Ten days ago Danny Weil published, on dailycensored.com, a scathing analysis of how the biggest predators on Wall Street have been invited in to plunder teacher pension funds -- especially in California and Texas, but throughout the country. Teacher pension trustees now say that there are vast "unfunded liabilities", and politicians like California Governor Jerry Brown are sharpening their knives while they provide quotes to the media about how funding for public employee pension obligations create budget deficits and force the state to impose harsh austerity cuts to essential public services. This is the prelude to demands for teachers and other public employees to accept cuts to their retirement income. Indeed, such proposals are already echoing in state houses and legislatures.
Investment from employee pension funds helped finance the boom on Wall Street. But when the crisis hit, Wall Street demanded -- and continues to demand -- multi-trillion dollar bailouts from the public by cuts in jobs and services to working and unemployed people. The big banks pretend to be "risk-takers" who deserve fat returns as compensation for their "risk". But as the story of teacher pension funds illustrates, it's our livelihoods-- our savings, our pensions, our essential services -- that are at risk. Not theirs. They demand and get bailed out over and again. And they admonish us for being so careless with how we let our money be invested (invested by them, of course).
One of the important points to take away from this article is the culpability of the state teacher union leadership in standing idly by while over the past five years Wall Street hedge funds swooped in to prey on the pension funds. The story of such financialization isn't unique to teacher pension funds. Big capital is financializing and privatizing whatever can be privatized and financialilzed, commodifying or recommodifying much of what has long been public, in the process, wresting away gains fought for and won by working people over the past century and a half. These austerity attacks won't go away until we make them go away.
But enough from me. Here's Danny's article, as originally published at dailycensored.com:
Financial Capitalism and the US teachers’ pension fund fraud
The California State Teachers Retirement System produced the report in response to a legislative resolution. The release of the “internal study” followed on the heels of chiding by the Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, who indirectly admonished neo-liberal Gov. Jerry Brown for ignoring “huge” unfunded liabilities associated with the teachers’ retirement system and state retiree health benefits” in his new ‘budget’.
Cal STRS receives money from the state, from local school districts and from teachers themselves, but the source of the funds income is also highly dependent on investment earnings. Like most pension funds throughout through-out the nation, Cal STRS was decimated during the recent Great Depression that continues unabated. And while the California Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) has the power take money directly from the state treasury as it sees fit, STRS cannot; they must receive specific appropriations from the Legislature in order to fund the state teachers’ pensions.
Fully funding the California teachers’ pension fund, we are told, would require $4.5 billion more a year — excluding projected investment earnings. The system in its report stated that the shortfall would be ‘eased’ by setting lower funding targets and/or stretching out contributions (ibid). This means less money for current and future retirees. The most important financial move, Cal STRS fund managers said, is to begin closing the deficit, rather than allowing it to widen further. Sound like calls for austerity? Sure does, sure is. But wait, there’s more, and it is truly nauseating, frightening and painfully keeping with the logic of capitalist economics.
Pension funds are now dressed up hedge funds with current and future disastrous consequences
According to a recent article found at Dollarcollapse.com, pension funds are now morphing into hedge funds, a virtual back alley crap game or what Dollarcollapse calls “rolling the dice in exotic investments”, for Wall Street and their minions (http://dollarcollapse.com/investing/pension-funds-become-hedge-funds-roll-the-dice-on-exotic-investments/).In the report written by author, John Rubino on January 28th, 2013, he notes that there was a time when running a pension fund used to be one of the more facile jobs in finance. Money came in steadily and predictably from member contributions and the funds were then invested in AAA grade bonds and blue chip stocks. The target was to meet a modest, but assured, annual return of 8% interest (ibid). Not anymore. That was before the financialization of capitalism and the economic collapse.
Now, as the author correctly notes, the pension funds in effect have two criminally incompetent overlords trying to serve two contradictory economic demands. On the one hand, at the national and state level the US borrows too much and lets its banks go on an unregulated ‘wilding’ with dire consequences for working people. This causes and has caused severe debt crisis’ to which the overseers of capital respond by lowering interest rates to the point where investment grade bonds, once the heart and soul of pension funds, yield next to nothing.
At the state and local level, the corporate owned governors and mayors refuse to raise taxes on their real constituency, the corporations and the rich, which would have the beneficial effect of balancing the funds; they instead pressure funds to continue to make their ‘vig’ of 8%. This, even though not only is this stupidly optimistic, but it is wildly impossible. So, what are the pension fund managers doing now? They are doing what financial capital requires: they are acting like gambling casinos by increasingly turning the whole pension fund investment strategy into a dangerous explosive landmine, twisting them into hedge funds, all to the detriment of working people and to the advantage of Wall Street.
This is how financialization works. It is a particular phase of capitalism where everything is monetized and commodified. Take the Texas Teachers’ Retirement system as just one example.
