Et Tu New York? What Deregulation Means to Pension Funds

According to Financial Times reporter David Wighton ("Regulation a threat to New York, report says", January 22, 2007), New York City stands to lose nearly 60,000 jobs over the next five years in the absence of significant regulatory reform. A McKinsey & Company report, commissioned by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senator Chuck Schumer, extols the virtues of London and other venues that are considered more user-friendly for derivatives trading and other financial service activities.

Mr. Kevin LaCroix, creator of the informative blog, The D&O Diary, provides a link to the report and some interesting comparisons with the Paulson report that likewise pleads for liberalization of U.S. capital markets.

While free marketeers applaud initiatives that permit capitalism to do its magic of bringing together diverse buyers and sellers, consider some recent statistics from the Conference Board.

1. In 2005, U.S. institutions such as pension funds, insurance companies, banks and foundations controlled $24.1 trillion in assets.

2. In 2005, these institutional giants owned 67.9% of the equity of the largest 1000 corporations versus 61.4% in 2000.

3. In 2005, four companies revealed institutional investor ownership in excess of 70%. In 2004, the number was two and one or none before then.

4. Public pension plans continue to prevail in important corporate matters. Co-author of the 2007 Institutional Investment Report (Report #1400, The Conference Board), Dr. Carolyn Kay Brancato, Senior Fellow and Director Emeritus of The Conference Board Governance Center describes their critical role. "Ten years ago, these funds weren't likely to join in lawsuits or exert pressure in out of court settlements, but now, having been severely burned by the Enron and WorldCom situations, these funds are asserting themselves as never before. In addition, as the election of directors becomes more heated, and as many companies adopt bylaws saying their directors will resign if they don't get a majority of shareholder votes, the voting clout of these activist investors becomes more meaningful."

What does this mean?

As stewards of trillions of dollars of retirement monies, pension fiduciaries must serve as the first line of defense with respect to sniffing out corporate misdeeds or identifying boards that are "oversight challenged." Already tasked with a daunting job, deregulation compels these watchdogs to do an even more rigorous search for red flag issues BEFORE they turn into financial calamities.

This goes back to a recurring theme of this pension blog. Do pension fiduciaries have what it takes? On what basis are they selected? How are they trained? Is there a pension fiduciary who can serve as a Sarbanes-Oxley type "financial expert," someone who understands how to go beyond financial statements to detect possible trouble? Are the right mechanisms in place for pension fiduciaries to gather adequate information about corporate policies, procedures and internal controls AND then evaluate the data in a meaningful way? Are fiduciaries compensated in such a way that encourages their active participation, before the fact? How has the role of lead plaintiff changed in the aftermath of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 and can litigation replace regulation?

I'm not saying that statutory regulation is a panacea. In fact, there is great comfort in being part of a system that permits a vigorous debate about the numerous merits of industry self-review.

As patriot Thomas Paine declared: "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."
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