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Room for Debate: The Public Pension Problem

Bring Financial Managers in House

The New York Times - December 5, 2013, by Connie Razza - This past year, investment management fees on New York City pensions increased 28 percent. Over the past seven years, they have more than doubled to $472.5 million annually. The city pays very high fees even in years when the funds lose value.

Internal control of pension fund assets for public workers will help rebalance a city's relationship with Wall Street.

These fees unduly burden the funds and add to the uncertainty with which our city's retired and current employees face the future. The rapid rise in pension fund fees is just one of many symptoms of our badly broken financial system, which fails to serve the broader economy and promote general prosperity. Instead, it promotes and exacerbates inequality. 

As part of the New Day New York Coalition, the Center for Popular Democracy has proposed a sweeping solution. New York should create a highly skilled in-house financial management team for pension fund assets. Even with salaries high enough to attract top quality managers, the city would not pay the typical "2 percent of assets under management, plus 20 percent of profits" that hedge funds, private-equity firms and real-estate firms typically charge. The profit motive of in-house managers will be fully aligned with city employees and they will be better situated to ensure that investments are financially responsible, contributing to our broader economy and to the funds' bottom line. The creation of the in-house financial team would save the pension funds hundreds of millions of dollars a year. 

As significant a change as this would be, it is an idea that the city's former chief investment officer has advocated, and that incoming city comptroller Scott Stringer has expressed interest in. Also, pension funds in Alaska, California, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada, already do this, to varying degrees. All of these funds also rely on outside managers for some of their investments, but insourcing much of the pension investment management would give the city funds meaningful leverage when working with outside management firms. 

Building an internal capacity to manage the pension fund assets of city workers is an important step toward rebalancing the city's relationship with Wall Street.