Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Looting of America: How Wall Street Fleeced Millions from Wisconsin Schools

Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace

By Les Leopold

Wall Street investment houses went after the $100 billion saved in school-district trust funds like Whitefish Bay's, and made a killing.

The following is an excerpt from Les Leopold's new book, "The Looting of America" (Chelsea Green, 2009).

The Hooking of Whitefish Bay

The great economic crash of 2008 tore right through Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, population 13,500—though you'd never guess it from looking around town.

Located just a few miles north of Milwaukee, this golden village exudes the hopeful self-confidence of the early 1960s. Whitefish Bay's stately mansions offer breathtaking views of Lake Michigan from cliffs that rise a hundred feet above the shoreline. As you head inland on its tree-lined streets, the houses slowly shrink back into sturdy, middle-class neighborhoods. The stores on Silver Spring Drive, its main shopping strip, have survived despite fierce competition from the nearby Bayshore Mall (a self-contained ultramodern shopping village with faux streets, a faux town square, and real condos). Whitefish Bay also supports an art deco movie theater that serves meals while you watch the show, and a top-notch supermarket, fish market, and bakery. Nothing is out of place—except you, if you happen to be brown or black. Whitefish Bay is 94 percent white and only 1 percent black. There's a reason the town's unfortunate moniker is White Folks Bay.

Yet this white-collar town voted for Obama—and has always voted for its schools, which are considered among the best in the state. Its residents' deep pockets supply the school system with all the extras: In 2007, $700,000 in donations provided "opportunities, services and facilities for students." The investment has paid off. An average of 94 percent of Whitefish Bay's high school graduates go on to college immediately. And the school dropout rate is less than half of 1 percent.

The school district takes its fiscal responsibilities seriously. It has set up a trust fund to pay benefits, primarily health insurance, for retired school employees. When these benefits (called "Other Post-Employment Benefits" or OPEB) were originally negotiated, the expense was modest. But then health care costs exploded. What's more, accounting rules now require that school districts amortize these costs and post them on their books as a liability each year. Whitefish Bay, like many other school districts, became worried about how to meet these liabilities.

Whitefish Bay is a town full of financially sophisticated residents, including its school managers. They sought to pump up the OPEB trust fund quickly so they could keep their promises to retirees. As responsible guardians of the town's resources, they looked for the highest rate of return at a minimal risk to the fund's principal. As Shaun Yde, the school district's director of business services, put it, the goal was to "guarantee a secure future for our employees without increasing the burden on our taxpayers or decreasing the funds available to our students to fund their education."

Meanwhile, Wall Street investment houses had set their sights on school-district trust funds like Whitefish Bay's. They hoped to persuade districts to stop stashing this money—valued at well above $100 billion nationwide in 2006—in treasury bonds and federally insured certificates of deposit (CDs). Wall Street's "innovative" securities could provide higher returns—not to mention more lucrative fees for the investment firms.

So an old-fashioned financial romance began: Supply (Wall Street's hottest financial products) met Demand (school districts seeking to build up their OPEB trust funds). It looked like a perfect match.

In the Milwaukee area, Supply was represented by Stifel Nicolaus & Company, a venerable, 108-year-old financial firm, which promised to put "the welfare of clients and community first" as it pursued "excellence and a desire to exceed clients' expectations . . ."

As a national firm based in St. Louis, Stifel Nicolaus was fortunate to be represented in Milwaukee by David W. Noack. According to the New York Times, "He had been advising Wisconsin school boards for two decades, helping them borrow for new gymnasiums and classrooms. His father had taught at an area high school for 47 years. All six of his children attended Milwaukee schools." School boards repeatedly referred to him as their "financial advisor"—a label he never refuted.

In 2006, Mr. Noack, an avuncular, low-key salesman (he preferred to be called a banker), urged the Whitefish school board and others in Wisconsin to buy securities that offered higher returns than treasury notes but were just about as safe. He had recently attended a two-hour training session on these new financial products, so he was confident when he assured the officials that they were "safe double-A, triple-A-type investments." None of the investments included subprime debt, he said. And the deal conformed to state statutes, so the district would be erring on the conservative side. In fact, Noack said, the risk was so low that there would have to be "15 Enrons" before the district would be affected. For the schools to lose their investment, "out of the top eight hundred companies in the world, one hundred would have to go under."

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