Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and his merry band of researchers have discovered that Connecticut’s pension funds “have one of the worst investment track records of any state in the nation with long-term, chronic investment underperformance.”
How bad is it?
Sonnefeld writes, “With $40 billion in assets — largely the pooled retirement savings of the state’s hardworking teachers, firefighters and public employees — if Connecticut’s investments had yielded just the median returns of all 50 states, the past five years, we would have had $5 billion more and be able to cut taxes by 50 percent instead of 0.5 percent. Connecticut would have reaped a whopping $27 billion more over the last decade — practically enough to fully fund Connecticut’s pension obligations while simultaneously dramatically reducing taxes.”
A $27 billion loss of returns is not insignificant. Yet, to judge from the shallow reporting on the loss, one would think that the startling report and the meager media follow-up was as dispensable as the $27 billion, which might have been used to pay down Connecticut’s massive pension liabilities.
Some people were poorly administering pension funds for, say, 30 years.
Sonnefeld leaves the mentioning of culprits to others, but he does point out, “While the legislature battles over thousands of dollars or even millions on needed expenditures, billions of dollars were lost on terrible investments — investment errors that 49 other states somehow avoided (emphasis mine).Connecticut’s previous treasurers provided this state, consistently, with one of the single worst investment track records of all 50 states, as our Yale research team found through an original, comparative 50-state analysis of state pension fund investment performance.”
Sonnefeld offers five recommendations to fix Connecticut’s low return pension fund investments, none of which involve hitching to public stocks previous fund investment managers and their political overseers – the state’s last two Democrat treasurers, Denise Nappier (1999-2019) and Shawn Wooden (2019-2023), both of whom have retired – so that frustrated beneficiaries of the funds, “the state’s teachers, firefighters and public employees” might pelt the incompetents with tomatoes on the north lawn of the state capitol building.
Sonnefeld’s recommendations, almost certain to gather dust on political shelves where sound solutions regularly expire, include 1) “Careful and accountable asset manager selection – picking top-tier asset managers and dropping worst performers,” 2) “Change the asset mix,” 3) “Consider shifting into more low-cost index funds,” 4) “Increase the transparency of performance,” and 5) “Enhance talent recruitment into the treasurer’s team.”
All the solutions proposed by Sonnefeld might easily have been implemented 22 years ago by watchful and competent pension managers and their overseers. Ordinary competence would have, in Sonnefeld’s words, "reaped a whopping $27 billion more over the last decade — practically enough to fully fund Connecticut’s pension obligations while simultaneously dramatically reducing taxes (emphasis mine).”
But you cannot reap what you do not sow.
Nappier was elected Treasurer following a scandal that ensnared her predecessor.
According to the State Treasurer’s site, “Denise Nappier, following the kickback and corruption scandal involving her predecessor, proposed a comprehensive Treasury Reform agenda to the 2000 session of the Connecticut General Assembly, building on her efforts to return integrity, professionalism and high standards to the Treasury.”
An Investment Policy Statement for the State of Connecticut Retirement Plans & Trust Funds authored by her successor, Shawn Wooden, runs to 222 pages of densely packed prose.
But neither Nappier nor Wooden betrayed, during their combined 22 years overseeing the state’s pension plans, the slightest hint that in year 2023 pension funds invested by incompetent managers and Treasury overseers would leave on the table, over a 10 year period, more than $27 billion of easily acquired assets, a testimony to rank, not to say criminal, incompetence.
Some incompetent managers are born incompetent, some have incompetence thrust upon them. And the lucky incompetents, hiding themselves behind a shield of glowing campaign vows, are elected to office by an uninformed electorate.
It is not often enough mentioned that for 20 years after Connecticut’s pension fund had been established, no money was put into the fund. Years later, the money held in the pension fund lockbox was raided by tax pirates and disbursed to favored groups.
Now this: The general public, and shocked administrators of the pension fund, discover that the funds had been poorly administered during the terms of the last two Democrat Treasurers.
Apparently, some politicians are convinced that, with the sufferance of an obliging media, they can fool all of the people all of the time.
Don Pesci is a political columnist of long standing, about 40 years, who has written for various state newspapers, among them The Journal Inquirer, the Waterbury Republican American, the New London Day, the Litchfield County Times, the Torrington Register Citizen and other Register Citizen papers. He maintains a blog, among the oldest of its kind in Connecticut, which serves as a repository and archive, for his columns; there are approximately 3,000 entrees in Connecticut Commentary: Red Notes From A Blue State, virtually all of them political columns stretching back to 2004. He also appears once a week Wednesdays on 1080 WTIC Newstalk radio with Will Marotti.