PhillyDeals: Changing chairs, changing direction of Pa. retirement system

Nicholas Maiale retired last week as chair of the Pa. retirement system.
Nicholas Maiale retired last week as chair of the Pa. retirement system. (File)
Posted: January 27, 2014

Pennsylvania's state pension fund has about as much money as it did 10 years ago. It has not kept pace with rapidly rising pension expenses and projections. That is why taxpayers have been paying more to bolster the fund each year.

Is Nicholas Maiale to blame? The former state representative - a Democrat from South Philadelphia - and corporate lobbyist retired as chairman of the State Employees' Retirement System (SERS) board last week, after Gov. Corbett failed to reappoint him.

Under five governors, Maiale's aggressive strategy placed about half the pension system's assets into high-fee hedge, buyout, venture, real estate, and commodities funds.

But the returns failed to keep pace with the system's fiscal needs.

In glowing tributes at his final SERS meeting, Maiale's supporters said his results were still better than other pension funds.

But even if SERS did better than most, it would still face a growing need for cash. That is because past Pennsylvania governors and legislative leaders of both parties agreed to give themselves and other retirees bigger pensions without setting aside more money to pay for them.

Is the complex investment bazaar Maiale helped build out of date? Vanguard Group, in Malvern, has nearly tripled its assets over the last 10 years, to $2.2 trillion, by convincing more Americans that you can't beat the market. The best you can do is buy low-fee funds that mimic the main market indexes. A few pension funds - such as Montgomery County's - have lately fired their private managers and hired Vanguard.

But that's not where Corbett wants Pennsylvania to go.

To replace Maiale, Corbett went to one of the private management firms Montgomery County had just fired. The new SERS chairman is Glenn E. Becker, president of Swarthmore Group, a Philadelphia money manager that is only about as big as it was 10 years ago.

Over the last five years, Swarthmore Group charged higher fees (50 cents for every $100 invested per year) and created less profit than other firms investing in similar U.S. stocks, according to data provided by Uri Monson, Montgomery County's chief investment officer.

Swarthmore Group was previously hired and fired - for underperformance - by Philadelphia and Bucks Counties.

Pennsylvania has paid Swarthmore Group $16 million to manage college savings investments and other state accounts over the last 10 years, according to the state treasurer's data. But Swarthmore's returns on that money fell short of market returns and state benchmarks in each of the last five years.

So the state dropped Swarthmore Group as a college savings program manager in 2013, says Gary Tuma, spokesman for state Treasurer Rob McCord. Becker said the firm held an investment staff retreat at Philadelphia's Union League at the end of 2012 that led to changes that have improved performance recently.

Investment record aside, Swarthmore Group has been well-represented in state appointments. Swarthmore chairman James Nevels headed the first version of the state School Reform Commission that is attempting to stabilize Philadelphia's public schools. Nevels currently chairs Hershey Co. and serves as a director of the Hershey Trust.

Two Swarthmore Group officials, Paula R. Mandle, who is both chief executive and chief compliance officer, and Joseph P. Manheim, chief investment officer, have set up a firm that has been tapped by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to sell U.S. citizenship to Chinese investors in exchange for lending money to finance turnpike improvements - a potentially lucrative arrangement that Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said "raises alarms."

DePasquale will review the arrangement as part of his pending turnpike audit.

Swarthmore Group has an explanation for its involvement with state entities.

"We're a firm that fights above our weight," Becker said. "We have people who are very dedicated to public service and want to be involved in those things. It's part of our DNA."

Swarthmore Group officials are also political contributors. Nevels gave more than $100,000 to former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer, who chaired the state teachers' pension fund and had a seat on SERS. Mandle gave $5,000 to McCord, who sits on the SERS board and became one of Maiale's harshest critics, when he began his run for treasurer in 2007.

Becker gave state Republican fund-raiser Bob Asher's Pennsylvania Future Fund more than $40,000 in 2005-09.

Becker acknowledges "a little noise" at SERS these days. "[But] SERS is not a broken organization," he said. "We need to manage this fund in the most efficient, effective way."


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