Texas Teachers’ Retirement system
In his article, Rubino goes on to write about the Texas Teacher Retirement System. According to Rubino:
“On the 13th floor of a sleek downtown office building here, the trading desks are manned overnight. The chief investment officer favors cowboy boots made of elephant skin. And when a bet pays off, even the secretaries can be entitled to bonuses” (ibid).
We are not talking about a high flying private hedge fund but instead, these desks are manned for the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, similar to Cal STRS. The public pension fund has 1.3 million members that include school teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers throughout the state. They all labor under the assumption they will have retirement benefits they worked their entire lives for.
Yet rather than reduce risk in the wake of declines in interest rates, the pension fund manikins are now getting hostily aggressive, loading up on private equity investments and other non-traditional investments that they say promise to return pension funds to the halcyon days of steady and safe returns.
The Texas Teacher Retirement System fund has $114 billion dollars and now boasts some of the riskiest bets in its history with $30 billion dollars committed to private equity, real estate and other ‘so-called ‘alternative investments’ since early 2008, as the economic crash washed ashore like a Tsunami. Amongst the ten largest U.S public pensions, this makes it the biggest such investor in Wall Street backed equity investments. The funds currently have an average alternatives allocation of a whopping 21%! Don’t let them fool you again.
According to tracker, Wilshire Trust Universe Comparison Service, the Texas Teacher Retirement System brought in an annual return of 3.1% between December 31, 2007 and December 31, 2012. This was more than the average media return of 2.6% for similar years (ibid).
The argument made by the pension investment officials for their investment in Wall Street is that investment in private equity is necessary to help offset declines in other investments it is embedded in. So, we are told that investment in Wall Street is necessary to assure adequate pay-outs to current and future retirees. Sound familiar? The Chief Investment Officer for the workers’ pension moneys, Britt Harris, says he can perform miracles in light of the deteriorating state of US financial capitalism and “smash” the reality that government pension funds area on the short end of most investments — another one of those economic genies of trading.
So, with this particular shortsightedness and love for free markets, in November 2011 the Texas fund made one of the largest single commitments in the private equity system’s history: they invested $3 billion dollars in KKR and another Wall Street parasite, the Apollo Global management group (APO). Three months later, unbeknownst to the vast majority of fund members, they bought $250 million dollars of the world’s largest hedge fund firm with member monies – Bridgewater Associates out of Connecticut. This marked the first time time in history that a U.S public pension fund has purchased such a large stake in private equities, betting member dollars as if they were players in a casino roulette game.
The result was a return for the fiscal year ending on August 31, 2011 that was 7.6%. Now pension ‘managers’ say they can help the fund reach its goal of 8% annually over the long haul and they are proceeding full speed ahead. In a ten year period ending in August of 31, 2012 the Texas Teacher Retirement System had an annual return of 7.4% (ibid).
Of course none of the investments had the approval of working people who fund the retirement system. This is partly due to the enormous task of investing but mainly due to lack of democratic decision making and oversight which is the nasty business that pension fund managers, in cahoots with Wall Street, loathe. Nothing could be worse than having the wolves of capital in their elephant skin boots subjected to transparency and member oversight.
And just where were the teacher unions and bus driver unions and cafeteria worker unions when all this was happening? They were nowhere in sight. Their ‘bosses’ either didn’t know, care or understand the haughty risk the pension weasels were making on behalf of their members. The fat cat union bosses have shown a penchant for Wall Street and neo-liberalism in general, favoring begging over bargaining and fancy luncheons with powerful paid for politicians and wealth managers over their fiduciary duty of member oversight. They prefer to be team members rather than looking out for their real members, working people who are drastically declining in numbers as privatization clouds the horizon and economic decimation provides the meat for the noxious roux.
The average teacher, bus driver and cafeteria worker simply wants to do their job and to make a living, feed their children and provide for retirement, a chore that is not possible under the current regime of capital. Mis-education and a lack of critical thinking skills have left workers prey for the wolves of high-finance while the pension managers ski in Aspen, buy fancy boots and otherwise screw over workers by investing in a system of mendacity and despair that has proven time and time again to be a time bomb. All this while Wall Street gets fatter, bonuses are given out with impunity and privatization squeezes the life out of civil society.
Leveraging workers’ pension through debt
This grand charade is all about leveraging debt, which is the specialty of Wall Street and their cronies. “Leverage’ relies on borrowing more and more sums of cash and then using derivatives (phony insurance) to make large investments in Wall Street. In this way the funds don’t have to put up as much cash – money they don’t have anyway. It is like borrowing on credit cards to buy stocks and bonds but it is much worse, for it is not an individual problem, it is a socio-economic one that promises to drive the funds right down the same path as the banking crisis and housing “bubble” that brought down whole countries and economies, like Greece. All of this is great for Wall Street and death for workers.
