Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Public Pension Thanksgiving

A Public Pension Thanksgiving

About ten years ago, my staff and I decided to have an old fashioned Thanksgiving lunch.  Collectively, we were thirteen folks who had a combined salary of $850,000 and managed about $65 billion for the State of North Carolina. Before we get to Thanksgiving lunch, I am happy to report that the investment staff has better quarters and higher salaries than they did a decade ago.  However, I’m sure there’s some other part of State Government occupying our old space and being paid paltry wages.
Rebranding (2010)

About 10:30 the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Steve Eubanks, a senior member of our investment team, and I set up a couple of folding camping chairs in the parking lot and fired up the gas under Steve’s turkey fryer.  Ever mindful of the state’s strict work rules, we also brought a stack of responses to one of our RFPs, so we’d have work to do while the turkey cooked.  Within about 30 minutes, the smell of turkey was wafting across the buildings of State Government, and all sorts of people were gathering to watch us read investment materials.

Eventually, we hauled our turkey back into the building and got into an elevator.  The aroma mesmerized the other passengers in the elevator, although they could not see our bird.  As per usual, all the lights in the elevator were broken.   We brought the turkey into our conference room, where the staff had laid out a huge spread of vegetables, potatoes, and deserts.  We had some excellent chefs.

You need to know some of the finer points of our conference room.  First, if you gazed upward, the ceiling was gaily festooned with light brown blotches.  The blotches would have been dark brown, except that the state had a mold elimination program which involved spraying the brown patches with white paint every six months or so.  Your dress for our lunch depended entirely on where you sat in the conference room.  If you were on the far side by the windows, you’d want be wearing a holiday sweater or even a coat.  The vestiges of a hurricane had gone through Raleigh a decade earlier and destroyed all the gaskets in the windows.  As a result, air gushed into the room even with the windows closed.  In fact, when we got a big thunderstorm, we had to put plastic over our computers because the rain would soak our offices.  Those seated on the interior of the conference room were most comfortable in summer attire as the heat had one setting, sauna.  This is where we ate Thanksgiving lunch.  It’s also the room where we listened to billionaire hedge fund managers making their pitches.

We drank a lot of iced tea at that lunch, and in due course, we needed to visit the restrooms.  The restrooms competed quite favorably in terms of odor and cleanliness with those found in New York Port Authority Bus Terminal in the 1970s.  Fortunately, our boss, the State Treasurer arranged to have prison laborer come about once a month to scrub the toilers and urinals.  Whenever a money manager asked to use our rest room, we sheepishly pointed him down the darkened hall to our indoor latrine.  As you can tell, we had a light bulb shortage.  At one point, we also ran out of paper.  One of our managers heard about our paper famine and shipped a ream by overnight mail.

In those days, a number of the members of our team needed to get back to their desks fairly quickly.  Running a $65 billion pension plan wasn’t their only job, and according to state rules, they needed to get in their hours.  In order to make ends meet, these folks had to be on time for their evening shift at part-time jobs at Home Depot.  While the investment team in Raleigh now makes more money, I am sure that there are still many state and local employees who have to work second jobs, especially during the holidays.

I give thanks to my former colleagues, some of who are still hard at work at the pension plan.  It was an honor to work with them and share Thanksgiving lunch.

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