California’s report said $440 million. New Jersey’s said $600 million. In Pennsylvania, the tally is $700 million. Those figures are public worker pension fees being paid annually by taxpayers to Wall Street firms, and they have kicked off an intensifying debate over whether such expenses are necessary. Now, a report from an industry-friendly source says those huge levies represent only a fraction of the true amounts being raked in by Wall Street firms from state and local governments.
In all, CEM Benchmarking concludes that America’s public pension funds are paying billions of dollars in undisclosed fees to private equity firms.
“Less than one‐half of the very substantial [private equity] costs incurred by U.S. pension funds are currently being disclosed,” says the report from CEM, whose website says the financial analysis firm "serve over 350 blue-chip corporate and government clients worldwide."
Currently, about 9 percent -- or $270 billion -- of America’s $3 trillion public pension fund assets are invested in private equity firms. Assuming the industry standard 2 percent management fee, that quarter-trillion dollars generates roughly $5.4 billion in annual management fees for the private equity industry -- and that’s not including additional “performance” fees paid on investment returns. But even the $5.4 billion number could be drastically understated, according to CEM.
If CEM’s calculations are applied uniformly, it could mean taxpayers and retirees may actually be paying double that $5.4 billion number -- or more than $10 billion a year. Public officials are overseeing this massive payout to Wall Street at the very moment many of those same officials are demanding big cuts to retirees' promised pension benefits. By comparison, the total budget of the Environmental Protection Agency is just over $8 billion.
“With billions of public worker and taxpayer dollars put at risk in the highest-cost, most opaque investment schemes ever devised by Wall Street for a decade now, investigations that hold Wall Street profiteers accountable are long, long overdue,” said former Securities and Exchange Commission attorney Ted Siedle, who has criticized state and local governments for keeping the terms of their deals with Wall Street firms secret.
Private equity firms have argued that their fees are worth the expense, because they supposedly deliver returns for investors that beat low-fee index funds that track the broader stock market.
“The value of private equity – especially in terms of investment returns – is how strong and consistent it performs over the long term,” said Steve Judge, who heads the Private Equity Growth Capital Council.
But those private equity returns are typically self-reported by the firms over the life of those longer-term investments, meaning there are few ways to verify whether the returns are real. While the PEGCC argues that “private equity returns are less volatile” than those gleaned from the stock market, a recent study from George Washington University argued that private equity firms are using their self-reporting authority to mislead investors into believing their returns are smoother and more consistent than they actually are.
In a 2014 speech, the SEC’s top examiner, Andrew Bowden, sounded the alarm about undisclosed fees in the private equity industry, saying the agency had discovered “violations of law or material weaknesses in controls over 50 percent of the time” at firms it had evaluated. Bowden cited secret agreements between private equity firms and institutional investors like pension funds that allow the firms “to charge fees and pass along expenses that are not reasonably contemplated by investors.”
To date, however, the SEC has taken few actions to crack down on the practices, and Bowden recently resigned his post after financial analyst Yves Smith revealed a video showing him lavishing praise on the same private equity industry he had criticized. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have been pushing to roll back rules that subject private equity firms to more scrutiny.
In contrast, some states and cities appear to be stepping up their scrutiny.
This week, after an International Business Times investigative series found that Republican Gov. Chris Christie's officials were not disclosing all state pension fees paid, New Jersey pension trustees announced a formal investigation of the fee payments. Some of those fees have flowed to firms whose executives made big donations to political groups affiliated with Christie. In just the five years since Christie took office, New Jersey fees paid to financial firms have more than quadrupled. At the same time as fees spiked, Christie has said the pension funds do not have enough money to pay promised benefits to retirees.
In New York City, Comptroller Scott Stringer published a report showing that the city has spent more than $2.5 billion on fees in the last decade. Likewise, in Rhode Island, the new state treasurer, Seth Magaziner, a Democrat, recently published a review of all the fees that state’s beleaguered pension fund has paid. The analysis found that the former financial firm of newly elected Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is charging the state’s pension fund the highest fee rate of any firm in its asset class.
In Pennsylvania, new Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf used his first budget address to call for the state “to stop excessive fees to Wall Street managers.” His office has said “Pennsylvania spends nearly $700 million on fees to Wall Street firms to manage our pension funds, more than most other states.” Wolf’s call follows Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, moving most of its pension fund out of high-fee Wall Street investments and into low-fee stock index funds.