But never mind: for the money changers, such as the world’s largest hedge fund firm, Bridgewater Associates and a numerically growing number of hedge fund bosses state, this type of leveraging is not like that which crashed banks, devasted lives, washed worker bodies onto the shoreline of despair and economic ruin and left them in peonage; it, they say, is “different. Not to worry this time, these deacons of depravity and greed say they are firmly and safely in control of the financialization scheme which of course is tantamount to saying that an alcoholic is in control of his or her own addiction or the military industrial complex has a firm hand on the tiller of cost control.
They have even bent the language to their own self-serving advantage, a sophist’s tool, and they now call this ‘financial strategy’ “risk parity” (ibid). There are many such criminal firms such as AQR Capital Management and the Clifton Group out of Minneapolis who are greedily sucking their fingers in anticipation of their own bonuses, capital gains and primitive accumulation strategies which promise to make them even more super-rich than they currently are and allow managers and executives to reap heady bonuses.
When questioned, the minions of Wall Street who serve as the real shadow managers of the funds say that they are using a modest amount of leveraging and assure workers and you, the reader, that this is what makes their strategy brilliant and different from those employed by investment banks. Do not be beguiled, this is the same strategy that created the largest transfer of wealth into the pockets of the one percent in the history of the world.
Of course it is not only a self-serving lie and unthinkable ruse, but it is unsustainable. The chickens will come home to roost just as they did in the bankster fraud and housing debacle. Cannibal financial groups like Bridgewater and their founder Ray Dalio, like the matchstick men they are, have pitched the idea to other pension fund ‘trustees’ and have even made a documentary style online video about the Ponzi scheme.
They all employ the same rapacious rap. According to an interview with Bridgewater con-man, Ray Dalio:
“Ironically, by increasing your risk in the bonds you are going to lower your risk in the overall portfolio” (ibid).
This is the voice of American greed and it resounds well within the halls of depravity that is Wall Street which profits off of economic demolition and looks to take stumbling pensions down the road of economic purgatory.
The California State Teacher Retirement System
And of course this leads us back to Cal STRS. With a shortfall such as that borne by the California pension fund, one can imagine this Nigerian web scam to be swallowed by the pension bosses here in California and elsewhere, who manage workers’ money for a profit, but do so with disdain for the workers’ themselves and a penchant for tying themselves to the crap game of casino capitalism. These con artists avoid having to answer questions about such “innovations” such as day trading during the high tech stock bubble and house flipping during the housing boom, practices that are hardly innovative but more about yawing financial appetites and greed. Remember these hideous practices were also sold under the auspices of ingenuity at the time they were fathomed but soon became to be known as criminal practices and investment ruses that were devastating for working people.
My wife is currently receiving disability retirement benefits from the California State Teacher Retirement System. In this year, her check payment for February was lower than that paid in January. She has written Cal STRS to find out why and is awaiting a reply Cal STRS says they will have put in her “in-box” online at their website in 20 days. But as the clock runs out on her health and her funds quickly deliquesce, one can only view the financialization con with disgust and wonder how many other retired teachers who have devoted their lives to children will be affected.
This is all part of the privatization plot favored by Jerry Brown, enemy of the working class and cozy operator for the ruling class. To avoid having to raise taxes on corporations and the rich who invest in him, Brown and the pension fund managers have created low hanging fruit for Bridgewater and other such criminal enterprises. Remember, we are talking about billions of dollars here, even trillions of dollars in public pension funds.
So now you know the sordid tale of pension funds and pension leveraging, a seat at the black jack table for workers and a prime example of rapture capital accumulation for the rich. If the practices are allowed to continue should you be a public school teacher, much like a worker who pays into Social Security, you will eventually find there is no security, that the system is rigged and the hefty bubble subject to burst.
Meanwhile, Wall Street fat cats get fatter, receive hefty bonuses for wrangling the funds into Wall Street, and get larger all while more elephants are slayed and workers’ lives for the bootlicking fund managers drown in unpayable debt as worker retirement becomes merely a sultry dream to be replaced by homelessness, financial ruin, suicide, sorrow and decimation.
If you thought such heady political gimmicks like proposition 30 would help stave off economic devastation for underfunded schools or even staunch the bleeding inherent in the mendacious system of financial capitalism, you were wrong. The only thing that can bring about security and equality for those who work and the public educational sector is class consciousness, education, organization and mobilization. Anything less is a fool’s game. It is time working people in conjunction with the students and communities they serve go on the offensive and not be forced to crouch into the corner of defensiveness. But this will largely have something to do with how we see the world and how our perceptions are managed by a ruling class that understands very well this moment in history; a ruling class that like other monarchies of old, is more class conscious than its labor counterparts.
Meanwhile, my wife waits for an answer in her on-line ‘inbox’ from the unaccountable Cal STRS fund managers who don’t give a damn about how much she contributed to society, her growing physical disability or her future. We will let you know if and when we get their reply. In the meantime, organize, educate and mobilize: this is the only hope we have.