Trustees’ #@$! Up: Accounting Violations
The Trustees own this “Dust up” in the Desert and the violations of Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) rules-
Dust-up in the desert
Arizona public safety fund is still grappling with a controversy over some real estate investments
By Randy Diamond | June 23, 2014
Staff and board members of the underfunded $7.9 billion Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, Phoenix, continue to deal with fallout from questions about real estate valuations and legal matters involving former staff members who questioned those valuations.
Three portfolio managers, as well as the pension fund’s chief investment counsel, resigned between June and October 2013 over valuation of some of the properties in portfolios managed by Desert Troon Cos., Scottsdale, Ariz.
The FBI has interviewed at least two of the former portfolio managers, asking whether senior management had inflated the value of real estate managed in a joint venture between the pension fund and Desert Troon.
Mark Selfridge, a former portfolio manager, said in an interview with Pensions & Investments that FBI agents questioned him about the valuation issues. Anton Orlich, another former portfolio manager, testified in a deposition taken by the pension fund that he, too, was questioned by the FBI.
James Hacking, the pension fund’s administrator, said in a letter to P&I that the valuations used by PSPRS senior management — Chief Investment Officer Ryan Parham, Deputy CIO Marty Anderson and Mr. Hacking — for the Desert Troon portfolios “were reasonable” and “most accurately reflected” the underlying value of the real estate properties.
A federal grand jury has subpoenaed PSPRS for documents in connection with the FBI investigation.
The pension fund is suing Mr. Orlich, alleging he improperly took fund documents with him when he resigned. Mr. Orlich insists he had permission to take the documents. In addition, Desert Troon filed suit against the four people who resigned from PSPRS, alleging they made false statements to the media, including P&I, defaming the firm and senior officials at the pension fund.
One thing is certain: PSPRS won’t be entering into any other relationships structured like the joint venture with Desert Troon. Pension trustees voted earlier this year to prohibit PSPRS from investing in any new “joint venture real estate investments.”
Despite repeated written requests and phone calls, Desert Troon CEO Daniel Smith did not comment for this article.
PSPRS and Desert Troon formed at least two real estate ventures that remain active today, part of a real estate investment program that Mr. Hacking said in an April 22 letter ”reflected PSPRS’ commitment to investment in the Arizona community.”
The first is DTR1 LLC, which Mr. Hacking said was formed in the mid-1990s. This is the joint venture that Messrs. Selfridge and Orlich said the FBI asked them about.
PSPRS owns between 85% and 100% of each property in the DTR1 portfolio; Desert Troon owns the remainder and manages all of it. The joint venture also contains what Mr. Hacking called “the majority of the … assets” that another real estate money manager, The Pivotal Group, had managed for the pension fund; Pivotal was terminated in 2009.
The second company, DTR1C LLC, was formed in 2009 as a wholly owned subsidiary of PSPRS, the assets of which are managed by Desert Troon. It was formed to assemble, reposition and sell distressed properties; the pension fund is the sole investor. The portfolio includes properties that had been managed by Apex Capital Management which, like Pivotal, had been hurtby the collapse of the real estate market and had poor performance.
The pension fund terminated Apex in 2011 and transferred about $30 million in properties managed by Apex to DTR1C in early 2012. The properties in DTR1C are 100% owned by the pension fund. DTR1C also contains some properties in which Desert Troon gave up its minority interest after the pension fund paid down debt on them, minutes from PSPRS board meetings show.
The assets managed by Desert Troon in both portfolios represented 55.08% of PSPRS’ overall real estate portfolio at the end of fiscal 2008. That dropped to 36.6% at the end of last year.
Overall, PSPRS has made capital commitments and/or investments of more than $550 million with Desert Troon during the 18-year relationship.
Desert Troon manages almost 4.7% of the pension fund’s total assets, according to PSPRS’ June 30, 2013, financial statement.
A report from Bank of New York Mellon (BK) Corp. (BK), the pension fund’s custodian, showed PSPRS’ investments with Desert Troon returned an annualized -6% net of fees on a time-weighted basis for the five-year period ended June 30, 2013. The NCREIF Property index returned an annualized 2.79% for the same period.
Mr. Hacking confirmed the pension fund uses the NCREIF index as a benchmark. But he said for accounting reasons, comparing the returns of DTR1 and DTR1C to that index “will result in material distortions and inaccuracies. Simply put, it is not an ‘apples-to-apples’ comparison.”
The value of the two portfolios Desert Troon managed led to a dispute in 2013 over whether Messrs. Parham and Hacking had used the appropriate appraisal methods during the previous four years.
The three former PSPRS portfolio managers — Messrs. Selfridge, Orlich and Paul Corens — and former Chief Investment Counsel Andrew Carriker cited the valuation dispute as a reason for their resignations.
Mr. Hacking acknowledged to P&I that the four men had disputed the valuation and “resigned, ostensibly over this issue.”
The controversy came to light last year after Messrs. Orlich and Carriker began questioning how PSPRS was valuing the Desert Troon portfolios.
