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Of Trump, Saudis, and a $500-million bet by Pennsylvania teachers' pension fund

One of the biggest investments ever contracted by Pennsylvania’s biggest public investment pool, the Public School Employees Retirement System, seems to be stuck in limbo.

The Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa.
The Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa.Read moreMatt Rourke

One of the biggest investments ever contracted by Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees Retirement System seems to be moving forward in slow motion.

It has been almost a year since the teachers pension fund agreed to invest $500 million in Blackstone Infrastructure Partners fund that wants to finance megaprojects to build roads, bridges, and ports. And, it has been more than a year and a half since President Donald Trump joined Blackstone CEO (and Abington native) Stephen Schwarzman to promote the fund on a trip to Saudi Arabia.

Still, the retirement system’s big commitment remains untapped, as Blackstone fund is yet to make any big investments, and keeps trying to raise more money.

“There have been no capital calls to date,” said PSERS spokesperson Evelyn Tatkovski Williams earlier this month, 11 months after the retirement system’s board approved the deal. She referred questions to Blackstone, which has collected an average of more than $40 million a year in fees and shared profits from investments by PSERS and the state workers' pension fund (SERS) since 2006 in return for managing state assets.

The retirement system that serves about 600,000 current and former public school employees, has nearly $57 billion worth of assets under management. It has an unfunded liability — money needed if all eligible employees choose to retire — of more than $44 billion.

An Inquirer review in early 2018 showed that Blackstone typically returned Pennsylvania’s pension systems less than their investments in U.S. stock-index funds, as did most of the private-equity and real estate funds that pensions buy in an attempt to supplement returns.

By signing up early for the Blackstone fund, PSERS won a discount — “a fee break of 10% for the life of the investment and a first-close discount of 25% for two years,” according to the PSERS resolution approving the sale posted on the system’s website.

But Pennsylvania’s discount wasn’t the biggest Blackstone granted. The Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia got a bigger discount than the Pennsylvania teachers.

Because the Saudis agreed to invest billions — not just hundreds of millions like Pennsylvania — they were given what Bloomberg L.P. reported was a basic 15 percent management-fee discount, plus an early-investment discount — plus “additional discounts based on a percentage of the revenue the fund generates” from the largest of its other investors — PSERS and other clients.

In effect the Saudis' lower fees are “subsidized” by PSERS and other U.S. investors, Bloomberg concluded. Blackstone contends that “fee reductions are customary” for “investors of scale.”

The Saudi kingdom’s public reputation has been tarnished during the past year by reports documenting hunger, destruction, and civilian deaths in its war against rebels in neighboring Yemen, and for the controversy surrounding the alleged slaying of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government personnel at a Saudi diplomatic office in Turkey. PSERS had no comment on any concerns about working with the Saudis.

Are PSERS members and trustees concerned about investing in a Saudi-dominated fund? PSERS spokesperson Evelyn Williams said the system wouldn’t comment, and directed questions to Blackstone, which sent me a brief statement: “Blackstone has sole and absolute control of Blackstone Infrastructure Partners as is the case with all other Blackstone funds," no matter where the money’s coming from.

One of the Saudi’s top investment advisers is a familiar face in corporate America. Andrew Liveris was hired as an adviser to the Saudi national fund that invested with Blackstone last summer, soon after he retired as chairman of DowDuPont (he was longtime head of Dow Chemical Co.) before its pending split into three companies.

“We should always stay engaged in the world,” Liveris, a native of Australia, said in a talk before a packed house of University of Pennsylvania students last year with his friend, Australian native Geoff Garrett, the Wharton School dean. At that time, he said he looked forward to the expansion of a U.S.-style consumption-based economy in more developing countries.

Presumably Liveris expects that will include Saudi Arabia, as its wealthy regime invests oil profits in U.S. and other foreign infrastructure projects, with help from Pennsylvania and other American investors who have to pay a little more in exchange for investing alongside the Saudis, at least with Blackstone.