The following letter was sent to members of the Joint Revenue Committee, Gov. Mark Gordon, Treasurer Curtis Meier and Chief Investment Officer Patrick Fleming in response to a presentation Fleming made about a WyoFile story package. — ED.

 

Dear Members of the Joint Revenue Committee,

I applaud the committee for dedicating an hour Monday, Aug. 24 to the consideration of Wyoming’s investment returns and the system by which our sovereign wealth funds are managed. 

As you know, investment income from our savings is enormously important to the state’s revenue picture. Yet, vanishingly few officials, let alone rank-and-file citizens, are aware of the conditions — statutes, policies, goals and constitutional provisions — that bind our strategy, or the downstream consequences of that system. 

WyoFile’s four-part series was a meticulously researched and reported good-faith effort to bring that information to light. That it prompted such attention from your panel was gratifying.

I am disappointed, and frankly a bit astonished, that Chief Investment Officer Patrick Fleming spent most of the time defending his personal performance. Mr. Fleming is highly regarded by his colleagues — esteem that I suspect is hard-earned and well-deserved. It is my understanding that he has made numerous structural and operational improvements to the office during his tenure. It’s difficult to imagine that Wyoming might attract a more qualified civil servant to the role and it is my personal opinion that we’re lucky to have him.

I was, however, troubled by the content and the rhetorical approach of his presentation Monday. 

As he pointed out, our reporting did include one regrettable error. The author, Ben Gose, mistakenly conflated Barclay Investments with Barclays Bank PLC and his editors, myself included, failed to catch it. We’ve published a correction and would have gratefully done so earlier had it been brought to our attention.

Beyond that, Monday’s rebuttal was rife with inaccuracies, unfounded accusations and obfuscation. A few examples:

On page 15 of the report he presented, Fleming states, “The author makes numerous false statements about the level of stock ownership of the state’s funds. He writes that only US large cap stocks are equities. The state has defined equities to include all equities or stocks.” 

This is simply untrue. We made no such statements. The package carefully distinguishes between U.S. equities and the “equity-like investments” that fall broadly under the treasurer’s office definition — a fact that’s readily evident to a reader.

Fleming decried as “blatantly false” claims that any official ever told him to realize a gain. I have no reason to disagree. That’s why we didn’t publish anything of the sort. 

What the author wrote … “In other words, Fleming, the state’s chief investment officer, has bizarre budgeting power that he never requested — if he had, say, sold three real-estate funds with unrealized gains of more than $136 million by the end of June, legislators would have had that much more to spend.” 

… is accurate and consequential. Because the state is only allowed to spend investment income (interest income, dividends and realized capital gains), the management decisions of the state’s unelected investment team have significant impacts on what revenue is available for legislative allocation and when. 

The second story in the series states, “Wyoming must churn investments because without regular realized gains, little income exists to distribute to the Legislature.”

We stand by that statement. This is not about questionable behavior, nor is it an accusation; it’s simple math. When you couple today’s low-yielding environment with Wyoming’s restrictions on what can be spent and our 5% spending policy, it quickly pencils out that the state must regularly realize gains to balance the equation.

We did not state, or suggest, that this is Fleming’s fault or that it has resulted in questionable behavior. It may not be a “fault” at all. It is, however, something that the public has a right to know and something policy makers need to be aware of. 

According to Fleming’s presentation: “The author even concedes that the state’s returns would have been 1.1% higher if we were allowed to invest in a 60/40 portfolio therefore eliminating the gap in returns (excluding all other considerations).”

This is a misrepresentation of our reporting and a misstatement of the facts. 

From the story: “If Wyoming had devoted an extra 10% to equity-like investments (matching the Vanguard fund), performance would have improved by about 1.1% — making up only a third of the performance gap with that fund.” It’s worth noting that the remaining two-thirds of that performance gap cost the state $3 billion, relative to the Vanguard fund, over the 10 years ending June 2019.

I could go on. One expert in the field, in fact, has. This review of Fleming’s presentation by John Hopkins’ Carey Business School Senior Lecturer Jeffrey Hooke — prepared without request by or input from WyoFile — contradicts a long list of Fleming’s arguments, page by page, including accusations that we cherry-picked data and suffered from concept confusion. 

I believe it’s more important, though, to instead address here the troubling central premise of Monday’s presentation: That the performance of Wyoming’s sovereign wealth funds can only be adequately evaluated by — to borrow a phrase from Mr. Fleming — a “finance guy.”

The idea that the machinations of modern finance are so specialized and sophisticated that only its practitioners are qualified to fairly consider the results is extremely dangerous. Such pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain thinking underpinned the 2008 global financial meltdown, to cite just one glaring example of the peril posed by such a culture.

Gose is, as Mr. Fleming pointed out, “obviously not a finance guy.” He is, however, a professional journalist with a quarter-century’s worth of experience, much of it spent observing sprawling charitable foundations and university endowments for such publications as the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Chronicle of Higher Education. 

Instead of using Monday as an opportunity to explore the structural challenges facing Wyoming’s sovereign wealth funds — i.e. the primary thrust of our analysis —  Mr. Fleming chose to spend the committee’s valuable time casting doubt on Mr. Gose’s qualifications in particular, and the efficacy of public oversight in general. That his presentation met not a single challenge or probing question from the public’s representatives, despite its many misstatements and debatable assertions, leads me to fear the approach was effective.

The fact of the matter remains that, according to RVK, the state’s consultants, returns on Wyoming’s funds have trailed those of 85% of a comparable peer group for 10 years. The public deserves to understand why that is. More importantly, Wyoming deserves a good-faith effort to fix whatever problems contribute to such dismal performance. 

Monday’s presentation served neither of those aims. Continued parsing of that presentation’s shortcomings won’t either.

It is my sincere hope that we all use this opportunity to instead examine the structural limitations highlighted both in our reporting and on the last slide of Mr. Fleming’s presentation, and embrace the hard work of improving performance. If there was ever a time when Wyoming needed every penny of potential revenue, surely it’s now.

Thank you all for your attention to this important topic and for your service to Wyoming.

Sincerely,

 

Matthew Copeland

Chief executive & editor

WyoFile

Matthew Copeland

Matthew Copeland is the chief executive & editor of WyoFile. Contact him at matthew@wyofile.com or (307) 287-2839. Follow Matt on Twitter at @WyoCope

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3 Comments

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  1. Unsurprising that those with a vested interest will defend themselves and not look at the objective performance problems of the investments. A large part of the problem lies in investing in non-public investments with huge fees that make participants and others rich while reducing investment return. Blaming the messenger and denigrating those who shed light on poor practices is a time-worn but sadly effective technique. Wyofile has provided an essential service. Thanks!

  2. I refer other readers to the variety of comments on the 4 pieces – a variety that speaks to the importance of WyoFile’s work illuminating and creating meaningful dialogue about Wyoming policy and process. Thank you, Mr. Copeland, Mr. Gose, and WyoFile, for Mr. Gose’s great in-depth reporting and your follow up on this very important story.

  3. Thanks Matt and WyoFile for the excellent response and for the quality of the 4 stories. Please thank Mr. Gose for his hard work and superb reporting, you have done a great service for the State. Fleming’s response is way too characteristic for what passes for public presentation these days, try to blame the reporter, find shortcomings in their credentials and raise barriers to all questions. That the Revenue Committee did not ask any questions is not surprising, it would be hard to find a worse committee in the Legislature. Please keep up the great reporting and your commitments to the truth.