Buy High, Sell Low

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The Boston Globe has an important piece out on how the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation decided to shift its holdings from bonds to equities, just about the time the bottom fell out of the stock market:

Just months before the start of last year’s stock market collapse, the federal agency that insures the retirement funds of 44 million Americans departed from its conservative investment strategy and decided to put much of its $64 billion insurance fund into stocks.

Switching from a heavy reliance on bonds, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation decided to pour billions of dollars into speculative investments such as stocks in emerging foreign markets, real estate, and private equity funds. …

No statistics on the fund’s subsequent performance were released.

Nonetheless, analysts expressed concern that large portions of the trust fund might have been lost at a time when many private pension plans are suffering major losses. The guarantee fund would be the only way to cover the plans if their companies go into bankruptcy.

The kicker, though, comes from the Bush-era official who oversaw the switchover:

Charles E.F. Millard, the former agency director who implemented the strategy until the Bush administration departed on Jan. 20, dismissed such concerns. Millard, a former managing director of Lehman Brothers, said flatly that “the new investment policy is not riskier than the old one.” …

Asked whether the strategy was a mistake, given the subsequent declines in stocks and real estate, Millard said, “Ask me in 20 years. The question is whether policymakers will have the fortitude to stick with it.”

A finance professor who had previously advised the agency not to make the switch away from bonds compared the move to an insurance company writing policies to cover hurricane damage and then investing the premiums in beachfront property.

Bush was able to do for the PBGC what he tried and failed to do for Social Security.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.
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