NYC Pension Managers May Face Firing for Badmouthing
Newly hired managers for part of New York City’s $108 billion pension might be fired if they criticize workers’ benefits, according to a trustee of the police retirement fund.
Joseph Alejandro said he proposed that the fund’s board be able to dismiss future managers who disparage a public pension, “its beneficiaries or any trustees or employees.” The Employees’ Retirement System is also considering the provision, he said. Blackstone Group LP’s chief strategist, Byron Wien, strained relations with New York unions last year when he said benefits are “too generous.”
“The intent isn’t to chill analysts who provide legitimate information,” Alejandro said in an interview yesterday. “We are trying to prevent money managers from taking positions that are essentially opinions based on political viewpoints.”
Unions across the U.S., including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, are rallying members and lobbying lawmakers to counter what they call an assault on recession-weary working people by governments trying to lower costs. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who presents his 2012 budget this week, has made trimming pension expenses a priority for his third term.
The mayor, confronting a $2.4 billion deficit in a $67.5 billion spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1, has proposed that new workers must reach 65 to collect full benefits. He would also increase worker pension contributions and end an annual $12,000 payment to retired police and firefighters that costs at least $600 million a year.
Freedom of Speech
Restricting pension-fund managers’ comments wouldn’t run afoul of freedom-of-speech rights under the U.S. Constitution, said Charles Sims, a First Amendment lawyer at Proskauer LLP, a New York-based firm. The amendment applies only to government actions, he said.
“Even considering a public pension board to be part of government, it still can require confidentiality or other speech restrictions in a contract,” Sims said.
The proposal is being reviewed by the New York City comptroller’s office, which oversees pensions, said Alejandro, treasurer of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. Michael Loughran, a spokesman for Comptroller John Liu, declined to comment. Harry Nespoli, chairman of the Municipal Labor Committee, didn’t return a message left with his office.
The Fire Department Pension Fund is also considering the provision, Alejandro said.
Tom Butler, a spokesman for Steve Cassidy, firefighters- union president, denied that his union is in discussions about such language. Zita Allen, spokeswoman for Lillian Roberts, executive director of District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal union, declined to offer an immediate comment.
“There have been no such discussions” with trustees of the United Federation of Teachers, said Richard Riley, a spokesman for the union’s president, Michael Mulgrew. A telephone call to the office of the Board of Education Retirement System wasn’t answered.
The city’s five pensions had $108.6 billion of assets at the end of November, according to the comptroller’s office.
Nycers, with more than $38 billion, paid $140.6 million in fees to investment managers in the year that ended June 30, according to its website. The $22 billion Police Pension Fund paid $80 million.
The Teachers’ Retirement System, with $39 billion of assets, paid about $100 million in management fees in the previous fiscal year, the latest publicly available figure. The Board of Education Retirement System, with $2.6 billion of retirement assets for administrators and non-teacher school workers, paid about $9.8 million. The $7.2 billion Fire Department Pension Fund doesn’t post pension information on its website.
Blackstone, the world’s largest private-equity firm, has been trying to mend relations with the pensions after Wien’s comments. Its president, Tony James, met in May with representatives from one of the five plans that have $750 million committed to the firm. He also sent a letter addressing Wien’s remarks to the head of the New York City Employees’ Retirement System. Blackstone’s spokesman, Peter Rose, declined to comment.
“Investment decisions should be focused on how to generate the best possible returns,” said Marc LaVorgna, a spokesman for the mayor. “The decisions should be agnostic in almost all respects.”
The city’s annual pension costs, now about $7.5 billion, will increase to about $9 billion by 2016, from $1.4 billion in 2002, the mayor has said. That’s about 12 percent of New York City’s budget for next year, according to the November spending plan.
Pension and benefit costs are “simply not sustainable” and the mayor and labor leaders must compromise on changes to the retirement plan, Council Speaker Christine Quinn said today in her State of the City speech.
Blackstone’s dust-up with the city’s pensions came as the firm diversified beyond private equity, its third-largest business at the end of last year by assets under management. Chief Executive Officer Stephen Schwarzman’s push has meant hiring personnel not in the buyout business, whose clients include pension funds.
It would be difficult for a pension fund to terminate its current commitments to a manager because of the long-term nature of the private-equity asset class, said Andrew Wright, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP in New York.
“It’s one thing for an investor in a hedge fund to submit a redemption request,” he said. “It’s another thing for an investor to seek to cash out of a closed-ended private equity fund that makes investments into illiquid securities over a 10- year period.”
Efforts to cut retirement costs have spawned protests from beneficiaries, including lawsuits. An Afscme advertising campaign called “Stop the Lies: Public Service Workers Under Attack” tries to shift the blame for state deficits away from employees and onto corporations and Wall Street.
Afscme points out that its average member earns less than $45,000 a year and that average pensions are about $19,000 annually.
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