The scandal had repercussions all over the country, but not what you'd expect. James Drew, one of the reporters who broke the story, notes that a consequence of "Coingate" was that states stopped giving out information about where public money is invested. "If they learned anything, it's not to stop doing it, but to keep it secret," says Drew.
In fact, in recent years more than a dozen states have carved out exemptions for hedge funds to traditional Freedom of Information Act requests, making it impossible in some cases, if not illegal, for workers to find out where their own money has been invested.
The way this works, typically, is simple: A hedge fund will refuse to take a state's business unless it first provides legal guarantees that information about its investments won't be disclosed to the public. The ostensible justifications for these outrageous laws are usually that disclosing commercial information about hedge funds would place them at a "competitive disadvantage."
In 2010, the University of California reinvested its pension fund with a venture-capital group called Sequoia Capital, which in turn is a backer of a firm called Think Finance, whose business is payday lending – a form of short-term, extremely high-interest rate lending that's basically loan-sharking without the leg-breaking, and is banned in 15 states and D.C. According to American Banker, Think Finance partnered with a Native American tribe to get around state interest-rate caps; someone borrowing $250 in its "plain green loans" program would owe $440 after 16 weeks, for a tidy annual percentage rate of 379 percent. In a more recent case, the pension fund of L.A. County union workers invested in an Embassy Suites hotel that is trying to prevent janitors and other employees from organizing. California passed a law in 2005 making hedge-fund investments secret.
The American Federation of Teachers this spring released a list of financiers who had been connected with lobbying efforts against defined-benefit plans. Included on that list was hedge-funder Loeb of Third Point Capital, who sits on the board of StudentsFirstNY, a group that advocates for an end to these traditional plans for public workers – that is, pensions that promise a guaranteed payout based on one's salary and years of service. When Rhode Island union rep Reback complained about hiring funds whose managers had anti-labor histories, she was told the state couldn't make decisions based on political leanings of fund managers. That same month, Rhode Island moved to disinvest its workers' money from firearms distributors in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting.
Hedge funds have good reason to want to keep their fees hidden: They're insanely expensive. The typical fee structure for private hedge-fund management is a formula called "two and twenty," meaning the hedge fund collects a two percent fee just for showing up, then gets 20 percent of any profits it earns with your money. Some hedge funds also charge a mysterious third fee, called "fund expenses," that can run as high as half a percent – Loeb's Third Point, for instance, charged Rhode Island just more than half a percent for "fund expenses" last year, or about $350,000. Hedge funds will also pass on their trading costs to their clients, a huge additional line item that can come to an extra percent or more and is seldom disclosed. There are even fees states pay for withdrawing from certain hedge funds.
In public finance, hedge funds will sometimes give slight discounts, but the numbers are still enormous. In Rhode Island, over the course of 20 years, Siedle projects that the state will pay $2.1 billion in fees to hedge funds, private-equity funds and venture-capital funds. Why is that number interesting? Because it very nearly matches the savings the state will be taking from workers by freezing their Cost of Living Adjustments – $2.3 billion over 20 years.
"That's some 'reform,'" says Siedle.
"They pretty much took the COLA and gave it to a bunch of billionaires," hisses Day, Providence's retired firefighter union chief.
When asked to respond to criticisms that the savings from COLA freezes could be seen as going directly into the pockets of billionaires, treasurer Raimondo replied that it was "very dangerous to look at fees in a vacuum" and that it's worth paying more for a safer and more diverse portfolio. She compared hedge funds – inherently high-risk investments whose prospectuses typically contain front-page disclaimers saying things like, WARNING: YOU MAY LOSE EVERYTHING – to snow tires. "Sure, you pay a little more," she says. "But you're really happy you have them when the roads are slick."
Raimondo recently criticized the high-fee structure of hedge funds in the Wall Street Journal and told Rolling Stone that "'two and twenty' doesn't make sense anymore," although she hired several funds at precisely those fee levels back before she faced public criticism on the issue. She did add that she was monitoring the funds' performance. "If they underperform, they're out," she says.
And underperforming is likely. Even though hedge funds can and sometimes do post incredible numbers in the short-term – Loeb's Third Point notched a 41 percent gain for Rhode Island in 2010; the following year, it earned -0.54 percent. On Wall Street, people are beginning to clue in to the fact – spikes notwithstanding – that over time, hedge funds basically suck. In 2008, Warren Buffett famously placed a million-dollar bet with the heads of a New York hedge fund called Protégé Partners that the S&P 500 index fund – a neutral bet on the entire stock market, in other words – would outperform a portfolio of five hedge funds hand-picked by the geniuses at Protégé.
Five years later, Buffett's zero-effort, pin-the-tail-on-the-stock-market portfolio is up 8.69 percent total. Protégé's numbers are comical in comparison; all those superminds came up with a 0.13 percent increase over five long years, meaning Buffett is beating the hedgies by nearly nine points without lifting a finger.
Union leaders all over the country have started to figure out the perils of hiring a bunch of overpriced Wall Street wizards to manage the public's money. Among other things, investing with hedge funds is infinitely more expensive than investing with simple index funds. On Wall Street and in the investment world, the management price is measured in something called basis points, a basis point equaling one hundredth of one percent. So a state like Rhode Island, which is paying a two percent fee to hedge funds, is said to be paying an upfront fee of 200 basis points.
How much does it cost to invest public money in a simple index fund? "We've paid as little as .875 of a basis point," says William Atwood, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Investment. "At most, five basis points."
So at the low end, Atwood is paying 200 times less than the standard two percent hedge-fund fee. As an example, Atwood says, the state of Illinois paid a fee of just $57,000 last year on $550 million of public money they put into an S&P 500 index fund, which, again, is exactly the sort of plain-vanilla investment that Warren Buffett used to publicly kick the ass of Wall Street's cockiest hedge fund.
The fees aren't even the only costs of "alternative investments." Many states have engaged middlemen called "placement agents" to hire hedge funds, and those placement agents – typically people with ties to state investment boards – are themselves paid enormous sums, often in the millions, just to "introduce" hedge funds to politicians holding the checkbook.
In Kentucky, Tobe and Siedle found that KRS, the state pension funds, had paid a whopping $14 million to placement agents between 2004 and 2009. In Atlanta, a member of the city pension board complained to the SEC that the city had hired a consultant, Larry Gray, who convinced the city pension fund to invest $28 million in a hedge fund he himself owned. Raimondo says she never hired placement agents, but the state did pay a $450,000 consulting fee to a firm called Cliffwater LLC.
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