“If you were to have faxed me this balance sheet and asked me to guess who it belonged to, I would have guessed, Citadel, Magnetar or even a proprietary trading desk at a bank.” So begins a story by Alexandra Harris of the Medill Journalism school at Northwestern, which, however, does not focus on some exotic product-specialized hedge fund, or some discount window (taxpayer capital) backed prop desk (hedge fund) at a TBTF bank, but instead at the 61% underfunded, $33.7 billion Illinois Teachers Retirement System (TRS), which just happened to lose $4.4 billion in 2009 (a year when, courtesy of America's conversion from capitalism to socialism, the market rose 60%), and 5% in2008. Yet underperformance can be explained. What can not, is that the TRS has now become a shadow AIG. As Harris notes "TRS is largely on the risky side of the contracts, selling and writing OTC derivatives, including credit default swaps, insurance-like contracts that guarantee payment in the event of a default, that were blamed in part for the 2008 collapse of Lehman Bros. and bailout of insurance giant American International Group Inc., or AIG." Demonstrating just how far the fund is willing to go in the "for broke" category, knowing full well that if it repeats AIG's implosion, the government will likely bail it out, is the disclosure that a stunning 81.5% of the fund's investments are considered risky - this means it is the fourth-riskiest investment portfolio for a pension fund in the U.S! All it will take is another Flash Crash-like event, or a liquidity crunch, and the 355,000 "full-time, part-time and substitute public school teachers and administrators working outside the city of Chicago" will likely end up with a big, fat donut in their retirement portfolios courtesy of some deranged lunatic, portfolio manager, situated externally at a bank like Goldman Sachs, who in taking a page straight out of Obama's bailout nation, has decided there is no such thing as risk. And to those naive enough to think the TRS is the only such fund which has now gone all-in on "no risk and infinite return", wait until such stories start emerging about every single massively underfunded pension and fully insolvent fund in the US.
From Harris' report:
Frank Partnoy, a law and finance professor at the University of San Diego who worked on Wall Street as a derivatives structurer in the mid-1990s, said TRS’s portfolio is an indication that investing is not about what is smart but what will generate the highest returns.
“It’s an epic illustration of how we’ve really gotten lost in financial complexities,” he said, after studying the Illinois Auditor General's 2009 audit of TRS and the fund's March 31 derivatives positions.
TRS said it uses over-the-counter, or privately negotiated, derivatives to maximize the performance of its portfolio and only allows money managers to invest in derivatives if they “have the appropriate expertise and knowledge and employ sophisticated risk management systems,” said David Urbanek, public information officer, in an e-mail.
The fact that TRS trustees and investment advisors approved the use of OTC derivatives isn’t, in itself, alarming. The financial instruments are not explicitly prohibited in the Illinois pension code, and many derivatives contracts provide protection against losses on other investments.
In the balance sheet provided to Medill News Service, TRS’s OTC derivatives portfolio showed that in addition to writing CDSs, the pension fund was selling swaptions and shorting international-based interest rate swaps. For each contract written or sold, TRS received a premium.
And as always happens when one collects pennies before a rollercoaster, the spectacular blow up always eventually catches up with you:
Unfortunately for TRS, its OTC positions soured in late April when Greece’s debt woes worsened, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Spain’s debt to AA and the euro dropped to its lowest levels since the currency’s inception. The International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank orchestrated a $1 trillion bailout to ensure that Greece and the other PIIGS—Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain—would not default on their debts.
“As the European debt crisis worsens, TRS’ positions are going to bleed money,” the trader said.
Where it gets even scarier, is that TRS may be fraudulently misrepresenting its massively underwater portfolio:
But the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System said if it unwound the OTC trades held in its pension fund today, the positions would have a market value of $5 million and a notional value of $1.1 billion. Notional value is the total value of a leveraged financial instrument’s assets.
It isn’t clear how TRS is valuing its OTC derivatives and market experts, among them Rosenthal, who estimated a loss of $515 million as of March 31, were skeptical the OTC positions could have been showing a net positive notional value.
TRS projects it will have logged a $158 million gain from its derivatives portfolio by the June 30 end of fiscal 2010— with $5 million derived from its swaptions, CDS and interest rate swaps positions—and just a fraction of its projected $627 million total return.
