Pension Funds Boosted By Oil

By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 7, 2008

Soaring fuel prices that are burning a hole in the wallets of consumers are not only benefiting oil companies and Middle Eastern producers. They are also lighting up the investment returns of pensions funds, which millions of ordinary Americans are counting on for their retirement.

California's public employees' pension fund, the world's largest, made its first investment of $1.1 billion into oil and other commodities early last year, and since then, Calpers has seen it soar 68 percent. Fairfax County pension managers have enjoyed a 61 percent return from a similar move over the past 12 months, far outpacing any other segment of the fund's portfolio.

"Our commodity investment has really helped," said Robert L. Mears, executive director of Fairfax County's Retirement Administration Agency. "This year would have been a lot worse."

Other pension funds are rushing to get in on the action as the prices of oil, precious metals, corn, uranium and other vital goods continue to reach record highs. Montgomery County officials are in the process of shifting 5 percent of their $2.7 billion pension fund away from stocks and into commodities.

These funds are part of a tidal wave of investment dollars that has flooded commodity markets in recent years and, critics say, contributed to the run-up in prices.

Investors, including pension funds and Wall Street speculators, have sharply increased their commodity allocations since 2003, from $13 billion to $260 billion, making financial actors an even larger force on these markets than farmers, airlines, trucking firms and companies that buy and sell the physical goods to run their businesses.

Pension funds are among the biggest of these financial investors, according to industry analysts, but the extent of their involvement has not been tallied.

These funds and similar investors buy futures contracts, which determine the price goods will fetch on a particular date in the future. Unlike commercial businesses, speculators have little interest in actually taking delivery of oil or other commodities. Instead, these investors trade the contracts like stocks.

The investments can be very attractive because there are only light restrictions on whether they can be bought and sold using borrowed money. While risky, this can produce enormous returns.

For decades, trading commodity contracts was considered taboo by most pension funds because the market is so volatile and risky. Most fund managers relied on their stock and bond investments to enlarge their pools of retirement money.

That changed after the stock market crashed in 2001. Fund managers realized they needed more diversified portfolios that would perform well regardless of whether stocks did. At the same time, new financial products simplified trading by allowing big funds to buy into commodity indexes, which work like mutual funds, that were run by Wall Street firms, mainly Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

Other investors also began buying commodities, including university endowments, hedge funds and big banks. But their investment strategy has been different than that of pensions funds. Many of these investors use trading techniques to make money when commodity prices both rise and fall, while pension funds mostly try to maximize their return over the long term by betting that oil and other commodities will increase in price well into the future. The approach adopted by pension funds has been a concern for some lawmakers because it pushes up prices by increasing demand for futures contracts.

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