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New NC treasurer takes aim at fees paid for management of state pension fund

Posted April 7

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— Everyone worries plenty about retirement.

For more than 900,000 public employees in North Carolina, the state pension plan is what they're banking on.

The fund has grown through contributions and returns on investments, but not nearly as fast as has the rate of fees charged by outside managers.

New State Treasurer Dale Folwell is trying to follow through on one of his biggest 2016 campaign promises to grow and secure the state's pension fund.

Folwell has said he wants to reverse a trend of out-of-control management fees.

In 2000, the state pension fund stood at about $59 billion, and that year, the state spent $41 million for outside fund managers.

By the end of 2016, the fund was up to about $89 billion, but the fees paid by North Carolina had climbed to $600 million. The fund grew by more than 51 percent during that time, but the fees rose by a staggering 1,363 percent.

Folwell says he's working to transition some of the state's assets from outside active managers into less expensive investments.

"We should be willing to pay more for more value, but in most of these instances, we've been paying more for less value," Folwell said. "So, what we're trying to do is reduce the complexity of this plan and build value."

Some of the changes could include moving pension money out of so-called alternative investments and into passively managed index funds.

"What I found is that with alternative investments, we don't own them, they own us," Folwell said. "My role in all this is not to be emotional with these things or political. It's to be mathematical."

Folwell says he's reduced fees by about $20 million since he took office, but he admits that reaching his overall goals may take time.

He also says he plans to lower the state's annual investment benchmark of 7.25 percent because he says the fund rarely hits it.

"Tens of billions of the state's pension plan assets are under these longterm contracts, so fees can't be reduced," he said, adding that stockholders and lawmakers deserve a simpler strategy for longterm growth.

"We're trying to be more realistic about who we are, how large we are, and we're trying to reduce complexity and build value. If you have an increase in life expectancies and you have increased outflows of money and you have lower investment returns or interest rates, you can see why fees are such an important part of this equation."

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