According to "State workers face privatization" by Jason Stein (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 6, 2011), over 300 Wisconsin State Department of Commerce employees may soon be classified differently. The stated goal is to better deploy its $183 million budget to try to create jobs. (Whether you believe that governments are the engine of jobs creation is a post for another day.)
Questions remain about the benefits for identified employees and whether they will be covered by the state's retirement system. A related question is whether the general public will have a true assessment of Wisconsin's retirement plan IOUs if these privatized workers are counted as "public" for some purposes but not for others. In reading the many comments posted for the aforementioned article, emotions are running high about the real costs associated with this decision. Clearly, more information would go a long way to quelling any concerns.
The topic of financial disclosures may soon create real problems for public plans and, by extension, ERISA plans that are sponsored by companies that issue stocks and/or bonds. In today's New York Times, Mary Williams Walsh reports that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") may be investigating the large California pension plan known as CalPERS. It's premature and inappropriate to speculate but the inference is that bond buyers may have been in the dark about the "true" risks associated with this $200+ billion defined benefit plan. If true, California could pick up an even bigger than expected tab and municipal security investors could be in a position of having paid too much to own state debt. See "U.S. Inquiry Said to Focus on California Pension Fund."
As recently as 2009, then Special Advisor to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Crane, referred to public pension plan reporting as "Alice-in-Wonderland" accounting. He added that "state and local governments are understating pension liabilities by $2.5 trillion, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College." Since these are legal contracts that bind the state, city or municipal sponsor, they are on the hook for bad results, with large cash infusions likely.
It's not rocket science to conclude that other states and municipalities could face the same type of securities regulation inquiry. Indeed, even ERISA plans are vulnerable to allegations of fraud or sloppy reporting if their risk disclosures are incomplete, inaccurate, misleading or all of the above. See "Testimony for Securities and Exchange Commission Field Hearing re: Disclosure of Pension Liability" (September 21, 2010). Investors want to know whether they have a striped horse or a zebra in their stable. They need and deserve a solid understanding of investment risks to which they are exposing themselves. That can only occur if accurate and complete information is provided. To its credit, CalPERS seems to be emphasizing risk-adjusted performance as paramount. A December 13, 2010 press release describes the adoption of a "landmark" asset allocation that emphasizes "key drivers of risk and return."
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