by Fergus Hodgson
Director of Fiscal Policy Studies
Back in April, I wrote of Janet Cowell’s conflicts of interest and underperformance in her role as state treasurer. Well, the damning news keeps coming in, as reported by Carolina Liberty PAC, the News & Observer, the Civitas Review, and even the Washington Examiner.
Cowell (pictured) saw fit to invest $26 million of the state’s pension funds into the initial public offering of Facebook. In no time, however, that stock had lost $4 million in value. So too had North Carolina’s state employees, or at least the people left paying for the pensions. Given that state employees expect, and likely will get, their pensions with certainty, such losses will eventually fall on taxpayers.
This particular episode is just a small part of a broader and more ominous problem. The state controller reports unfunded pension liabilities of around $3 billion—a few hundred dollars per North Carolina resident—and that reflects a discount rate of 7.25 percent. In other words, a more realistic discount rate of 4 percent or less would lead to a much higher estimate of liabilities. State Budget Solutions, for example, calculated an unfunded pension liability of $49 billion. Each time the state’s pension funds fall behind that target, 7.25 percent, the unfunded liabilities expand.
It doesn’t stop there. To recoup the Facebook losses, Cowell is leading a class action lawsuit seeking compensation from Facebook and its underwriters, alleging that they misled potential investors.
On face, this case appears to be thin, given the volatile nature such public offerings. More importantly, though, to bring the case, Cowell rejected six North Carolina law firms already on retainer with the state. Instead, she chose two New York law firms, Bernstein Litowitz Berger and Grossmann alongside Labaton Sucharow. They happen to have donated more than $75,000 to Cowell’s campaign since 2008, but of course that had nothing to with the selection.