Reprint submission: “Blackstone, BlackRock or a Public Bank? Putting California’s Funds to Work”

Blackstone, BlackRock or a Public Bank? Putting California’s Funds to Work

California has over $700 billion parked in private banks earning minimal interest, private equity funds that contributed to the affordable housing crisis, or shadow banks of the sort that caused the banking collapse of 2008. These funds, or some of them, could be transferred to an infrastructure bank that generated credit for the state – while the funds remained safely on deposit in the bank.

California needs over $700 billion in infrastructure during the next decade. Where will this money come from? The $1.5 trillion infrastructure initiative unveiled by President Trump in February 2018 includes only $200 billion in federal funding, and less than that after factoring in the billions in tax cuts in infrastructure-related projects. The rest is to come from cities, states, private investors and public-private partnerships (PPPs) one. And since city and state coffers are depleted, that chiefly means private investors and PPPs, which have a shady history at best.

A 2011 report by the Brookings Institution found that “in practice [PPPs] have been dogged by contract design problems, waste, and unrealistic expectations.” In their 2015 report “Why Public-Private Partnerships Don’t Work,” Public Services International stated that “experience over the last 15 years shows that PPPs are an expensive and inefficient way of financing infrastructure and divert government spending away from other public services. They conceal public borrowing, while providing long-term state guarantees for profits to private companies.” They also divert public money away from the neediest infrastructure projects, which may not deliver sizable returns, in favor of those big-ticket items that will deliver hefty profits to investors. A March 2017 report by the Economic Policy Institute titled “No Free Bridge” also highlighted the substantial costs and risks involved in public-private partnerships and other “innovative” financing of infrastructure.

Meanwhile, California is far from broke. It has over well over $700 billion in funds of various sorts tucked around the state, including $500 billion in CalPERS and CalSTRS, the state’s massive public pension funds. These pools of money are restricted in how they can be spent and are either sitting in banks drawing a modest interest or invested with Wall Street asset managers and private equity funds that are not obligated to invest the money in California and are not safe. For fiscal year 2009, CalPERS and CalSTRS reported almost $100 billion in losses from investments gone awry.

In 2017, CalSTRS allocated $6.1 billion to private equity funds, real estate managers, and co-investments, including $400 million to a real estate fund managed by Blackstone Group, the world’s largest private equity firm, and $200 million to BlackRock, the world’s largest “shadow bank.” CalPERS is now in talks with BlackRock over management of its $26 billion private equity fund, with discretion to invest that money as it sees fit.

“Private equity” is a rebranding of the term “leveraged buyout,” the purchase of companies with loans which then must be paid back by the company, typically at the expense of jobs and pensions. Private equity investments may include real estate, energy, and investment in public infrastructure projects as part of a privatization initiative. Blackstone is notorious for buying up distressed properties after the housing market collapsed. It is now the largest owner of single-family rental homes in the US. Its rental practices have drawn fire from tenant advocates in San Francisco and elsewhere, who have called it a Wall Street absentee slumlord that charges excessive rents, contributing to the affordable housing crisis; and pension funds largely contributed the money for Blackstone’s purchases.

BlackRock, an offshoot of Blackstone, now has $6 trillion in assets under management, making it larger than the world’s largest bank (which is in China). Die Zeit journalist Heike Buchter, who has written a book in German on it, calls BlackRock the “most powerful institution in the financial system” and “the most powerful company in the world” – the “secret power.” Yet despite its size and global power, BlackRock, along with Blackstone and other shadow banking institutions, managed to escape regulation under the Dodd-Frank Act. Blackstone CEO Larry Fink, who has cozy relationships with government officials according to journalist David Dayen, pushed hard to successfully resist the designation of asset managers as systemically important financial institutions, which would have subjected them to additional regulation such as larger capital requirements.

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