NYC Pension Chief Faces Huge Hurdles?

Martin Z. Braun and Henry Goldman of Bloomberg report, NYC Pension Chief Seeks $500,000 Managers Not Wall Street:
New York City’s $140 billion retirement system pays Wall Street money managers about $360 million a year, the only one of the 11 biggest U.S. public-worker pensions that refuses to manage any assets internally. Larry Schloss, the city’s chief investment officer, says the practice must end.

Schloss, 58, points to Ontario’s C$130 billion ($126 billion) teachers’ pension fund, which has returned an average 9.6 percent annually on its investments since 2003 -- 1.6 percentage points better than New York’s funds. The Canadian system reaped those gains mostly without paying outside asset managers. Schloss says the same in-house approach could work in New York.

“I’m not looking for John Paulson,” said Schloss, who earns $224,000 a year, referring to the billionaire hedge-fund manager. “I’m just looking for a VP at MetLife (MET) who makes 500,000 bucks.”

The 38 staff members in the city comptroller’s Bureau of Asset Management oversee five funds for police, firefighters, teachers, school administrators and civil-service workers. They get paid an average of $100,000 a year, less than the median base salary of a first-year Harvard MBA graduate. They farm out asset management to more than 300 firms.

Investing directly means the Toronto-based Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan doesn’t have to pay outside managers 2 percent of assets they oversee, plus 20 percent of profits, the typical fees for hedge funds and private-equity and real-estate firms. It also gives Ontario Teachers’ more control over investments, Chief Executive Officer Jim Leech said in a telephone interview.
Losing Money

Among New York’s outside arrangements is a $60 million investment by four pensions in a real-estate fund sponsored by Colony Realty Partners, a Boston-based private-equity firm that oversees $3.2 billion. The fund has lost 15.5 percent since 2006, while Colony has reaped $7.7 million in fees, according to the comptroller’s office.

Last year, three city pension funds paid more than $1.2 million in fees on a $160 million investment in a real-estate fund co-sponsored by Fisher Brothers, a New York-based property investor and Morgan Stanley (MS), the New York bank. The fund has returned 0.3 percent since 2004. Another 2004 real-estate investment with Tishman Speyer Properties LP returned 58.8 percent.
California Compensation

Emily Margolis, a spokeswoman for Colony, did not respond to e-mailed and telephoned requests for comment. Suzanne Halpin, a spokeswoman for Fisher Brothers and Matt Burkhard, a Morgan Stanley spokesman, declined to comment.

Managing money internally and paying staff higher salaries and bonuses isn’t always a formula for success. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest U.S. pension, manages almost two-thirds of its assets, including 83 percent of stocks and 91 percent of bonds. Chief Investment Officer Joseph Dear received $522,540 in compensation in 2011.

Yet its 6.1 percent average annual return for the 10 years ending June 30, 2012 is 1.1 percentage point less than that of the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System. The Pennsylvania fund manages only 26 percent of assets internally and paid Chief Investment Officer Alan Van Noord $269,302 in 2011.

New Jersey’s $75.3 billion pension manages 73 percent of its assets in-house, the most among the 11 biggest U.S. public funds. The system returned 6.4 percent for the 10-year period ending June 30, 2012.
‘Way Ahead’

New York City will pay $8 billion this year toward retirement benefits, a cost that has risen more than fivefold since 2002. That’s why Ontario Teachers’ presents a model, Schloss says.

“They’re way ahead,” Schloss said in an interview in his seventh-floor office in the Municipal Building, which houses more than 2,000 employees across from City Hall. The former global head of private equity at Credit Suisse First Boston (CSGN), Schloss was hired by Comptroller John Liu in 2010 to increase returns and reduce costs.

The Ontario fund employs a staff of investment managers earning an average of C$720,000 a year to increase assets worldwide. Their investments include ownership of Toronto Eaton Centre and other shopping malls, a stake in Seoul-based Kyobo Life Insurance Company, and a 30 percent interest in Copenhagen’s international airport.
Managing Managers

In New York, there’s plenty of talent and it’s “ridiculous” that the city won’t pay enough to hire it, Schloss said. A plan to manage a portion of assets internally, with compensation levels benchmarked to New York City insurance companies, endowments and pensions, hasn’t gained traction with fund trustees, he said.

“We’re not really in the asset-management business,” Schloss said. “We manage managers.”

Bringing Ontario’s approach to New York may be a challenge. While the city’s retirement system has about 60 cents of assets for every $1 in obligations, union officials say they’re wary of tinkering with it.

“Why would you try to dismantle a system that’s performing well?” said Greg Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents 24,000 city employees. Floyd sits on the board of the city’s $46 billion civil-employees’ pension. Pension-fund trustees have to approve raising investment staff salaries and authorize internal asset management.
Reduced Fees

There’s “a yearning” among union trustees to manage assets in-house, though “we are never going to be able to pay private-industry salaries to work in government,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a labor-backed Democrat running for comptroller who’s favored to win. Liu, also a Democrat, is running for mayor. His term expires Dec. 31.

“When you get a new comptroller, you get a new chief investment officer,” Schloss said. “It’s not good for performance to have a system where your senior staff turns over every four years.”

