ALAMEDA, Calif. — A major newspaper is reporting a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into California’s pension disclosure practices, but the reported subjects of the probe say they haven’t heard a thing from the SEC.
The New York Times, citing an anonymous source, reported Friday that the SEC is investigating California. The story compared the investigation to commission’s charges last summer that New Jersey violated securities fraud laws by failing to disclose to bond investors that it was underfunding its two largest pension plans. The state settled the charges by agreeing to a cease-and-desist order.
The Times story was unclear as to whether the SEC was investigating the state’s main public employee pension plan, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or the State Treasurer’s Office, which prepares bond offering documents. The article also hedged about whether or not the SEC was investigating pension disclosures or already well-known charges of influence peddling stemming from CalPERS’ use of placement agents in making investments.
“No one from the SEC has contacted the State Treasurer’s Office about this purported investigation,” treasurer spokesman Tom Dresslar said Friday.
CalPERS spokesman Brad Pacheco said the system is conducting its own internal review of placement agents.
“We have not been contacted by the SEC about this matter,” Pacheco said in an e-mail, referring to the subject of pension disclosure. “Assuming there even is an investigation.” He said the system’s outside counsel has been in contact with the SEC about placement agents, but nothing related to accounting or disclosure of investment risks.
Dresslar defended the Treasury disclosure practices for California bond sales.
“At all times, for every bond sale, the state has provided bond investors all material information related to pension fund issues,” he said. “We don’t write, and we’re not supposed to write, official statements using a Ouija board. It’s not the place for speculation.”
The Times story referenced a 1999 state law that provided substantial pension increases to state employees. SB 400 was adopted based partly on CalPERS reports indicating the benefit increases could be funded solely from investment returns, which were riding high at the time in connection with the dot-com boom.
Those investment returns were not sustained, and CalPERS investments were hit again by the global financial crisis of 2008. The state’s required annual contributions to system are much higher today than they were a decade ago.
Disclosure practices have changed since then as well, Dresslar said.
“The information we provide about pension funds have evolved over the years as disclosure practices have evolved,” he said. “We provide more detailed information now than we did a decade ago. But that doesn’t mean any investor was misled.”