Q&A: Raimondo fires back after Forbes contributor attacks her

April 5th, 2013 at 6:02 pm by under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site

Raimondo_NM_10-21-2011Edward “Ted” Siedle launched a blistering attack on Treasurer Gina Raimondo in a Forbes.com post Thursday that suggested her changes to Rhode Island’s $7 billion pension system are leading to a “Wall Street feeding frenzy.” Raimondo’s critics seized on Siedle’s broadside immediately, while others wanted to know more about his charges.

Raimondo responded to the Forbes piece Friday in an interview with WPRI.com, defending the State Investment Commission she chairs for moving aggressively to create and expand a portfolio of hedge funds. This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Let’s jump right to it. Did you read the article, and what was your reaction?

I did read it. It’s not an article – it’s an opinion blog, and obviously there’s a number of inaccuracies, and I disagree with the overall tone of the blog.

Did the author ever reach out to you or your office, do you know?

No.

So there was no effort to discuss it?

No.

Looking for a thesis in the article, Siedle writes: “There’s no prudent, disciplined investment program at work here – just a blatant Wall Street gorging, while simultaneously pruning state workers’ pension benefits.” I know you’ll disagree with that, but what’s your response?

Ted, we’ve talked about this before. The State Investment Commission has a clear strategy. That strategy is to produce strong long-term returns while reducing risk, and to ensure retirement security. That is exactly what we’ve been doing, and the results speak for themselves.

You’ve reoriented the pension fund to invest much more money in alternative investments. Is this what other pension funds are doing, moving to alternatives? Is it a search for yield with interest rates low? How does this fit with what you’re seeing among your peers elsewhere in the country?

Yes. It is right in line with best practices throughout the industry. In fact, the average across state pension plans is 22% of total assets are in alternatives, and Rhode Island’s pension system is at 22%. So what we’re doing is in line with best practices.

[TN: Raimondo's spokesman said the average cited uses data from Clearwater Investment Management and state CAFRs, or comprehensive annual financial reports.]

It’s our job to be innovative and to be constantly looking to do our best and be better and reduce risk and increase returns. That’s exactly what we’ve done and that’s exactly what we’re going to continue to do. You and I have talked about this before, and it was in State of the Treasury, which came out months ago – we have a strategy. We have an underfunded plan, so we need to reduce risk.

That was one of the things that was interesting here. Siedle said the shift in the investment portfolio will “inevitably dramatically increase both risk and fees.” Talk about risk first. I can see why people would think that if you’re going into alternative investments rather than equities, you’d be increasing risk – isn’t that the fact here?

No, in fact we’ve decreased risk by more than 10%.

How? I know this is complicated stuff, but how can you explain it for the layman?

Here’s the important point. A lot of people got hurt in the stock market of 2008 and 2009, and this pension system lost more than 25% of its value. We don’t want that to happen again. There was an awful lot of risk in this portfolio, and I think everyone can relate to that – a lot of people got hurt and lost a lot of money when the U.S. stock market crashed. What we are trying to do, and what our strategy’s been, is to make sure our whole portfolio isn’t 100% correlated with the U.S. stock market, so that if we do have another crash in the U.S. stock market, hopefully we won’t lose 25% of the value – because we can’t afford that, because people’s pensions are on the line.

On fees, Colorado’s pension fund says its expenses total less than 0.4% of assets per year. Do you know what the figure is for Rhode Island?

No – you’ve got to be very careful with apples to apples in this, so I don’t know what Colorado means when they say that. But here’s what I can tell you: everything we do is in line with best practices – and by the way, it’s very important to remember we rely on our investment consultants. Every one of these hedge fund investments was done by a unanimous vote of the State Investment Commission after months of due diligence, in line with our asset allocation, which we voted on. All the fees that we paid are industry-standard. So everything we’re doing is in line with we should be doing. And it is transparent.

What about fees, though? There’s been a lot of attention paid to the higher fees that sometimes come with alternative investments. Is that a concern? Have you put anything in place to make sure we’re not getting gouged under the radar by fees charged with these alternative investments?

