Chris Christie’s administration, criticized for the skyrocketing fees that New Jersey has paid private financial firms to manage the state’s billions of dollars of pension investments, tried a novel way to defend itself this week: It disputed the data that Christie officials themselves had published.
At the same time, recent statements by New Jersey investment officials suggest that additional fees -- perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars -- have been paid to financial firms during the Republican governor’s tenure but gone undisclosed.
On Monday, testifying to state legislators about the annual budget, New Jersey Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff said Christie officials have been “very frustrated with the distortions and misrepresentations” about fees. “The amount of total standard fees” that New Jersey is paying for its investments in private equity, hedge funds, venture capital and other “alternative investments,” he said, is “about $265 million” --- which he asserted is “very competitive.” The governor's treasury department spokesman, Chris Santarelli, echoed that testimony, saying it is "simply not factual" to say that New Jersey is now spending "$600 million to run the pension fund."
Those declarations don’t square with figures from the Christie administration's own documents.
According to Christie administration financial statements released in January, New Jersey paid out $600.2 million worth of fees to financial firms in 2014. That includes $265.4 million in management fees -- along with $334.8 million in performance fees that Christie officials abruptly and without explanation renamed "allocations." Some of those fees have been paid to firms whose executives made donations to Republican groups backing Christie’s election campaigns. In all, New Jersey has reported spending more than $1.5 billion on financial fees since Christie took office.
The New Jersey Treasury Department did not respond to International Business Times' request for comment.
The Christie administration’s proposed response to the state’s ongoing pension shortfall is to cut back not on fees to Wall Street firms but to reduce promised payouts for teachers, firefighters, cops and other retirees. The head of Christie’s pension reform commission, former Goldman Sachs banker Thomas Healey, told IBTimes that $600 million in annual fees is “insignificant” and said that “the real problem is decades of underfunding.” His commission’s reform proposal focused on ending guaranteed retirement benefits and subjecting pension payments to market fluctuations, leaving state workers more exposed to the effects of another financial crisis.
Sidamon-Eristoff told legislators on Monday that performance fees paid by the pension -- known as “carried interest” -- are “generally in the industry not considered a fee, because it is net of profits returned” to investors. But former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer Ted Siedle said carried interest expenditures are indeed fees -- and that such semantics are often employed to hide ever-increasing payouts to financial firms.
“Carried interest is an investment management fee, no matter what an asset manager says," Siedle told IBTimes. "Asset managers have a vested interest in hiding the total amount of fees they make off of pension funds … But the public needs to know that any payments whatsoever -- whether they're called interest, or allocations or expenses -- are fees, and need to be reported as such to be in full compliance with federal securities laws.”
While IBTimes previously reported that $600 million represents a 50 percent increase in reported fees from 2013, there are new questions about whether all fees, including performance fees, have been disclosed over the years. If they were not, it would mean the state likely paid hundreds of millions of dollars on top of the $1.5 billion in fees that were reported. These new questions about disclosure stem from a change in accounting. In 2014, Christie officials disclosed five categories of performance fees in the State Investment Council’s annual report. In the 2013 report and prior years’ reports, it disclosed far fewer categories of fees.
Despite the 2013 report explicitly saying it included both management and performance fees, Tim McGuckin of the Christie-appointed State Investment Council told IBTimes email that the kind of performance fees disclosed in 2014 "were not disclosed in 2013."
When asked if it is accurate to say all performance fees were not being disclosed in 2013, the council's chairman, Tom Byrne, told IBTimes in a March 7 email: "Your understanding is on target.” But Byrne, who has served on the council since 2010 and who signed the letter certifying the 2014 report, added: "I need to go back and review all the numbers."
Three weeks later at a meeting of the council, Byrne said he had “not had a chance to fully review” the figures; he declined to comment on whether the 2013 report had been inaccurate in saying all fees were disclosed.
In testimony on Monday, Sidamon-Eristoff said the 2014 report included a “change” to its reporting to now begin disclosing performance fees -- an apparent concession that such fees were not disclosed before.
“I think we should be proud of [the adjustment] and recognize that as enhanced transparency,” he said.