Since I started this blog a decade ago, I've repeatedly lamented the unfortunate situations when investment decisions are determined by politics rather than based on prudent process. As I read "Teachers Union and Hedge Funds War Over Pension Billions" by Brody Mullins (Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2016), I can't help wonder if pensions are once again being used as political ping pong balls.
Mind you, I am not advocating a particular strategy or asset class for any of the teacher funds mentioned in the article. One would have to examine relevant facts and circumstances, investment goals and risk tolerance, at a minimum. However, as a taxpayer and fiduciary expert, I am disturbed by the possibility that asset managers are being lopped off an approval list (or added as the case may be) on the basis of whether they disagree (or agree) with the views of the American Federation of Teachers ("AFT").
In 2015, multiple organizations (including the AFT) published "All That Glitters Is Not Gold," a thirty-nine page analysis of eleven U.S. public pension plans that invested in hedge funds. Authors of the study urge decision-makers to:
- Carry out "an asset allocation review to examine less costly and more effective diversification approaches" and
- Mandate "full and public fee disclosure from hedge fund managers and consultants" to include information about performance.
These recommendations seem to make sense and should be applied to all asset classes with two qualifiers. First, cost is not necessarily the sole determinant. Selection and monitoring should consider numerous factors such as how an asset manager mitigates risks, safeguards against rogue traders and ensures operational excellence. Second, performance numbers should be consistently measured across asset managers, go beyond historical numbers, be adjusted for risk-taking and much more.
My prediction is that we'll have lots more news about politics and pensions. This could be a good thing if actions by lawmakers and public pension trustees evidence improved oversight and good governance. Otherwise, questions asked about dubious practices may get answers too late to effect meaningful change.
Note: In terms of full disclosure, I was part of the team that reviewed New York City Employee Retirement System ("NYCERS") operations. I was not involved with any discussions about changing asset allocations.