Look, you’re always concerned to make sure that we don’t pay excessive fees. But what we’re trying to do here is we’re trying to buy a little bit of insurance, and so, like in anything, you have to pay for that insurance. But, again, everything we’re investing in are brand-name firms with a proven track record – and we always get the best fees. In consultation with our investment advisers, we negotiate wherever possible to make sure that the state of Rhode Island receives among the best fees of other investors.

One of the things Siedle asks about the alternative investments is, “how high will the allocation to alternatives go over time – 40%-50%?” I presume that’s not the plan.

No. Like I said, we’re right in line – if you do a survey for state pension systems, the average allocation to alternatives is 22%, and Rhode Island’s allocation is 22%. We have an asset allocation policy, and we operate in compliance with that policy.

When was the current allocation plan adopted?

June of 2011.

Another criticism from Siedle is that the estimate of the value of the alternative investments is coming from the managers of the funds, whose pay is based on the investment performance. He questions the reliability of those appraisals. What do you say to that?

Again, it’s our job to be constantly monitoring these, and certainly if we were to ever have reason to have concern about that, we would act on it. We take a rigorous approach in everything we do – a rigorous approach to selection as well as a rigorous approach to monitoring. And when warranted we evaluate the benchmarks to make sure that they’re hitting the returns that we need. So it’s something we have our eye on and that we’re constantly monitoring, and we have a rigorous approach. I think that’s an area where we have a good process in place.

Do you know if any placement fees have been paid in connection with these alternative investments?

They have not. We have a policy here not allowing placement agents, and one of the things that I’ve instituted is an investor pledge – all of the investors that want to do business with us have to sign a pledge saying that, number one, they don’t use placement agents, and number two, that they don’t make contributions to my campaign. So those are facts.

And I will say, as you know because we’ve covered this before, we’ve taken a number of steps, which I’m proud of, to increase transparency, to increase accountability and to go above and beyond what’s required. This investor pledge is one example of that. Our investor relations portal, which I launched a year or so ago, put everything online – including our investments and the fees. So there really is no basis for this.

Really? Where are the fees?

If you go onto our investor relations portal, all the minutes and all the SIC [State Investment Commission] materials are there. And by the way, as you know, every SIC meeting is public, all the stuff is published in SIC reporting materials.

Is Cliffwater the state’s hedge fund consultant?

Yes.

Does the state have multiple hedge fund consultants or just one?

Nope, just Cliffwater.

On those hedge funds, how is the performance so far broadly speaking? I know this was put in place less than two years ago, but is it working? And how do you decide that? What are the metrics? It is a significant shift, even if it is in line with what others are doing as you said.

As you say, it’s a young program, so it’s early going – but we’re pleased. So far the performance has exceeded the index by over 2% annually.

Let me back up. Alternative investments is both hedge funds and private equity. By the way, the state’s been investing in private equity for 10-plus years. This is not new. Certainly it was happening long before I got here, and they’ve had a good track record in it. So that’s not news. Over the last 10 years the state’s private-equity investments have earned an annualized return that exceeds the S&P 500 index by 5%, and the hedge funds – again, early returns – but have exceeded the index by over 2%.

Exceeded the S&P 500 Index or the hedge fund fund-of-funds?

The hedge fund fund-of-funds.

Also, the overall return of the pension system, the one-year return is 9.2% and the three-year return is 9.7% [as of Feb. 28, 2013]. So we are doing exactly what we should be doing and exactly what we said we would do, which is delivering strong returns at a lower level of risk and therefore providing greater retirement security to public employees – and all the while doing that in a highly professional, transparent process, consistent with best practices all around the country.

What about the “revolving door” issue? I hear it raised a lot about your office – you came out of finance, former Chief Investment Officer Ken Goodreau left to work for an alternative investment manager, the new CIO comes from hedge fund research at JP Morgan – isn’t it understandable that people would be skeptical of all that after what’s happened in the financial sector in recent years?

