Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Why You Should Not Retire....

October 31, 2007
Ex-Chief of S.E.C. Says Pension Funds in Danger

As New York State comptroller, his father “saved the retirements” of countless workers, Arthur Levitt Jr. said in a speech yesterday — but he added that now those pensions, along with those of millions of other Americans, are again at risk.

In remarks to pension officials from New York and several other states, Mr. Levitt, the longest-serving chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, said their world was fraught with problems, including conflicts of interest, opaque accounting and a tendency among elected officials to promise valuable benefits, then fail to set aside enough money to pay for them.

“As the baby boomers begin to retire, we cannot tolerate a shaky pension system,” said Mr. Levitt, who stepped down from the S.E.C. in 2001 and is now a senior adviser to the Carlyle Group, a large private equities firm.

The Carlyle Group is one of the investment firms to be questioned by investigators in an inquiry into the New York State pension fund. Mr. Levitt alluded to that inquiry, which has focused on whether associates of New York State’s most recent former comptroller, Alan G. Hevesi, improperly benefited from his sole direction of the $156 billion fund, the nation’s second largest.

But Mr. Levitt said New York’s pension woes were just the latest in a series of scandals at public funds all over the country, including those in the cities of Chicago, San Diego and Philadelphia and the states of Illinois, Ohio and California.

Mr. Levitt was speaking at an annual conference for public pension trustees sponsored by the Pacific Corporate Group, an investment management company that specializes in private equities.

He said he was speaking in the dual capacity of a private equities executive and the son of Arthur Levitt Sr., who was widely admired for refusing to use the New York State pension fund to bail out New York City during its fiscal crisis in the 1970s. Today, “too many fund trustees as well as elected officials” are “unable to carry this load,” he said.

Mr. Levitt said much of the trouble was rooted in pension accounting rules that “fail to reflect accurately” the cost of the benefits that public workers have earned or the value of the assets set aside to pay those benefits.

“We can’t begin to improve the fiscal standing of public pension funds until we can accurately assess their financial health,” he said.

He blamed a rule-making framework that allows softer accounting standards for governments than for corporations, and called for the repeal of the Tower Amendment, a 30-year-old law that limits the S.E.C.’s authority to police governmental accounting. The current S.E.C. chairman, Christopher Cox, has also expressed doubts about the Tower Amendment’s continuing usefulness but has not called outright for its repeal.

Mr. Levitt also called on Congress to create an independent financing source for the body that writes the accounting rules for governments — something Congress has already established for the corporate accounting rule-makers.

Currently, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board must finance its operations by soliciting contributions from the same bodies of government that adopt its rules.

Mr. Levitt also questioned the way the governmental accounting rule-makers are chosen, saying he thought the trustees of the board should be named by the S.E.C. Currently, various constituency groups recommend trustees.

Even if the pension accounting rules are beefed up, he said, it would make little difference unless the oversight boards of the funds were also improved. Currently, less than half of all public pension funds are thought to have formal education requirements for their trustees.

Current practices also allow pension officials to give priority to political concerns, he said, like calling for the divestment of pension money from “rogue states” like Sudan and Iran. He expressed great concern over the practice of some pension officials of soliciting campaign contributions from Wall Street firms.

“We have created a situation where workers’ retirement savings are being used for private gain,” he said.

While at the S.E.C., Mr. Levitt said he had directed staff members to investigate these practices, after which they drafted a rule barring money managers from working for public pension funds if the money managers had recently made political contributions to any fund officials.

But the rule, conceived of in 1999, when the S.E.C. was fighting uphill to curb conflicts of interest in the auditing profession, never made it past the drafting stage. Eight years later, Mr. Levitt said he thought the problems were worse than ever.

Questions from the audience suggested that at least some trustees at the conference disagreed with Mr. Levitt’s contention that pension trustees had no business identifying rogue states and trying to steer money away from them. One asked whether he also wanted them to back off from efforts to improve corporate governance. He said he did not.

Joseph Haslit, who represents New York City’s comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr., on the boards of four of the city’s big pension funds, said he thought nearly everybody in the room agreed with Mr. Levitt on the need to crack down on unethical behavior. But he said he doubted they agreed with his contention that pension boards needed to be beefed up.

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