Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Surprising Place for a Run

I have from time to time had the pleasure of commenting on the reporting of Mary Williams Walsh of The New York Times, where she covers pensions, state and local governments, and some other topics. Over the holiday, I read her excellent article, written jointly with Kirk Semple, on the burden that poor investments by the state of Florida have had on local communities. The opening paragraphs:

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — On Nov. 28, Marcia L. Dedert, finance director of this rapidly growing city, called the administrators of Florida’s state-run investment pool to ask whether it was still safe to park her city’s money there. She was hearing talk of urgent withdrawals by others worried about the pool’s investments in debt related to subprime mortgages.

After the pool’s manager told her the money would be all right, Ms. Dedert recalled, she deposited $135 million in bond proceeds. But less than 24 hours later, the administrators froze the pool and blocked withdrawals to halt a full-blown run.

Now the city cannot touch the money. And rest of the $371 million it has in the pool is also off-limits unless the city pays a 2 percent penalty.

Port St. Lucie is among hundreds of local governments in Florida that were drawn to the pool by its air of reliability and the promise of higher returns than banks offered. They now find themselves grappling with the consequences of having their money frozen.

Some have had to borrow money to meet day-to-day obligations. Others have had to shift money around for the time being or consider postponing long-planned projects.

For Port St. Lucie, the timing of the freeze could not have been worse. The city is trying to recreate itself as a center of the biotech industry and had just issued $155 million worth of bonds to lay roads, water pipes and sewer lines in a planned “jobs corridor,” where it hopes to house the companies it is courting from out of state.

I question why localities actually need this service from the state. Given investment amounts in the hundreds of millions, there are any number of banks and financial service companies with whom they could contract directly. People with accounts as small as 0.1% of Port St. Lucie's account get treated very well by financial service companies. Why tie up your money with a state fund that thinks it's doing you a favor instead of going to the professionals who would actively compete for your business?