New York’s about-face on transparency

The $113bn pension system will begin 1 July posting pension fund information online and webcasting its board meetings—a turnaround from Comptroller John Liu’s previous transparency policies.

New York City's $113 billion pension system will begin posting pension fund information online and providing webcasts of pension board meetings 1 July, New York City Comptroller John Liu announced last week.

The new initiative, Pension NYC, will give the public access to information about the New York City pension system including board meetings and agendas, portfolio holdings by money managers, detailed quarterly reports and comprehensive annual reports. Also, pension board meetings will be webcast live and then archived on the comptroller’s website.

It’s good to see Liu opening up New York’s books, but his move may be surprising to some as it’s an about-face from the negative publicity the comptroller received last year.

It wasn’t too long ago that Liu declined to name fund managers the pension system terminated. While staying quiet on decisions that impact investments may be acceptable practice for private pension funds, public officials overseeing public assets are clearly accountable to the public.

In April 2010 Liu announced that he dismissed six managers for “poor performance” but refused to identify them all, even after several news organisations issued Freedom of Information Act requests. Under pressure from media organisations wielding the power of open records laws, Liu finally named the managers in August. The negative publicity lasted longer.

What’s more, Liu campaigned in 2009 promising full accountability and transparency. Last year’s dust-up didn’t do much for that image. Liu serves as investment advisor, custodian and trustee of the pension system.

As Liu sought to keep a tight grip on the New York City’s pension dealings, other cities and states began embracing and promoting transparency.

Last July, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas started webcasting its board meetings in an attempt to increase transparency over how it invests its pension fund. Also, the California State Teachers' Retirement System agreed in 2009 to stream the audio of its board meetings over the internet after moving to its new headquarters in Sacramento.

While Liu’s change of heart is positive, New York has some catching up to do.