I'm thinking about mounting a campaign to become one of the board members of CalPERS, the state retirement system. I've noticed that there are three vacancies, and that makes no sense considering the challenge we face today.
The "wisdom of crowds" suggests that any group of people will make a better decision than that made by the single smartest person in the room. So why is such an important decision-making body missing about one-quarter of what could be its collective wisdom? It is true that a board is one step removed from the operating level of an organization, but the board ultimately makes decisions about who to hire in those roles. It establishes goals and determines the point at which management is failing.
What I also notice as I read the biographies of board members is that only a few have any financial or investment background. Most are selected by union members that they represent, or they are appointed by legislatures that have been elected with union help. A long history of financial experience just doesn't seem to be one of the criteria for selection.
How do inexperienced board members sitting on almost $250 billion in assets know when the financial community selling them investment products or actuarial projections is just blowing smoke? Or that the people who they've hired may be inadequate?
If you look at, by comparison, the biographies of the trustees of Stanford, or the board of a company such as Visa, you'd be shocked by the contrast. Any institution in America that is responsible for a lot of money is governed by a board that, in the aggregate, represents several lifetimes of money-management experience.
It's just not there at CalPERS as well-meaning as the members may be. But don't take my word for it. Look it up yourself and make your own assessment. Funding pension benefits dwarfs any other single expenditure in the state's future, so our challenge of remaining solvent rests in the hands of this small group of relatively inexperienced people.
We don't have to belabor the point of how we got here, but suffice it to say that one of the steps along that road was the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act of 1968, which was then strengthened by the Dills Act a few years later allowing government workers to unionize and collectively bargain. What should have happened was the recognition that some sort of limitation needs to be in place when, unlike the private sector, government employees effectively get to choose their bosses at the voting booth.
While the unions don't elect all of the CalPERS board members, they do elect the governor and the legislators who fill the handful of appointed positions, so for all practical purposes, CalPERS is well within the grip of the organizations that represent the fund's retirees. The teachers' union alone collects $1,000 per year from each of its 340,000 members, so that a $340 million annual war chest pretty much assures that not much is going to change -- at least politically -- until there's some level of chaos that overwhelms the status quo.
Symptomatic of what we get when inexperienced people control vast amounts of money is the windfall for state employees created by the rosy projections of CalPERS in 1999. The CalPERS board campaigned for retroactive cost-of-living adjustments and allowed public safety workers to retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their pay -- along with other enhanced benefits.
The cost estimated by CalPERS at a few hundred million per year ballooned immediately to more than $3 billion. Legislators took the CalPERS projections at face value, and all but seven Republicans voted for it. Here again, we have a situation where a group of people with little or no financial or pension background just dreamed something up that was fatally flawed.
I've been in the retirement plan industry for 40 years, and I manage about $500 million at the company I founded. I set in motion the national legislation that calls for disclosure of hidden 401(k) investment fees, and I've been a columnist for this newspaper for 14 years. Moreover, I have a jaundiced view of the financial services industry and I know something about managing money. My time is flexible. I can afford to be a dollar-a-year man in Sacramento for one day a month.
The CalPERS board may continue unabated until the system implodes, but if I'm present at those meetings, it won't happen without my channeling Nikita Khrushchev and pounding my shoe on that podium.