Harry Markopolos, the investigator who exposed the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, has uncovered a new fraud. The unfunded status of the pension fund of the Boston Transit Authority (the “MBTA”) is $500 million bigger than previously thought, according to Markopolos. This will have a significant impact on the municipal bond market, especially if it turns out that the MBTA’s problems are endemic among similar pension funds.

MarkopolosThe unfunded status of a pension fund is the market value of the assets minus the present value of the liabilities, discounted at an actuarially determined interest rate. For most public pension plans, this number is negative; the liabilities exceed the assets and it is underfunded.

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Although the full details are not yet known, Markopolos said the $500 gap is due to bad investments, fraudulent accounting and unrealistic actuarial assumptions.

Markopolos spoke on June 9 at Northfield Information Service’s 22nd annual summer seminar, held in Newport, RI. Northfield is a provider of advanced analytics to institutional investment managers and wealth managers. Its CEO, Dan diBartolomeo, worked with Markopolos in the Madoff investigation and is helping with the MBTA case.

Markopolos called what is left of the MBTA’s pension a “Tender Vittles retirement plan,” meaning (sarcastically) that its participants would be eating cat food.

The underlying cause of the MBTA’s problems was poor management and oversight. “No good outcomes result when you mix politics and money,” Markopolos said.

The problems began with failed investments in two hedge funds and culminated in the more widespread problems that Markopolos uncovered.

Bernie Maddoff
By Unknown (Stefeyboy at en.wikisource) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Buddy Fletcher

The troubles at the MBTA began in 2012, when it was revealed that it had lost $25 million in an investment in Fletcher Asset Management, a hedge fund run by Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher. The MBTA had been hiding this loss until it was exposed by an investigative reporter from The Boston Globe.

Fletcher had promised guaranteed returns of 12%, similar to Madoff’s sales pitch. It was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme. In addition to the MBTA, three Louisiana pension funds lost $100 million in the scheme.

What made the Fletcher loss so galling, according to Markopolos, was that its chief investment officer, Karl White, had been the executive director of the MBTA pension fund. One year after leaving the MBTA, he convinced it to fund Fletcher.

“There are a lot of Ponzis,” Markopolos said, “and they are stealing customers from legitimate managers.”

Fletcher used the money it raised to invest in a movie, Violet and Daisy, which his brother was making and in a “penny stock” called ANTS, on which it booked a 1,000% return over a 16-day period. At one point, Fletcher reported 127 months of positive returns without a down month; it later revised this to show 14 down months.

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