I think people should be a lot more worried if we were hiring people to manage these assets that didn’t have finance experience. What you want is people managing money that know how to do it and that come out of the industry. And by the way, again, this is not unusual. There are senior investment professionals – Massachusetts, for instance, which has a strong track record in their pension, they have a number of professionals on staff managing their pension fund that have come out of the finance industry – Connecticut, New York, New Jersey.

Look, there is no place for problematic conflicts of interest or bad behavior. But it is a good thing that people who have a strong investment track record want to work for the state to help us do the best we can to manage money for our public employees.

Siedle writes that you recently hired “18 more hedge fund managers.” Is that number correct?

Yes, that is correct. Well, it’s not more -

Oh, right – they’re the only hedge fund jobs, because Rhode Island didn’t invest in hedge funds before.

Right.

He says this is a way of “greatly increasing operational and investment risk, and dramatically increasing investment management fees.” That’s wrong, in your view?

Yes. It’s reduced the risk. Like I said, if you look at the risk, the volatility in our portfolio, it’s less now than it was before we had this hedge-fund portfolio.

And by the way, Ted, I have been on record saying this for a long time – it was in State of the Treasury, I have talked about it at every public Investment Commission meeting for over a year – this is an active strategy to reduce the risk in the portfolio so that we don’t again feel the pain of 2008 and 2009. And so far, it’s working – we have strong returns with less risk. We’re monitoring it, but so far it’s working and it’s doing what we said it would do.

[At this point Raimondo's spokesman said we were almost out of time.]

I want to go then to Point Judith Capital. [This was Raimondo's former venture capital firm, which received a $5 million commitment from the pension fund in 2007, under former Treasurer Frank Caprio.] What were the returns like at Point Judith, and are the pitchbooks, portfolio holdings and investment returns available publicly from Point Judith?

I’m not sure. Again, I wasn’t here when that investment was made -

Well you were, but you were on the other side of it.

Right. Exactly. The returns, all that stuff is public, so whatever they submit, just like any other private equity firm, whatever they submit on a quarterly basis would be public. They submit quarterly reports on their investment performance, and we have that and that would be public. I have to say I don’t know it off the top of my head.

How did the initial opportunity for Point Judith to go before the State Investment Commission and get that $5 million commitment come about? You don’t just show up that day to the meeting, obviously.

Basically, through the process. The investment advisor – Pacific Corporate Group, I believe it was called – was looking for venture capital allocation, and we applied, we went through the due diligence process and we were selected.

How was the performance of Point Judith?

It was top quartile at the time [in 2007].

Do you have any sense of how Point Judith’s performance has been sense then and how the state’s investment has fared?

It’s a strong performer. They’ve produced strong returns. It’s still a little bit early. Those kinds of firms have a 10-year investment life cycle, so they’re maybe halfway through the cycle.

Is that why Rhode Island had only funded $4.4 million of the $5 million commitment as of March?

Exactly. That is totally standard – that’s the way it works. They do what’s called a capital call.

[An aide provided Raimondo with documents about Point Judith II, the fund Rhode Island invested in.]

As I suspected they have solid performance, a realized return of 22% – so a 22% realized return, but again, they’re halfway through the fund. Early returns are strong, but like any of these private equity holdings, you have to wait until the fund is done to see how they’ve performed.

[Update: Raimondo's spokeswoman provided a correction on April 9, saying the Point Judith II fund has a 12% return; 22% is the amount that has been cashed in.]

One thing that appears to be incorrect in the Forbes piece is that the Point Judith II investment stopped being reported on your website in October 2012. It’s in the March 2013 SIC document. It looks like nothing has changed with those disclosures recently?

Correct.

Finally, the Engage Rhode Island question.

You’re being portrayed in this piece and by a lot of your critics as the handmaiden of Wall Street – doing all this, acting like you’re looking out for public employees but instead just creating a windfall for financiers. Clearly if you run for governor or even run for treasurer again, that’s going to be the critique of you. Are you concerned Engage Rhode Island is going to be an anchor around your neck?

