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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Wheeler comes around on travel expenses

An important development this morning in the continuing saga of the Oregon state treasury's Masters of the Universe -- the in-house investment advisors who gallivant around on fancy travel junkets doing "research," having their expenses paid by the private firms that they're supposedly evaluating and monitoring:

Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler did an about face on his agency's travel policies Wednesday, making a fundamental step to increase transparency in the management of pension fund investments by announcing that agency employees will no longer accept travel paid for by the investment firms that they oversee.
But it's not clear how much rejoicing taxpayers should do about this. It appears the sometimes-lavish trips are going to continue -- but on the public dime:
Wheeler announced the latest policy change Wednesday in an interview on Oregon Public Broadcasting's Think Out Loud program, saying the agency would henceforth "simply cover the costs and report all of them."

Wheeler noted that the state would effectively be paying for the travel costs twice, as they are currently covered in the annual management fees that the state pays to the investment firms. He was unable to provide an estimate of those costs.

Maybe they ought to look into using Skype.

The travel cost change brings Oregon's policies in line with states' such as California and New York, which pay their investment officers' travel expenses. Both of those states have endured scandals related to illegal gifts provided to state employees by outside investment firms and third party marketers seeking big investments and the management fees that they bring in.
A long overdue reform here. And Wheeler can tell the Masters of the Universe that he tried as hard as he could to keep the gravy flowing, but there was only so much he could do.

Let's hope the folks at the O take a hard look at those travel expense reports when they come in under the new policy. They're pretty good playing "Who Had the Pickle?"

Comments (11)

Excuse my ignorance of high finance here, but what, exactly, are they researching?

Are there vaults of gold bars to be inspected?

Otherwise, just what information is there that can't be sent over the Internet for review?

These meetings are all about relationship building and trust. Very important to investing.

As in "you are the kind of guy who would pay for my sweet vacation and even help me double-dip on a few grand and scam the state on my expense account" so now "I trust you are the sort of person who will honestly invest $100 million of other people's money."

My prediction is that ending these junkets will lead to a noticeable increase in returns on the portfolios these jokers manage.

Kudos to Wheeler for finally coming to grips with this. Some people never do.

Oh, come on. Conflict of interest? That may be a problem for California or New York, but this is Oregon. Our fine portfolio guys are impervious to improper influence.

Wheeler noted that the state would effectively be paying for the travel costs twice, as they are currently covered in the annual management fees that the state pays to the investment firms.

And the next time the contract comes up, we'll assure that these costs get pulled from the management fees, right Ted?

Perhaps the management fees could be reduced???

Juanita - Our goal will be to get reimbursement for our documented travel expenses. That way we won't have to pay twice. There may be some firms that balk - and I just want to prepare people for that possiblity - but if several large pension plans pursue this strategy it will change the relationship between the pensions and the investment houses in a positive way. Washington State is experimenting with this strategy, too.

As predicted, clean up the superficial problem, the optically awful boondoggles, while leaving the much more fundamental problem with these jobs intact: they are playing "heads we win, tails you lose" with state money.

That is, when they luck into nice returns, they collect nice bonuses. When the state underperforms the market, do they give up any salary? No. So it's plain as day to any disinterested observer that they are simply enjoying a "you can't lose" job ... They literally can't lose, only we lose.

Hey, I've got an idea, if these geniuses have such magic mojo that they can guarantee returns above market, then why don't we simply not pay them a salary at all, and let them post a bond to guarantee the market average return on all money they invest for us, and they split all the gain above that with us fifty/fifty ... In other words, set it up so WE can't lose (instead of them), but reward them with a much bigger piece of the action on the excess return they get for us (with the bond, paid for by them, ensuring that if they get too ambitious in seeking too much return, we're still covered for the market average).

Heck, if you think about it, we should be auctioning off the jobs to people who claim they can beat the market and are willing to put their money where their mouth is, instead of their mouth to where the money sits.

So if master of the universe A says "I'll beat the market by a percent with $300B for half of the excess over market return" but MOTU B says "heck, I'll only need four-tenths of the excess return over market" then we give the money to B to invest, as soon as B posts the requisite bond. We'd soon find out just how confident they actually were, and how they like capitalism for real.

I've gotten 15 percent compound average annual return on my brokerage accounts the last five years, better I would wager than 99 percent of the Masters. Hey if your guys don't like the new terms, I'll come out and work for ya -- $149,500 per annum will do with no benefits, no bonus, no travel, and no golf (that I don't pay for myself).

If Ted Wheeler wasn't planning to run for re-election or for the governor's office, would he have ever done this "about face" on the Treasury's travel policies?

Also, just what other interesting goodies are embedded in the "annual management fees" that are paid to each investment firm? Shouldn't we as citizens and taxpayers know about them? I hope the Big O digs a little further into the issues surrounding the Treasury's relationship with the investment firms.

I'm wondering if Wheeler's, and any other investigations, are looking beyond golf, dinner and travel kickbacks and into the highly likely "insider knowledge/trading" that is possible with the Masters of the Universe handling of Oregon's billions of dollars. I wouldn't be surprised that it is happening. Does anyone know if this angle is being pursued in any investigations?

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