PhillyDeals: Philadelphia's new pension manager shakes up status quo

Posted: November 27, 2011

After the last guy quit and moved to Jersey, Philadelphia's Board of Pensions and Retirement - five city officials and four union reps - hired Connecticut hedge-fund manager Sumit Handa as its new chief investment officer.

It's a big job. City taxpayers had to pump more than $500 million last year into the pension system - about as much as the city spends on police, and twice what it spends on prisons - to keep the fund from falling further behind. City workers also help finance pensions through payroll deductions.

But after decades of underfunding, the city pension system now has less than $4 billion on hand to pay future liabilities it estimates at more than $9 billion.

Over the last year, the city has paid around $30 million to more than three dozen private money managers to invest the pension funds. A majority lost money in the volatile markets.

Handa's orders were clear: "to perform painstaking and extreme due diligence" on all the hired managers and to recommend ways to make more while spending less, says Francis Bielli, executive director of the board.

Almost the first thing Handa did on arrival was to call for shining a light on the funds' financial condition and managers' performance.

The board has long issued a slick annual report that's a laughable 15 months out of date by the time it's printed. Handa added monthly and daily reports so board members understood better where public money was going and why the funds gained or lost value.

He also started moving money away from private firms. Before he arrived, the board had recently fired two local money managers, Penn Capital Management Co. of Philadelphia and Turner Investments of Berwyn, for underperformance. Instead of finding other firms to run the $43 million those two had invested - business as usual - Handa proposed using the city's own professional staff to manage the funds directly at a fraction of the cost.

Handa "started from the perspective that, on balance, private managers are not going to be worth the fees they're charging" because it's notoriously hard to beat the overall market indexes, City Controller Alan Butkovitz, a member of the pension board, told me.

Butkovitz spoke approvingly of a recent decision to fire private managers of a $400 million Philadelphia Gas Works investment portfolio and move the money to low-fee Vanguard Group index funds. In August, the Philadelphia pension board approved this first part of Handa's plan; other changes are still in the works.

Not so fast

Then Bill Green, the at-large councilman who'd like to be mayor someday, called for hearings into the internal-management proposal. The effect has been to delay the move.

What's Green thinking? "I recognize this is only 1 percent of the pension funds, but I'm concerned about giving someone this, like Monopoly money, to invest without a certain accountability," Green told me.

What does he want instead? "I want to make sure Philadelphia managers, with local employees making the investment decisions, have a fair shot getting money from the pension fund," he said.

But the city already gives locals a shot, and it just had to fire some of them for poor performance, I pointed out.

"We have a goal of [hiring] minority-owned and women-owned managers. We should have the same goal for hiring local managers," Green insisted.

Has Green talked to Vanguard, which employs more than 8,000 in Chester County, about moving jobs to town in exchange for more city business? Not yet, he said.

But this back and forth about which private managers to hire, the thousands in fee differentials, and millions in individual asset contracts, pales compared to the pension's multibillion-dollar shortfall.

That's the big problem. Either the city needs to negotiate with its unions to cut the deficit, maybe by delaying retirement pay in exchange for preserving today's city jobs, or the legally mandated minimum pension subsidies will grow so large that they will crowd out basic city services, as every mayor since Frank Rizzo has warned.

City Council would better earn voters' thanks if it solved those existential questions and left the pension board, and the professionals it has hired, to choose whether to replace expensive private managers with civil servants or low-cost funds like Vanguard.

Compared to the method we've been using, they're not likely to do a lot worse. At least it will be cheaper.

Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194,,

or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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