Look, this is politics. Here’s what I know. I know that we’ve increased the retirement security for public employees in Rhode Island. I know that we had to make some tough choices to do that. I’m proud of the work we’ve done. And I have a much higher degree of confidence that teachers’ and public employees’ pensions are actually going to be there because of the work we’ve done. So those are the facts, and we’re going to continue to do that kind of work – politics aside. •

• Related: Chart: How Raimondo has changed RI’s pension investments (April 4)

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

This post has been updated.

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21 Responses to “Q&A: Raimondo fires back after Forbes contributor attacks her”

  1. [...] Update: Raimondo fires back after Forbes.com attack – read the Q&A (April [...]

  2. What? says:

    22% return? Ted, can you document this? Nothing provides that sort of return. It seems outrageous. Over the last of the Caprio years, that fund lost money according to the private equity section of the quarterly statements provided at treasury.ri.gov.

    I’d be really, really shocked if it was pulling in 22%, and I’d want to know if the dates over which that calculation were made were cherry picked.

    Because if it’s true, I’ve got some money for Point Judith…

  3. Bob says:

    So, who’s telling the truth?

  4. Jeff says:

    She’s fast to spew out numbers but hesitant when asked about investing state money in her company. She really believes were stupid little idiots.

  5. Gigi says:

    On fees, Colorado’s pension fund says its expenses total less than 0.4% of assets per year. Do you know what the figure is for Rhode Island?

    It is unfortunate that we don’t have this information. This goes to the heart of the matter in the article and no specifics were provided. What percentage of the assets goes to fees? It should be a simple answer. Ms. Raimondo simply says that it is industry standard. That doesn’t answer the question.
    It is very difficult to trust her statements about transparency in light of her failure to provide the public with information about who was the big money behind EngageRI. We simply don’t trust her. An article of this nature in Forbes is very telling. What would have motivated this gentlemen to write this? Hmm…..

  6. Lifer says:

    Mr. Nesi, I’m disappointed in you. You asked open-ended, softball questions and let Ms. Raimondo dictate the direction of the interview. Quoting from Forbes and asking, “How do you respond?” is not exactly cutting edge journalism. Deferential treatment of politicians by the Rhode Island media is why this State is in deplorable condition. I expected better from you.

  7. Floridian says:

    “Ted, we’ve talked about this before.”

    Indeed. Every morning at our staff briefings.

  8. [...] Gina Raimondo came out swinging Friday against Forbes.com contributor Ted Siedle in response to his blistering attack on her [...]

  9. ForkedTongue says:

    If the Forbes article isn’t an article and just a blog, why does the Treasurer run to a blogger to get her response printed? Can’t one just say, this is her opinion blog in return? Doesn’t seem to be very enlightening with her answers either.

  10. Steve says:

    Went to the SIC website as the Treasurer suggested. I could not find information on fees. She is all assertion; no facts.

    1. Lucy L says:

      Steve, I too keep looking at the SIC site and I find no fees listed, just as I can’t find the overall rate of return each month. It may be buried in the report,but if Raimondo has nothing to hide and feels she is doing a good job with the investments, why is she coy about revealing that information? We have a right to know. That is a lack of transparency, especially from someone who is so concerned about financial literacy. She should be happy to answer our questions. Jim Taricani interviewed her on 10 News Conference in June 2012 and asked her (twice) what the current rate of return was. She responded, “Under five percent.” It turned out to be 1.4% again. Don’t take my word for it. The segment should be available online.

  11. Jason says:

    While I agree that interview was a little soft, (Is it different interviewing a female official?), her answers were much, much softer. Seems like what is good for the goose isn’t good for the gander. So sick of people like this getting into government positions.

  12. Rlewis says:

    Oh it’s just “politics” when it is asked who is behind EngageRI? Gina, you are so disingenuous it makes me sick.

    The fact is that you have millionaires and billionaires secretly contributing to a campaign to dismantle pensions that average less than $30k.

