Vanguard Group founder John Bogle earlier this month joined Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz, other elected officials, and a million online petitioners in urging Securities and Exchange Commission chair Mary Jo White to wake up and reinstate a proposal to "require all publicly traded companies to disclose political spending information to their shareholders" and the public, as Butkovitz put it.
The controller has put a resolution up for consideration by the city pension board, on which he sits, for its meeting Sept. 25.
Made me wonder where Philadelphia's financial watchdog stood on the question of political donations by the city's own money managers.
Under federal law, firms that manage city funds can't contribute directly to city officials. But as noted in this space Sept. 1, national political committees tied to Gov. Christie and other New Jersey politicians of both parties have, apparently quite legally, collected donations from people who work for hedge funds that manage state money.
Christie's people insist this has nothing to do with the fact that the state has increased its investments in high-fee hedge funds run by billionaire investors and other "alternative investments" that are supposed to make money even when stocks fall.
Unfortunately, "alternatives" lost money instead of profiting when stocks collapsed in
2008; since then they have trailed the recovered stock market, leaving taxpayers to wonder why governments buy those expensive investments at all, if not to raise campaign funds.
The Montgomery County Commissioners went a step further last year when they fired private managers and put most of their pension assets into Bogle's low-fee Vanguard stock and bond index funds, plus a slice in Montgomery County-based SEI Corp.'s "alternative" funds.
The first year's results are in, and Commissioners Chairman Josh Shapiro says he's pleased. Montco earned 16.2 percent on its pension returns for the year ended June 30, after paying Vanguard and SEI fees that Shapiro said totaled less than half what the county used to pay private managers.
Philadelphia's pension system, which continues to hire a constellation of "alternative" funds, plus stocks and bonds, did almost as well, returning 15.6 percent.
To be sure, city and county returns trailed the surging U.S. stock market. But pension funds won't buy just stocks: They also want low-yielding bonds and other assets, even alternatives, so they make a little money (or at least lose less) even when stocks tank.
Do Philadelphia's private pension managers also make donations to national political committees whose members have some juice with the local politicians who appoint the pension boards?
While he's beating the bushes for corporations to disclose their political donations, maybe Butkowitz will shed some light on that question, too.