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MOSERS Bonuses Revisited

Posted by on June 25, 2009

[This post was originally written for my employer’s blog, Show-Me Daily.]

Jim Winkelmann — who was mentioned recently on this blog for his pithy letter to the Post-Dispatch arguing against the Clayton smoking ban — has had another letter to the editor printed in that paper. This one addresses the contentious topic of bonuses for Missouri public pension managers.

I wrote about this topic before, contending that criticism of the bonuses didn’t make sense given that the fund was (at least on paper) not losing value as fast as the rest of the market. I am now reconsidering, given Winkelmann’s clever point that the MOSERS employees were the ones assigning value to the investments that they reported as having lost less value than the market.

Here is a relevant quotes from the letter:

The MOSERS website reports that its investment policy is to have 25% of the pension portfolio invested in “alternative investments” in the published annual report they are referred to as “limited partnerships”. Even though the balance sheet in the annual report uses the term “fair market value” assigned to these limited partnerships by definition there is no ready market for these investments. […]

With no market for these limited partnerships where do these fair market valuations come from?

I ran into Winkelmann at lunch yesterday, and he commented to me that the problem is similar to that of assigning “market value” to a house appreciating or depreciating … before it’s sold. The fact is that the true market value of a thing is never the amount that you expect to receive — instead, it is the amount that somebody will actually pay.

I don’t agree with the argument that the MOSERS employees’ bonuses were unearned just because the plan lost money. However, the more subtle yet very relevant point that the MOSERS valuation was totally subjective, and assigned by the very people who stood to gain by inflating the number, smacks of perverse incentives.

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