    And you have no idea to the amount of fees some of the alternative investments are charging the state. There’s no due diligence on that at all.

  13. Rlewis says:

    Here is one example around placement fees: a Dad of a managing partner at Nautic Partners, Bernard Buonanno, gave money to EngageRI. Nautic Partners has received just shy of $40 million dollars from the state pension system.
    Does Nautic Partners pay RI taxes? I wonder. According to their website, Nautic Partners is based right here in little Rhody. However, they are conveniently registered in the state of Delaware. How nice. And how much has the firm collected in fees from the state? No one at Gina’s office will tell you that.
    Of course, private equity firms are also famous for paying capital gains taxes on their income (they like to call it carried interest) while we serfs (and all state workers) pay a much higher rate on our wages.
    It’s all reverse Robin Hood. The rich stealing from the poor.

  14. [...] Getting “fired at” 6 p.m. on a Friday night is no way to start the weekend. So I was a little unnerved when I received an email from Ted Nesi, a reporter at WPRI TV’s website in Rhode Island yesterday evening with an article he had written attached entitled, “Raimondo Fires Back After Attack by Forbes Contributor.” [...]

  15. snow says:

    Her responses are the same as Gist’s. notice the repetition, the refusal to admit they are wrong, the constant cant about transparency, as if uttering the word itself makes the rest of the narrative true. The usuage of terms like “industry standard” to shut down the questioning. The forced choice arguments around pension reform: schools, parks, and bridges versus employee pensions, are just like Gist’s NECAP graduation requirement or uneducated populace nonsense.

  16. Michael Lewis says:

    RI deserves better than Gina Raimondo.

  17. rlewis says:

    “Hedge funds are too big to beat the market” (CBS MoneyWatch)

    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505123_162-57575815/hedge-funds-are-too-big-to-beat-the-market/

    “Hedge Funds Kiss Their Alpha Goodbye” (WSJ)

    …the correlation between hedge fund returns and the S&P 500 has risen to nearly 100% in the past couple of years, meaning the gap between hedge fund returns and pure market returns is vanishing rapidly.

  18. Al Moncrief says:

    COLORADO COURT OF APPEALS CONFIRMS COLORADO PERA PUBLIC PENSION COLA BENEFITS AS CONTRACTUAL.

    The Colorado Court of Appeals has reversed and remanded an initial District Court ruling that denied the contractual status of public pension COLAs in Colorado. The Court of Appeals confirmed that Colorado PERA pension COLA benefits are a contractual obligation of the pension plan Colorado PERA and its affiliated public employers. A huge victory for public sector retirees in Colorado! The Colorado Legislature may not breach its contracts and push taxpayer obligations onto the backs of a small group of elderly pensioners.

    The lawsuit is continuing. Support pension rights in the U.S. by contributing at saveperacola.com. Friend Save Pera Cola on Facebook!

    In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court (in U.S. Trust Co, 431 U.S.) clarified that state attempts to impair their own contracts, ESPECIALLY FINANCIAL OBLIGATIONS, were subject to greater scrutiny and very little deference because the STATE’S SELF-INTEREST IS AT STAKE. As the court bluntly stated:

    “A governmental entity can always find a use for extra money, especially when taxes do not have to be raised. If a state could reduce its financial obligations whenever it wanted to spend the money for what it regarded as an important public purpose, the Contract Clause would provide no protection at all . . . Thus, a state cannot refuse to meet its legitimate financial obligations simply because it would prefer to spend the money to promote the public good rather than the private welfare of its creditors.”

    For more resources to protect public pension benefits visit saveperacola.com.

  19. [...] investing Rhode Island’s pension fund. Old Ted (Nesi, of WPRI), to borrow a phrase, fired back on Friday. New Ted has since posted twice to accuse Old Ted of having a soft spot for Raimondo and [...]

  20. [...] and her pension “reform”, there are two new chapters. First, Raimondo replies in an interview with WPRI’s Ted Nesi. Since, Siedle has rebutted calling the Treasurer “scary”, and he also has 22 tough [...]