Really, that’s about the only way you can read this:
In the last few months, there has been increasingpressure on public officials to stop hiding the basic terms of the investment agreements being cemented between governments and Wall Street’s “alternative investment” industry.
That pressure has been intensified, in part, by twosets of recent leaks showing how these alternative investment companies (private equity, hedge funds, venture capital, etc.) are using the secret deals to make hundreds of millions of dollars off taxpayers. It is also in response to the Securities and Exchange Commission recently declaring that many of the stealth schemes may be illegal.
And yet, as the demands for transparency grow louder, a potentially precedent-setting push for even more secrecy is emerging. Pando has learned that legislators in North Carolina — whose $86 billion public pension fund is the 7th largest in America – are proposing to statutorily bar the public from seeing details of the state’s Wall Street transactions for at least a decade. That time frame is significant: according to experts, it would conceal the terms of the investment agreements for longer than the statute of limitations of various securities laws.
In other words, the legislation – which could serve as a model in state legislatures everywhere – would bar the disclosure of the state’s financial transactions until many existing securities laws against financial fraud become unenforceable.
A growing scandal in North Carolina
If the North Carolina Retirement System and its sole trustee, Treasurer Janet Cowell (D), seem familiar to tech readers, that is because the NC system is one of the lead plaintiffs in the class action suit surrounding Facebook’s initial public offering. Additionally, as part of her career in the financial sector, Cowell was the marketing director for the tech-focused VC firm, SJF Ventures.
Like other states, North Carolina has been redacting and/or refusing to release the contractual terms of its pension fund’s massive Wall Street investments, even though the contracts involve public money and a public agency.* In recent months, that practice exploded into a full-fledged political scandal when the State Employees Association of North Carolina released a 147-page report from former SEC investigator Ted Siedle.
The report asserted that under Cowell, up to $30 billion of state money is now being managed by high-risk, high-fee Wall Street firms, and that the state could soon be paying $1 billion a year in fees to those firms. The report also noted that the investment strategy “has underperformed the average public plan by $6.8 billion” and it alleged that Cowell has misled the public about how where exactly she is investing taxpayer dollars. The union has called for a federal investigation, while Cowell has publicly denied the allegations.
Note that it’s state employees, a majority of whom are presumably Democrats, calling for a federal investigation of a Democratic state official.
I don’t know whether the state’s Republicans just haven’t had this issue on their radar, or whether they see a payoff in insulating investment banks and other financial institutions with which the state does business from criminal liability. But either way, their silence is puzzling. And since banks are about as popular with Americans right now as strychnine, this down-low approach by the GOP doesn’t even make political sense.
*This practice appears to this layperson to be a clear violation of North Carolina’s Open Records Law. No exception recognized in the statute to the presumption that a record is public applies to this information. This practice appears to be the equivalent of your stockbroker refusing to tell you where and how he has invested your money: Would you find that arrangement acceptable?
Additional, deeply scary and infuriating background via Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism:
North Carolina’s investment performance in alternative investments is terrible. Of 23 reporting public pension funds, it ranked 21 in real estate and 23 in private equity. Whether due to corruption or incompetence, it is clear the state would have done better and at lower cost buying a mix of index funds. So the notion that these persistent bad results are due to payola is worth taking seriously.
However, the overwhelming majority of abuses Siedle cites [in the report linked above -- Lex], such as charging of dubious fees, pervasive broker-dealer violations, pension fund consultant conflicts of interest, various securities and tax law violations, also take place with investors who have no potential for pay to play to be operating, such as private pension funds, life insurers, and endowments like Harvard that also invest in private equity. We’ve written about many of these bad practices in earlier posts, and have had to stress the degree to which limited partners have deeply internalized the idea that they can get better returns from private equity than from other investment strategies, and therefore they can’t cavil about the terms, since otherwise they won’t be allowed into this club. In keeping, the SEC has said, with uncharacteristic bluntness, that supposedly sophisticated limited partners have entered into agreements which are vague on far too many key terms and weak on investor protections.
Disclosure: Never having worked as a public employee in North Carolina or anywhere else, I have no direct interest in the state’s pension fund; nor, so far as I know, do I have any indirect interest beyond being a North Carolina taxpayer.