A Giant Pile Of Money
Originally published in the Intercept
A Wall Street Coup
Thousands of Kentucky public school teachers swarmed the state Capitol earlier this year, angry not about low salaries, but about their shrinking pensions. Among their concerns: the high portion of their money that has ended up in the hands of Wall Street in opaque, high-cost products that seem to benefit no one aside from the people who sold them. Rising pension costs helped to send teachers in Colorado into the streets in protest a few weeks later. In the last year, pension woes have also prompted teachers in Ohio and Oklahoma to march. And police, firefighters, and other public employees in Michigan have been staging protests since at least 2016 to preserve their public pensions, more than one-third of which is invested in “alternatives”: private equity, hedge funds, commodities, distressed debt, and other opaque Wall Street investment vehicles.
A “Wall Street coup” — that’s how pension expert Edward “Ted” Siedle describes it. Public pensions across the country now squander tens of billions of dollars each year on risky, often poor-performing alternative investments — money public pensions can ill afford to waste. For all the talk of insolvency, $4 trillion now sits in the coffers of the country’s public pensions. It’s a giant pile of money of intense interest to Wall Street — one generally overseen by boards stocked with laypeople, often political appointees. “Time and again,” Siedle has written, “hucksters successfully pull the wool over these boards’ eyes.”