers–whose pension funding comes from the local governments themselves–their portion of the pension fund is nowhere near as underfunded, reaching 74.39% in fiscal year 2014–a number quite close to the magic 75% that would trigger a reconsideration of the decision to deny COLAs.
The assets of state workers and local government workers in New Jersey are pooled, meaning that all are managed by the State Investment Council, which is dominated by Christie allies. (There are some important voices of dissent, most notably public worker union–CWA Local 1036–president Adam Liebtag.)
The average local government pension is $16,000, as opposed to $25,000 for state workers. As a result, those local government retirees are desperately in need of COLAs to be able to maintain their bare-bones standard of living.
Christie’s appointees to manage the state’s investments cheated the 2014 COLA out of local government workers by trailing the market, costing the pension fund hundreds of millions of dollars.
Had Christie’s money managers performed in conjunction with a generic 70% stock/30% bond index fund–an extremely generous interpretation, as I believe that the NJ Division of Investment has taken on far more risk than a 70/30 index fund–the local government accounts would have nearly $1.4 billion more in their coffers.
The local government fund had about $20.1 billion in assets as of the end of fiscal year 2014, meaning that this additional $1.4 billion would bring the funding level of the pension from 74.39% to over 81% funded–immediately triggering a review of the decision to deny local government workers their COLA.
New Jersey’s COLA calculation was quite stingy even when they were given out. A worker who retired in 2009 was given a COLA of just under 1% in 2011. But still, when you’re making just $16,000 a year on average, an extra $200 could be the difference between whether or not you have Thanksgiving dinner or can see a movie once in awhile.
But thanks to Christie’s appointees, not even a stingy COLA awaits local government workers in New Jersey.
So where did the money go? Christie’s massive foray into alternative investments–private equity, real estate, hedge funds, commodities–have all helped drag down returns, and pump up fees. On the whole, though, the issue is active management–the idea that a huge $80 billion pot of money can somehow outperform the market. Thanks to the Nobel-prize winning work of Eugene Fama on efficient markets–and to basic common sense–we know that that’s impossible.
Christie and his ilk want to go for active management and alternative investments because it’s a lucrative way to enrich friends and allies. PE firms can easily kick back credit to favored companies, and donations to favored charities. Active managers have private jets and fun cocktail parties, things that the 1-basis-point fee index fund managers just can’t afford or justify for such low profit margins.
While no one thus far has made the connection between the poor, conflict-ridden investment management of the Christie administration and the denial of COLAs to the already-meager pensions of local government workers in New Jersey, unions have begun speaking out about the poor investment management–in a manner that’s quite rare in America today.
The New Jersey AFL-CIO hired former banker Jeffrey Hooke to examine the fees paid out by the fund, which led to him saying that “The fund’s commitment to alternatives hasn’t worked out well.” A clear understatement. Union president Liebtag added “The only people getting rich off the New Jersey pension system are hedge fund managers reaping lucrative management fees and performance bonuses totaling more than $600 million in last fiscal year alone.”
As Yves has shown with CalPERS–the “industry standard”–pension fund governance nationwide is really quite poor. And with the death of local investigative reporting–expounded upon most recently by Margaret Sullivan in Sunday’s New York Times, it leaves precious few areas for revelation–basically just blogs like Naked Capitalism, and unions with ethical leadership committed to stopping their members from getting hosed.