When it comes to the big money, we’re still playing by Wall Street rules.
For example, California pension officials are paying their investment advisors hefty bonuses even though the funds suffered whopping losses in the real estate crash, an investigation by Associated Press found.
The pension fund faces unfunded liabilities of billions of dollars, though there are sharp differences about the exact amount.
While the rest of the state suffers layoffs, cutbacks and furloughs, life is good for the crew at CALPERS. Fifteen employees were paid more than $200,000 – two more than two years earlier. Though the fund lost nearly $60 billion, all the funds investment managers got bonuses of more than $10,000, and several got more than $100,000.
CALPERS’ generosity extended beyond its investment advisers; the agency also gave its public affairs officer nearly $19,000 in bonuses for two straight years, and a human resources executive who got nearly $16,000 for those years.
Officials at CALPERS offer a variety of explanations: they say the bonuses cover 5 years to encourage their advisers to think long term, not short term. As a result, some of the managers’ funds that saw the steepest short-term declines got the largest bonuses. They have to pay the big bonuses despite the losses because they’re contractually obligated. They insist they have to pay the bonuses because if they don’t, their investment advisers will go to work at hedge funds.
Sound familiar? These are the same explanations we got from the big, bailed out banks who insisted that they had to hand over huge bonuses even though had to go on the dole.
CALPERS’ bonus system seems guaranteed to give its investment advisers lavish bonuses. When times are tough, the bonuses are a little less lavish. But none of the investment experts are actually accountable or will lose out for plunging the state’s pension in too deep into an unsustainable real estate bubble.
California’s pension system is hardly alone in making sure that those who manage its money are rewarded handsomely whether they win or lose.
In Massachusetts, the executive director of the state employees pension fund quit earlier this year while the Legislature contemplated a pay cap. Michael Travelgini, was paid a base salary of $322,000. In 2008, even though the fund’s investments lost money, they did better than other states, so he was given a $64,000 bonus.
Travelgini said the state’s investment managers weren’t paid enough. He’s going through the revolving door to work at a hedge fund that does business with the state, though he won’t solicit the state for a year.
These compensation issues are a strong reminder for the rest of us the lingering issues of the bubble culture. The people who run the pension systems seem to have been infected by the culture of Wall Street and forgotten whose money they’re managing. It will take a powerful disinfectant to remind them.