The roots of the valuation dispute go back to 2009. That’s when the pension fund began using a market value for all appraisals. The purpose was to provide “meaningful insight into the value of (the pension fund’s) investments” and “specific asset values” in the preparation of PSPRS’ financial statements, Mr. Hacking said in a letter to P&I. (Until then, a cost basis — what it cost to acquire a property — was used.)
But in 2010, Messrs. Hacking and Parham discarded the market-value-based appraisal process. They agreed to Desert Troon’s request that the pension fund use an investment-value-based approach.
The Governmental Accounting Standards Board requires public pension funds’ real estate holdings to be appraised at market value, using factors such as comparable sales or an income approach using discounted cash flow analysis, said William Holder, a former GASB board member and dean of the Leventhal School of Accounting at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. He is not involved in the PSPRS matter.
For the fiscal year ended June 30, 2012, Desert Troon valued the real estate it managed for the Arizona pension fund using investment value, “to reflect what it fully expected those assets would sell for in the future as the real estate markets revive, especially here in Arizona,” Mr. Hacking said in a July 2013 letter to Arizona Auditor General Debra K. Davenport, requesting that her office evaluate Desert Troon’s valuation methods.
He said Desert Troon used the income approach to analyze future cash flows from the properties, the same method used by independent appraiser Ernst & Young LLC.
But they used different discount rates.
While the auditor general said Desert Troon used a 5% discount rate for lifestyle and retail properties, which were the bulk of the portfolios, discount rates of 7.75% to 20.5% were used for commercial properties.
Ernst & Young, however, appraised every property using discount rates of 7.75% to 20.5%.
The auditor general said the 5% discount rate Desert Troon used for lifestyle and retail properties “may not be consistent with accounting standards.” But the auditor general also said the discount rates used for the commercial properties were ones “market participants would use,” and were appropriate.
As a result, Desert Troon’s appraisals for the year ended June 30, 2012, totaled $303.5 million; Ernst & Young’s appraisals totaled $213.6 million.
Desert Troon’s valuation was used in the pension fund’s financial statements for the year ended June 30, 2012, which led to a dispute the following year among PSPRS investment staff as to what discount rate to use. That disagreement ultimately led to the resignation of the three portfolio managers and the chief counsel.
Mr. Holder said the 5% discount rate was too low to reflect the market value of real estate, as required by the GASB. He said investors in real estate generally use at least 12% to 15% to reflect the speculative nature of real estate investments. He said 5% would be closer to a risk-free rate.
For the fiscal year ended June 30, 2013, Ernst & Young’s valuation was about $82 million less than the approximately $344 million Desert Troon had reported.
Mr. Hacking told P&I that using a market-based valuation would have understated the value of the Desert Troon portfolio by as much as $151 million combined in the two fiscal years ended June 30, 2013.
Valuation issues also surfaced in earlier years. In 2007, the joint venture with Desert Troon purchased Superstition Gateway, a shopping complex in Mesa, Ariz., and tracts of vacant land in other parts of metropolitan Phoenix.
In 2010, the pension fund hired CBRE Group Inc. to appraise the shopping center and land, using PSPRS’ new market-value appraisal policy, Christa Severns, the pension fund’s former external spokeswoman, has said.
Based on the appraisal by CBRE, the pension fund’s entire equity investment of $64.4 million in Superstition Gateway would have to be written down, according to a June 18, 2010, e-mail to Mr. Corens from Desert Troon CFO Daniel Hammons,who questioned the appraisals.
“These values seem criminal,” Mr. Hammons wrote.
That e-mail also said that based on the CBRE appraisal, the pension fund’s entire $31.7 million investment in Terra Verde, a partially completed office park in Scottsdale, would be wiped out.
In an e-mail to P&I, Ms. Severns said pension fund and Desert Troon executives were concerned that the market-based appraisals might have “produced ‘fire sale’ values that would have wiped out the (pension) system’s and DTC’s equity interests in some of those properties.”
“The resulting values could have arguably violated the loan covenants and potentially caused lenders to issue technical loan defaults or at the very least demand principal reductions,” she wrote.
Ms. Severns said after seeing market-based appraisals that showed a severe decline in property values, Desert Troon executives requested the pension fund use the investment-value approach for its joint-venture portfolio.
She said PSPRS’ CIO Mr. Parham then arranged a meeting in the summer of 2010 between Desert Troon and CBRE group officials and both agreed an investment-based methodology should be used to value the properties. And it was.
Mr. Hacking said in his July 2013 letter to the state auditor general that Desert Troon officials had argued in 2010 that it would be unreasonable to report then-current market values for the joint venture, DTR1, since those properties were not going to be sold immediately and could be sold at substantially higher prices in the future.
The properties were ultimately reappraised higher, using investment value, as requested by Desert Troon. The properties — including Superstition Gateway and Terra Verde — were written down by approximately $50 million in 2011.
A 2010 appraisal that valued the properties at about $100 million less using market value was never used. Indeed, for the five fiscal years between July 1, 2009, and June 30, 2013, PSPRS used investment value in appraisals.
