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Statehouse beat: Pershing Square has its issues

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As hedge funds go, billionaire Bill Ackman's Pershing Square Capital has made financial news headlines of late.The fund is making two billion-dollar bets: that troubled retailer J.C. Penney will not only turn things around, but will thrive; and that Herbalife, the distributor of nutrition and skin care products, will collapse.Which has put the hedge fund under pressure, since neither assumption is playing out.Pershing Square has shorted $1 billion of Herbalife stock, under Ackman's assertion that the business model, which relies on local salespersons and distributors, is a "sophisticated pyramid scheme," and will either collapse or be subject to intervention by the Federal Trade Commission.The hedge fund also bought a big chunk of JCP stock, giving Ackman leverage to replace the retail chain's CEO.The problem for Ackman is that JCP continues to struggle, with its stock price down more than 25 percent for the year, and Herbalife is thriving, with stock prices up 15 percent year to date.Which would be of minimal interest for West Virginia, except for one thing:According to its March quarterly report, the state Investment Management Board owns 30,000 shares of Pershing Square, valued at $38.4 million.According to the investment objective, the holdings in Pershing Square are "to invest in long and short investment opportunities that exhibit significant valuation discrepancies between current trading prices and intrinsic business value."According to the report, IMB is locked into the investment until September, and then can begin quarterly redemptions, with 65 days' prior written notice. IMB Executive Director Craig Slaughter said he's aware of the issues with Pershing Square."It's still in play," he said. "I'm really not going to offer an opinion on whether it's a good or bad strategy."He noted that by definition, hedge funds are more aggressive, and therefore more risky investments.Despite the stumbles, Pershing Square is still earning a net return of about 6 percent, so it's not losing money at the moment, even though it's underperforming in the stock market.Even in a worst-case scenario, to put the state's holdings in Pershing Square in perspective, the IMB manages more than $13 billion of investments, primarily for state-run pension funds, with more than $1.2 billion alone invested in various hedge funds.
***For the first time I can remember in nearly 24 years of covering the state Ethics Commission, the commission cancelled its May meeting for lack of a quorum.That left some important issues hanging, including a question of whether a county's chief deputy may also serve as the county's 911 director, a request presumably from the Kanawha County Commission regarding chief deputy, and former sheriff, Mike Rutherford.Also on hold is formal approval of an employment exemption to allow former Tomblin chief of staff Rob Alsop to seek private-sector employment. (Although he was granted a temporary exemption in April.)The bigger concern is that the 12-member commission has been operating with three to four vacancies for some time. (Seven members are required for a quorum.)While finding people willing to serve on state boards and commissions is one of the biggest headaches for the governor's office, the Ethics Act makes filling vacancies on the commission particularly complicated:
No more than seven members may be from one political party; no more than four members can be from any one congressional district. Then, two members must be former legislators; two must have held full-time elected or appointed positions in state government; one must have been an elected county, municipal or School Board member; one must have been a full-time county or municipal employee; two must have been full-time employees of state, county or municipal boards, commissions or Public Service Districts. Finally, four members can be from the public at large.No wonder they're running short-handed.***Finally, there may be a new director (Greg Melton) in the General Services Division, but that doesn't mean all is calm at GSD.The latest hijinks occurred this past Monday, when HVAC technician Dave Williams reported for work at Building 4, the Division of Corrections building on California Avenue, and found that the padlock to a storage room containing expensive HVAC equipment and tools had been cut off, and that the room had been left unsecured.Williams reported the incident to Protective Services, the Capitol Complex police -- unaware that a GSD employee had snapped the lock over the weekend to access equipment needed to make a routine repair, and had left a voice-mail message for manager Dave Parsons explaining what had occurred.Things were sorted out, and Protective Services officers were assured no break-in had occurred.GSD conducted an inventory review to verify that nothing was missing from the storeroom, while Williams reportedly got a chewing out for calling in the Capitol police.Ultimately, I'd say what they had there was a failure to communicate ...Reach Phil Kabler at or 304-348-1220.
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