Why the Sudden Reticence, Madame Treasurer?

This kinda got lost in the wake of Speaker Jill Krowinski’s retreat on pension reform, but Treasurer Beth Pearce has taken a curious stand on fund management. She seems dead set against a legislative review of the pension funds’ track record.

Normally she’s a fiscal bloodhound, whenever shy about exploring any and all financial issues to the last decimal point and sounding the alarm when she sees fit. But not this one time.

As a reminder, the state treasurer occupies one of seven seats on the Vermont Pension Investment Committee, which makes the investment decisions.

I’d been wondering how the pensions underperformed badly during a historically long bull market. I mean, couldn’t a roomful of monkeys with Bloomberg terminals make money on Wall Street these days? Now, Seven Days’ Kevin McCallum has put numbers to my feeling.

Over the last decade, the S&P 500, a benchmark for the U.S. stock market, enjoyed an average annual return of 13.6 percent. Over that same period, Vermont’s public pension funds earned an average of just 7.2 percent a year from its investments.

That’s not an entirely fair comparison, as McCallum pointed out, since pension funds can’t take chances with their investments. But then he compared Vermont’s funds to other similarly sized public pension funds, and found that Vermont ranked 69th out of 100. Not exactly sterling.

Members of the House Government Operations Committee, who risked political suicide by exploring Krowinski’s reform plan, aren’t happy with the funds’ performance. Committee vice chair John Gannon, who has financial credentials to rival Pearce’s*, called the funds’ performance “horrendous.” Yikes.

*Eleven years at the Securities and Exchange Commission and several at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

Krowinski’s plan is headed to a study committee, but the other half of pension reform — changing their governance structure — remains on the table. House Gov Ops is proceeding with a bill that would create a unified Vermont Pension Commission to replace VPIC and the separate boards of the teachers’ and state employees’ pension funds. Part of that discussion, say committee members, is a review of VPIC’s recent performance.

This raised the treasurer’s hackles. Pearce urged the committee not to “dwell on the past,” and called the inquiry an exercise in finger-pointing that resembled the “gotcha” politics of Washington, D.C.

Frankly, I was stunned by her comments. It seemed so unlike her. And so off-target. It’s not dwelling on the past; it’s learning from history.

If this was some political hack who ambled into the treasurer’s office, I’d suspect that there were some skeletons in the VPIC closet. Like, did they funnel pension cash to Chinese investors who then invested it in Ariel Quiros’ EB-5 projects? Did they invest in a brother-in-law’s sure-fire investment scheme? Was the treasurer making frequent trips to Saratoga or Mohegan Sun?

But no, Pearce has way too much integrity for that.

So what’s really going on?

I don’t know, but here’s a guess. Pearce was bound and determined to reform the pension system this year. A review of VPIC’s past would suck time and energy away from her primary goal — making the pension funds sustainable by trimming benefits and increasing worker contributions. Remember, her comments about VPIC predated Krowinski’s retreat. The clock was ticking. Quick passage in the House was necessary to give the Senate time to act. She didn’t want anything to get in the way.

But it’s not a good look, and I’m with House Gov Ops on this one. We need to look at where and how VPIC fell short, so we can build a governance structure that will guide the funds’ investments wisely.


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