Tysons Corner awaits a Metro stop that will connect it more closely to Washington, but the sprawling shopping mall is already linked to a place even farther away: Alaska.
The Alaska Permanent Fund, the state’s sovereign wealth fund, owns half of Tysons Corner Center, just one piece of a $38 billion portfolio amassed in the four decades since the state’s coffers started overflowing with oil revenue.
In 1969, Alaska received a $903 million check from the first sale for oil and gas drilling leases on the North Slope. The check was more than five times the size of the state’s annual budget.
The North Slope has turned out to be one of the richest oil areas in the country, and the giant fields known as Prudhoe Bay are on state land. Today, 90 percent of Alaska’s government revenue comes from the oil industry in the form of severance taxes, income taxes and royalties.
But unlike many oil-rich countries and states, Alaska has squirreled away some of its oil riches in a tax-exempt fund for the citizens of the state. The state channels a quarter of its oil and gas royalty payments to the fund. Today, the Alaska Permanent Fund owns shares of about 2,000 public companies, domestic and international bonds, a few hedge fund investments and a vast real estate empire that includes half of Tysons Corner.
“We average 75,000 people a day through the [shopping] center,” said Mike Burns, the executive director of the fund. “I like to remind our partners that that would be the second-largest city in Alaska.”
At a time when most states are scrambling to cover budget deficits, Alaska and its permanent fund are enjoying the fruits of high oil prices and years of prudent investing.
This month, the fund shelled out more than $400 million in cash to buy a 49.5 percent stake in the 42-story North American headquarters of UBS on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Last week, the fund announced the annual dividend it will pay to every Alaska resident this year: $1,174.
Tysons Corner Center, with more than 2 million square feet of space, is one of the fund’s best investments, Burns said. The Alaska Permanent Fund’s half of the property is worth about $800 million, five times the initial investment. The decision two decades ago to move the truck port that was underneath the mall and transform that space into additional retail added value. Replacing J.C. Penney with movie theaters, a food court and new retail space added more.
Now Tysons is poised to benefit anew from the extension of the Metro, which will stop “literally right at our front door,” Burns said.
Plans to develop homes and turn Tysons Corner into a place where people might live as well as shop could enhance the mall.
“ ‘Live, work, play’ they call it in real estate terms,” Burns said. But, he added, the mall’s main purpose will always be shopping. “Peripheral development can enhance the retail,” he said, but “the goose that’s laying the golden egg is the retail, the shopping experience.”
“It’s probably one of maybe a handful of what they call ‘fortress malls’ around the country,” Burns said. “There’s really no place around it to build a competitor. And the demographics are just fabulous.”
The Alaska Permanent Fund has picked up quite a few golden eggs. During the life of the fund, it has received $15 billion from its share of oil revenue and paid out $19.5 billion in dividends while building its portfolio to $38 billion.
As of June 30, it had a $207 million stake in Apple, about three times its initial investment. It held $162 million worth of Exxon Mobil, 48 percent over its cost. Shares of public companies make up 36 percent of its portfolio.
Its real estate holdings are huge — 11 retail, 13 residential, 19 office buildings and 11 industrial parks. The fund owns all of the 748-unit Bent Tree apartment complex in Centreville and half of a Denver-based company that owns 18,000 apartment units around the country, including the Reserve near Tysons.
The Alaska Permanent Fund owns only one building in Alaska: its headquarters in Juneau.
Burns said there is no pressure on the fund to plow more money into Alaska. The statute that created the fund ordained that any investment in Alaska must compete with investments elsewhere. Moreover, he said, the permanent fund is so big that if it invested even in the state’s largest city, Anchorage, it would throw all the property values out of whack.
The fund has made its share of mistakes. It lost $10 million on a currency trade when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. It bought property in southern Tennessee only to watch Arkansas offer incentives for people to move across the river. And as of June 30, it owned $53.5 million of Bank of America, down more than a third from its initial investment, and $4.4 million in the National Bank of Greece, down nearly half.
It stock portfolio has followed the yo-yo market. After touching $40 billion in early 2008, its value plunged to $26 billion at one point before bouncing back.
“It’s been a bumpy road and one I don’t want to take again,” Burns said.
Burns, from Illinois, moved to Alaska in 1984 to become president of Key Bank of Alaska. Eight years ago, he agreed to oversee the fund. He owns a house in Juneau, where he can watch the cruise ships come in.
While unusual for a U.S. state, Alaska’s permanent fund is similar to sovereign wealth funds fueled by oil and gas money in countries such as Norway and in the United Arab Emirates’ Abu Dhabi. Flush with export earnings and foreign investment, China also has a sovereign wealth fund.
“We really don’t have a peer group,” Burns said. “We’re not a pension, where there’s somebody at your front door every month seeking payment. We do pay that dividend each year to the people of Alaska, but that dividend fluctuates.”
The fund pays according to a formula — 10.5 percent of the realized income over the past five years. That means that the rents paid by tenants of Tysons Corner count, but the increase in the value of the property will not until it is sold.
“We pay out what we can rather than what we have to,” Burns said. “Without that liability, we have the ability to look longer-term than most investors. It’s just a huge plus for us.”
The source of all this money, Prudhoe Bay, is starting to run dry. That’s a problem for the United States, which still needs oil supplies, and for Alaska, which depends on oil revenue. So far, high prices have made up for the sagging production levels.
“If you think back, in the early ’90s there was over 2 million barrels a day coming down the pipeline” from Prudhoe Bay, Burns said. “Today it’s about 650,000 a day. So clearly we’re riding a high price. . . . But this is very important to the state of Alaska. It’s their lifeblood. We’ve got to find a way to replace the oil in that pipeline through new exploration and new development.”
But for the permanent fund, the flow of oil is not crucial.
Burns said the fund’s share of oil revenue last year was about $875 million.
“There’s no question that’s a lot of money,” he said. “But our income from investments was $6.9 billion. . . . The success of the fund has much, much more to do with what happens on Wall Street than with what happens on the North Slope.”