In a formal report to the pension fund’s board, Mr. Carriker, the chief investment counsel, contested those valuations. But the board adopted a report signed by Mr. Hacking and PSPRS’ outside fiduciary counsel Marc Lieberman that said the use of investment value calculations was proper.
Last November, the auditor general responded to Mr. Hacking’s July 2013 letter regarding the asset valuation methods, saying the pension fund must adhere to GASB rules of using fair, or market, value.
However, in another section of its report, the auditor general said for the properties in the joint venture, investment value can be used. It said PSPRS, as an investor in the entity that owns the real estate, doesn’t value its investments based on the appraisals but rather on values provided by Desert Troon under the joint venture’s operating agreement.
Because of that scenario, the auditor general quotes generally accepted accounting principles as allowing Desert Troon to estimate the value of PSPRS’ ownership interest. The pension fund used that number.
Mr. Holder, the USC dean, disagreed that PSPRS could report investment value for the Desert Troon joint venture portfolio. He said regardless of whether joint venture real estate assets can be sold at the time they are appraised, the GASB requires public pension funds to list real estate at fair, or market, value.
PSPRS mainly made direct real estate investments with several firms between 1990 and 2008 as the pension fund expanded its investments in Arizona strip shopping centers, office buildings, residential development and vacant land.
Most of the direct real estate investments were in the Phoenix area.
Concentrating investment in one area can be risky because a pension plan could expose itself to the vagaries of that market, said Robert Heinkel, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and co-author of the book, “The Role of Real Estate in a Pension Portfolio.”
While Mr. Heinkel isn’t familiar with the Arizona pension fund, he commented: “It’s real obvious that you want to diversify not just in real estate investments, but any investments. It’s dangerous not to do so.”
When Mr. Parham became CIO on May 27, 2009, the Arizona and Southwest real estate markets had collapsed, which meant such investments the pension plan made had already soured. Pension officials began publicly acknowledging problems in the real estate portfolio that year, board and investment committee meeting minutes show.
Problems with some properties emerged when the pension fund was called on to help Desert Troon repay debt from property investments for both portfolios.
Minutes of a January 2010 PSPRS investment committee meeting show Desert Troon was facing demands from bank lenders requiring immediate repayment of debt on properties, first in the joint venture (DTR1) and later in both portfolios.
When asked how much pension fund money was used to pay down debt on properties managed by Desert Troon, Mr. Hacking said in an e-mail: “We cannot say without research … but we have confirmed that since 2009, (PSPRS) has contributed $93 million to DTR1 and $76 million to DTR1C.“
In some cases, PSPRS was forced to repay the debt because it had guaranteed it would make payments if the joint venture — DTR1 — could not.
The pension fund’s pledge enabled the PSPRS Desert Troon joint venture to get a lower interest rate on loans, according to minutes from a PSPRS board meeting on Nov. 30, 2011.
“The decision to enter into recourse (debt) was made when debt was cheap for joint ventures and the market was doing well, in order to save money,” Don Stracke, a consultant from the pension fund’s general consultant NEPC LLC, was quoted in the minutes as saying. “The situation that has occurred was not foreseen and today we would never agree to recourse debt.”
Mr. Hacking said in a posting on the fund’s website in August 2013 that Desert Troon had done an excellent job managing depressed real estate assets back to health. He cited more than $37 million in real estate sales at that time, two to three times their value in December 2007, he said. He didn’t say how many properties were sold.
Mr. Hacking has said the pension fund intends to sell the properties managed by Desert Troon when the market recovers. For now, most of the properties in the two Desert Troon-managed portfolios remain unsold.
Desert Troon earns fees from PSPRS as its real estate manager, operating partner, developer and property manager as well as when properties are sold. The pension fund paid Desert Troon $12 million in fees in 2012, according to a report compiled by ORG Portfolio Management, the pension fund’s real estate investment consultant. The report concluded the fees were appropriate.
The valuation dispute is just one issue raised by the former employees. They also questioned the lack of quarterly reporting by Desert Troon about investment performance of the portfolios the company manages for the pension fund.
As the Arizona fund’s allocations to Desert Troon increased, PSPRS’ oversight of the manager did not keep up with Desert Troon’s expanding role, said Mr. Corens, who was real estate manager from 2006 to 2010.
Messrs. Corens and Selfridge said in separate interviews that Desert Troon failed to provide quarterly financial reports, which real estate investment consultants say are an industry standard.
The two former PSPRS employees said that while Desert Troon did provide annual performance reporting, that reporting generally was limited to only aggregate data on the overall Desert Troon portfolio. That, they said, made it difficult for the PSPRS staff to determine what pieces of the portfolio were performing well and which were underperforming.
Mr. Hacking in his e-mailed answers to questions, said Desert Troon “has always complied, and continues to comply, with all of its financial reporting obligations under the DTR1 Operating Agreement and the DTR1C Management Agreement.”
This article originally appeared in the June 23, 2014 print issue as, “Dust-up in the desert”.