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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Broken Promises

The Boregonian carried a story today about how the Oregon Investment Council is looking for support to begin investing PERS resources into Hedge Funds. Predictibly, this has a lot of people quite rattled as Hedge Funds are considered high risk investments and seem, to me anyway, somewhat inappropriate for individual and employer contributions to a Pension fund that has prided itself on stability and on the incredible ability of the Oregon Investment Council's acumen in placing funds with investment firms that can meet the expectation of an 8% annual return. As unnerving as this is, I'm of the opinion that this is really a game of sleight of hand. I don't, for a moment, think the OIC's real objective is to get Hedge Funds into the mix of the PERS portfolio. Instead, I think this is a strategy designed to get members and employers all weirded out by the prospect of a portfolio partly invested in high risk hedge funds. In the meantime, the real objective is to scare stakeholders into accepting a lowering of the actuarially assumed rate of return - currently 8% - to something in the 5 - 6% range. A number of years ago, I was permitted to read a private report commissioned by Governor Kulongoski that explored the impact of the 8% assumed rate of return on employer rates, member earnings, and the overall health of the PERS fund. The gist of this report - written by a former member of the OIC - was that in order for the OIC to generate a consistent 8% return on investment, the fund was having to take on increasingly greater risk than is prudent for a pension fund. The conclusion was that the PERS Board should lower the rate guarantee from the current 8% to something closer to 5 or 6%. The upside of this recommendation was that PERS members in Tier 1, who are guaranteed no less than the assumed rate of return, would earn less money on their funds, the actuarial tables would require lower payouts to members at retirement, and the fund would be financially healthier and subject to far less volatility than they are now. The down side of this proposal was the fact that the employer contribution rate is tied to the assumed rate of return in an inverse way. The less money the fund is assumed to earn, the more money the employers have to contribute to ensure that sufficient funds are available to pay out benefits in the future. The author concluded that while this might not be attractive to employers in the short run, that once the Tier 1/Tier 2 member ratios reversed, in approximately 5 - 7 years, and the number of Tier 3 members increased, the long term benefits would be to lower employer contributions and that the short term pain would be offset by long term gains. This report did not see the light of day - or so I thought. But now that I see the proposal from the OIC to invest in Hedge Funds, I'm beginning to think that this "secret report" is beginning to take on a life of its own and will form the foundation for the incredible compromise that will be offered to the unions and the employers. Both will be given the option of either agreeing to let Hedge Funds into the investment mix, with their great potential for earnings coupled with the possibilities of disastrous losses, OR, both can agree to take some heat off the OIC by permitting PERS and the PERB to lower the actuarially assumed rate of return. I'd be willing to bet that if the unions and the members were actually faced with this choice, the lowered rate of return would look a lot more attractive than it does right now. This is a cynical game with the title of "Broken Promises", but looks to be the wave of the future. Since the OIC has had exactly zero difficulties earning returns far in excess of 8% without Hedge Funds in their portfolio, it is hard to see why this is suddenly so urgent now. Consider me cynical, but I think Hedge Funds are being used as a stalking horse for an entirely different agenda.

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