Saturday, February 6, 2016

NY Times: NYC Pension Funds and "Operational Failure"

On Tuesday, January 26, 2016, the NY Times reported the public release of a study analyzing the investment capabilities of the NYC Comptroller's Office. The NY Times article focused on the expression "danger of operational failure" to summarize the opinion of the report. The city paid Funston Advisory Services $1.4M for the 406 page report.

According to the following exert below from the report, the Comptroller's Office is currently not up to the job and needs lots of money to get the office into shape.

Our overall conclusion is that additional resources are required or the current investment strategy presents a very high level of operational risk. This is a problem that has been growing over the course of multiple administrations. It requires a long-term solution, long-term leadership, the support of the Systems, and long-term resourcing, but it also demands immediate action.

Continuous improvement (doing what BAM already does, but better) is necessary but not sufficient. Discontinuous improvement (doing new things in new ways) is also required. Unfortunately, given its existing resources and demands, BAM’s management currently has little or no capacity to implement many of the recommendations of this report.

To me it appears that the study was designed to help the Comptroller hold onto his annual designation as investment manager and his control over the investment process at the five city pension funds. I also suspect that the Mayor's Office is pushing to outsource the management functions of the pension fund so as to remove the heavy political influence that emanates from the Comptroller's Office.

As a example of this political influence, one of the people listed by Funston Advisory as a member of their team is a man named Jon Lukomnik. Jon worked for The NYC Comptroller Alan Hevesi from 1994 to 1998 as his representative on the NYCERS Board of Trustees. In FY-1997 Jon lead the move to allow Hevesi complete control of all of the NYCERS investment contracts and the payment of the fees outlined in those contracts. This is exactly one of the primary sources of the current chaos in the Comptroller's Office. As NYCERS executive director I specifically opposed this move in 1997 but for some reason the mayor's Law Department went along with this take over.

As long ago as 2011, I pointed out the improper activities by the Comptroller's Officewhen it came to investment contracts and fees for the pension funds. As recently as November of 2015, I again pointed out the mess at the Comptroller's Office. This report, however, documents in details how bad the internal operational problems are at the Office of the Comptroller.

The real reason the Comptroller's Office has become overwhelmed with the investment process is that trustees of the five city pension funds have made terrible investment decisions over the last 15 years.

The solution to the trouble at the Comptroller's Office is not more staff, higher salaries, and more spending. The real change needed is much more simple than what the report recommends but just as radical.

Instead of spending more money and hiring more people, all five funds should radically simplify their investment strategies. Invest only in 1) direct US stock index funds (S&P 500 or Russell 3000) and 2) Treasury, high rated corporate, and agency bonds.

They should reduce the number of investment managers and have a target of ten managers for each fund. They should also set a target for investment fees of 10 basis per year.

When the dust settles, the Comptroller's Office will be able to do its job with mere mortals. The five pension funds will earn more returns on their assets, pay far less in fees and the city will save on pension costs.

Of course, the Comptroller would be totally irrelevant politically and lots of of people on Wall Street would be out of a job.

While the trustees are reforming things, they should consider the following suggestion. Since the pension funds are already paying the Comptroller to do such a tenuous job managing their investment activities, they should put out a RFP for the work to see if they could get the job done better at lower cost. That is what the Comptroller did with his pension custodial and cash management work.

And another thought. Don't you think that when a new Comptroller comes into office, that he/she will want to replace all those highly paid provisionals in the Bureau of Asset Management with his/her own "experts".

The following is another quote from the report that is indicative of the quality of the report:

The reduction in the number of investment committee meetings will go a long way toward alleviating BAM’s workload. This reduction will free up executive time to address much needed strategic and operational improvements, but BAM still requires additional resources for both staffing and modernized systems. In combination with our recommendations, BAM can make significant progress toward becoming a world-class investment operation.

If the proposed reduction of investment committee meetings had failed to be accepted, we believe BAM and the Systems would have had a basic choice to consider: 1) increase the level of BAM resources to fully implement the recommendations (people, processes and systems) contained in this report; or 2) reduce the complexity of the asset allocation to a level which can be supported by the current level of resourcing.

This is utter garbage. The jamming of the monthly investment board meetings for the five city pension funds into one meeting accomplishes only one thing. That is the staff at the Comptroller's Office only has to put on its dog and pony show once a month instead of five times. The cock and bull story about the five board meetings per month being such a burden is just a smoke screen for the total chaos that is happening in the Comptroller's Office.

It is interesting that up to 70% of any investment meeting is held in hidden executive session. How does the Comptroller's staff handle access to info for specific pension fund that it deems to be covered by executive session when five different groups of trustees are sitting in the meeting? I hope everyone realizes that the five funds do make different investment decisions. TRS has actually been able to avoid investing in hedge funds.

Of course, we all know that there is very little that honestly qualifies for executive session.

If there wasn't so much garbage in the investment portfolios, it would take the Comptroller's staff one day to prepare for a regular investment board meeting. Of course you might start to wonder what they were doing for the rest of the month.

The Board of Trustees for each of the five systems are responsible for the prudent investment of the each of the funds, not the Comptroller. His/her annual delegation is at the discretion of the trustees of each of the five funds.