Without taxpayer support, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's $1.6 billion retirement fund would go bust between 2024 and 2036, according to a report by Boston think tank Pioneer Institute.
And that warrants removing a veil of secrecy that has surrounded the fund for years, said Iliya Atanasov, senior fellow on finance at the free market-leaning organization.
Atanasov, in a report released Thursday afternoon, said current employees would then have to contribute at least one quarter of their salaries to stabilize the fund's finances.
"In 2012, employees contributed 5.5% of their pay to the fund. To make the pension plan sustainable without help from the [MBTA], that would have to increase to at least 25%," Atanasov said.
Investment losses have "a rather costly impact on both the commonwealth and the plan's members," and drives home the need to enforce public-records statutes that the uber-secretive retirement fund has sidestepped, Atanasov added.
The report is the second this month from Pioneer Institute highly critical of the retirement fund. The other called on all board members to resign.
A message seeking comment was left with the retirement fund.
Fund executive director Michael Mulhern, meanwhile, reported a 16.2% investment return for 2013 in a statement to his membership. That exceeded the 15.2% return that the bigger state pension funds reported.
The fund, which for years has fought disclosure efforts by invoking its status as a private trust and whose dealings have even been connected in published reports to associates of convicted mass murderer James "Whitey" Bulger, has come under a white-hot glare in the past three months after revelations that it lost a $25 million investment in an apparent Ponzi scheme through a Fletcher Asset Management hedge fund.
Alphonse Fletcher Jr.'s main investment firm, Fletcher International Ltd., filed for Chapter 11 protection in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan in June 2012. Five years earlier, the MBTA retirement fund, upon the recommendation of former chief Karl White, made the $25 million investment in Fletcher. White shortly thereafter took a position at Fletcher.
Richard Davis, a U.S. trustee assigned to the Fletcher bankruptcy, reported in November that the MBTA retirement fund and others were victims "of a fraud defined by the extensive use of wildly inflated valuations, the existence of fictitious assets under management numbers, the improper payment of excessive fees [and] the misuse of investor money."
In its February newsletter to membership, the MBTA retirement fund said it is working with Davis to recover the money. It filed suit last month in Boston's Suffolk Superior Court against two of Fletcher's auditors and a valuation agent who allegedly "enabled Fletcher to present inflated asset valuations upon which the MBTARF relied."
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley are examining the Fletcher transaction. The state legislature's joint committee on public service has scheduled an oversight hearing on the MBTA retirement fund's operations for 11 a.m. Tuesday.
The MBTA retirement fund operates independently of the MBTA, which operates Greater Boston's mass-transit system and has been part of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation since a 2009 reorganization. The "T," as Bostonians call it, is the most leveraged transit system in the United States, with about one-third of every dollar it spends going to pay debt service. The MBTA owes about $5.2 billion in principal.
Pension debate reverberates throughout public finance nationally.
Pension-plan strains on municipal budgets were major talking points in the bankruptcy filings by Detroit and Central Falls, R.I. Rhode Island's 2011 law overhauling pension benefits for state employees and triggered six lawsuits and court-ordered mediation talks, with state officials and unions this month agreeing on a proposed settlement. Activity, or lack of it, toward unfunded pension liability has triggered bond-rating fluctuations in other states, including Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Moody's Investors Service warned in a report late Thursday that California cities Stockton and San Bernardino could return to bankruptcy if they exit Chapter 9 protection without pension relief.
According to Atanasov, the report contradicts assertions by fund spokesmen that the fund can solely meet obligations to its 12,000 retirees and beneficiaries. "Pioneer's prior examination of the financial statements of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority had demonstrated conclusively that the facts do not quite square with this claim; the MBTA and taxpayers are financially liable for any underperformance at [the fund]," Atanasov wrote. "Taxpayers can only be insulated from [the fund's] performance in two ways - by freezing the plan or by fixing MBTA contributions at a given percentage of the members' employee compensation."
Mulhern, while cautioning that the 16.2% investment gain was preliminary, said the retirement fund exceeded several benchmarks last year.
"Overall, the fund's diversified approach continues to provide strong investment returns, particularly in the favorable stock market environment of 2013," Mulhern said in a report to membership.
Atanasov said the retirement fund changed in assumed rate of return for assets, effective Dec. 31, 2011, implying "that the fund has shifted towards a riskier investment strategy, perhaps one including more alternatives such as private equity and distressed assets."
Opaqueness has long engulfed the retirement fund, which has fought efforts by governors William Weld, Paul Cellucci and now Deval Patrick. Last year, a transportation funding bill that Patrick signed included $115 million to cover the MBTA's latest deficit, and required the retirement fund to open its books.
The pension board balked, but the MBTA itself released data that showed 35% of 6,359 people listed retired before age 55 and 17% left while in their 40s. Many in the latter category benefited from a "23 and out" provision under which workers with 23 years of service could retire at any age. The 2009 reorganization nullified that provision.
Legal arguments about disclosure have centered around whether the retirement fund remains a private trust, established as such in 1948 and upheld by the state Supreme Judicial Court in 1986 and 1993, or is now a public concern, given the taxpayer dollars pumped into the system.
The FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office targeted the retirement fund in corruption probes in 1992 and 2000, respectively. A Boston Herald report in 2000 linked the board's business dealings to Francis Fraine, a racketeer and admitted arsonist with alleged ties to Bulger, whom a Boston jury convicted last summer of 11 counts of murder after a sensationalized trial of nationwide interest.