A significant portion of TRS’s OTC derivatives are linked to interest rate swaps and those are tied to either the London Interbank Offering Rate or Euro Interbank Offering Rate. Interest rate swaps stipulate for every basis point tick upward in the LIBOR or EURIBOR, the fund is forced to pay out an interest rate that is two basis points higher. This is why the notional value of TRS’s U.S. dollar- and international-based interest rate swaps were in the red by $361.4 million at the end of March.
TRS’ portfolio also includes a large number of swaptions—or the right at a future time to enter into a swap position—which showed a loss of $14 million as of March 31. In addition, the fund sold approximately $154 million worth of CDSs guaranteeing the debt of dozens of companies, countries and states, among them American International Group Inc., GMAC, Panama, Mexico and California. (See graphic).
A large part of TRS’s international-based interest rate swaps positions are linked to the Brazilian Interbank Deposit Rate and Euribor in a bet that inflation would stay low in Europe but rise in emerging markets.
Rosenthal, who said TRS appears to be betting that long-term Treasury yields will greatly increase, is incredulous that the fund even has this view. “Their job is not to play the [Treasury] yield curve,” Rosenthal said. “It’s not their job to have that view.”
Swaptions, Euribor exposure, curve trades? What the hell happened to buy and hold. Does TRS really expect to survive this, when there are sharks like Goldman who know every single trade the TRS has on, and one day, sooner rather than later, will destroy it, but not before margin calling it to death in the process.
The logical question of who the hell is supervising this slow motion train crash surprisingly has no answer:
Section 1-109.1. of the Illinois Pension Code states it is the duty of the board of trustees of a retirement system or pension fund to appoint fiduciaries to manage its assets—including the power to acquire and dispose of any assets—as well as assign others as fiduciaries to oversee activities other than asset management.
TRS said it makes day-to-day operational decisions concerning strategic asset allocation, portfolio structure and manager selection, but cedes all of its investment decisions, within TRS parameters, to professional money managers, a list some 60 names long that includes Goldman Sachs Asset Management, JPMorgan Investment Management, Northern Trust Co. and State Street Global Advisors.
When asked which managers were responsible for the pension fund’s derivatives portfolio, Urbanek, the Illinois TRS spokesman, said OTC derivatives positions are scattered across each asset class because they are “complementary positions” within each portfolio.
According to its investment policy, TRS encourages diversification of assets and “prudent” risk taking because these strategies align with its long-term investing goals. “Increasing risk is rewarded with compensating returns over time.”
“They’re not maintaining effective internal controls,” Partnoy said. “Is it prudent risk-taking to write CDSs on Brazil?”
At the end of the day, it appears the fund is doing nothing illegal by essentially offloading front-office duties to Goldman, which of course is happily trading in advance of the fund, to whose books it likely has full exposure, to benefit its own prop trading desk, and reward its own shareholders first and foremost: 63 out of 63 profitable trading days anyone?
The bottom line, experts say, is that there is no language in the Illinois pension code that prohibits pension funds and retirement systems from buying or selling OTC derivatives as an investment method. In the event of catastrophic losses, lawsuits would be filed against the fiduciaries, but ultimately taxpayers would be left holding the bag.
And here we see where the next layer of catastrophic systemic collapse will come from: the multi-trillion pension system, which is now invested in the riskiest imaginable products, and whose existence is contingent on a market and economy, both priced to perfection. The Fed is surely aware of this, and will do everything in its power to prevent a catastrophic collapse. Yet the Fed always loses the battle at the end of the day. And if Americans were angry the last time they had to bail out bankers, just wait until it becomes obvious that these very banks blew up the pensions of tens of millions of Americans only so that the very same banks could enjoy at least one more year of record bonuses. It is not obvious where the next crash will happen. And it is certain that nothing will be done, as facing the problem would mean recognizing the massive losses already facing the pension system. And that would be the dominoes that forces yet another round of inevitable mark-to-market, and bank implosions. The timebomb is now ticking and there are merely seconds left before it goes off. We have been warned, and will do nothing to stop it.