The Ontario fund, which also has offices in London and New York, manages more than 80 percent of its assets in-house and is 97 percent funded. By contrast, the total market value of the assets of 109 U.S. state pension plans last year was 69 percent of projected liabilities, according to Wilshire Associates, a Santa Monica, California-based consulting firm.

What sets Ontario Teachers apart is governance and compensation, Leech said.
Wall-Street Caliber

The fund paid its 250-person investment staff C$180 million last year. The workers aren’t government employees, meaning their salaries aren’t subject to civil-service rules. High salaries and bonuses attract Wall Street-caliber talent, Leech said. About 35 percent of assets are in so-called alternatives such as private equity, real estate, and hedge funds.

“We compete with KKR,” said Leech, referring to the private-equity firm founded in 1976 by Jerome Kohlberg, Henry Kravis and George Roberts. “You don’t want to go into that game with a second-stringer.”

The Ontario fund has a nine-member independent board that sets policy and delegates day-to-day management to the professional staff. New York’s five funds have 58 trustees spread across several unions and political jurisdictions.

Two years ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Liu unsuccessfully proposed overhauling management of the five pensions to create a system more like Ontario Teachers’. The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Accounting Background

The five boards were to be pared down to a single 12-member body that would set investment policy. Asset management would have been separated from the comptroller’s office to insulate it from politics.

Instead of union officials and political appointees, Ontario Teachers’ board members are chosen for their backgrounds in business, finance, economics and accounting. Only one board member is a former teacher.

“What does a kindergarten teacher know about investing?” said Leech.

When Schloss was chosen to oversee the city’s pensions in 2010, Liu described the funds’ structure in a press release as a “cluster$&*$.” Schloss persuaded trustees to increase the investment staff to 38 from 22. The pensions added hedge funds, opportunistic fixed income and leveraged loans to the mix of investment possibilities.
Pay Obstacle

To an inexperienced staff he added Barry Miller, a former managing partner at Nottingham Capital Management, to oversee private equity. He hired Seema Hingorani, former research director at Pyramis Global Advisors to oversee hedge funds. Both earned $175,000 annually. Miller resigned to join Connecticut-based private-equity firm Landmark Partners, the Wall Street Journal reported on May 21.

“We wanted to hire a number of people but couldn’t because of compensation,” Schloss said.

Asset management staff are required to live in New York City unless they get a waiver. Obtaining one involves multiple agencies and City Hall approval, said Matt Sweeney, a spokesman for the comptroller’s office.

The median sales price of a two-bedroom condominium in Manhattan was $1.6 million in the first quarter of 2013, according to appraiser Miller Samuel Inc. and brokerage Douglas Elliman Real Estate.

“It’s just really hard to say, ‘Hey, come work here for $100,000 and you have to live in the five boroughs,” he said.
I sympathize with Larry Schloss and other U.S. pension chiefs who are struggling with similar issues. It is simply mind-boggling that compensation for staff managing billions of public employees' retirement funds is so low, especially for people living in New York City.

Jim Leech, President and CEO of Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, is right, what sets their fund apart is governance and compensation. That governance model has spread to other large Canadian pension funds and it's the reason why they're able to attract and retain high calibre professionals to manage public and private market assets in-house. 

Now, we can debate whether the Canadian model is full of hot air and whether Ontario Teachers' can really compete with the KKRs of this world, but there is no denying that they have top-notch professionals managing public and private market assets. Teachers pays their staff well and senior managers like Neil Petroff, their CIO responsible for active management, and Ron Mock, their next president and CEO, enjoy a very attractive and competitive compensation (short-term + long-term comp) but they're brilliant, deliver outstanding results and they can easily earn more moving to the private sector. I can say the same thing about other senior pension fund managers at large Canadian pension funds. They are paid extremely well but they deliver results.

Stakeholders need to realize that managing pensions is a huge responsibility and when you read how poorly many U.S. pension fund managers are compensated, you realize they got the governance all wrong. Instead of overhauling governance and compensation, hundreds of millions in fees are being paid to external managers, all part of the secret pension money grab feeding Wall Street. Some funds are worth paying fees, most are not, and good chunk of assets should be managed in-house.

In my last comment, I discussed the ideas of Theodore Economou, CEO of Cern Pension Fund, who thinks pensions should think more like global macro hedge funds. Mr. Economou emphasizes the importance of cutting-edge risk management, proper governance and how funds that cannot replicate Cern's model in-house should consider farming out their entire pension portfolio to a top hedge fund management company and negotiate hard on fees.

This might sound extreme but when you look at the obstacles Larry Schloss and many of his peers face in the United States, you wonder how long can they go on with the current governance model which presents serious challenges and risks sinking their pensions into a deeper hole. Will it take another financial crisis for stakeholders to realize that governance and compensation need to be overhauled at most U.S. public pension funds?

Below, Lawrence Schloss, New York City's chief investment officer and deputy comptroller for pensions, talks about the city's pension fund strategy and investment in real estate, private equity and hedge funds. Schloss spoke with Deirdre Bolton on Bloomberg Television's "Money Moves" (December, 2012).

And Joseph Dear, chief investment officer for the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS), talks about investment strategy, corporate governance and the impact of pharmaceutical companies' business interests on CalPERS' health-care costs. Dear spoke with Willow Bay at the Milken Institute 2013 Global Conference in Los Angeles in early May.