PhillyDeals: Pa. pension system shakes up advisers

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Google, whose Chris Dale goes down a slide at the California headquarters, has complicated comedy, some say.

The Pennsylvania State Employees' Retirement System, which is likely to need a lot more taxpayer help in paying $49 billion in future pensions from $26 billion in current assets, has fired and replaced two private firms that had advised it in hiring hundreds of private stock, bond, real estate, buyout, hedge fund, venture capital, and commodities investment managers since the 1990s.

SERS directors, mostly appointed by Gov. Corbett and General Assembly leaders, voted to hire RV Kuhns & Associates Inc. as the fund's general investment consultant and StepStone Group L.L.C. as the fund's alternative investment consultant, and to ditch Rocaton Investment Advisors L.L.C and Cambridge Associates in those respective roles.

SERS chairman Nicholas Maiale, a Center City lawyer, South Philadelphia Democratic committeeman, and Harrisburg lobbyist, thanked Rocaton and Cambridge "for their nearly two decades of service helping the fund build a strong portfolio."

So why fire them?

"The markets, our demographics and the maturity of the fund are all changing, and it is time for a fresh look," Maiale said in a statement. SERS has invested more in short-term assets and less in illiquid private funds as rising retirements have boosted its payouts.

 

It's secret

Connectify, a Center City-based wireless-networking software company founded by CEO Alex Gizis (Penn '95), says it has received an investment from In-Q-Tel, a 12-year-old Virginia-based nonprofit that says it helps finance "innovative technology solutions to support the missions of the Central Intelligence Agency and broader U.S. intelligence community." Past investments include what's now Google Earth.

Connectify, which employs 15, claims "millions of downloads," at $30 a pop, by business users and college students for its software that can turn a personal computer "into a Wi-Fi hotspot at the click-of-a-button."

The CIA money will go to develop a more "powerful and secure remote networking platform" and a connection-aggregation system, says Connectify marketing and social-media chief Raj Haldar.

How many taxpayer dollars did the spooks invest in Connectify? That's secret: In-Q-Tel "does not quantify" its use of public money, spokeswoman Lisa Bader told me in an e-mail.

 

Talk or sue?

Mark Schwartz, the veteran Pennsylvania bond lawyer hired by cash-strapped Harrisburg's City Council to help resist a threatened state takeover that could result in asset sales and job and benefit cuts, has sent Gov. Corbett's general counsel, Stephen Aichele, a letter urging a sit-down with General Assembly leaders instead of litigation.

"You and I can further waste precious resources in a court contest, or direct those resources to remedy the problem," Schwartz told Aichele. "People are frustrated with government that doesn't address problems but instead legislates political 'solutions,' which do nothing other than deliver us to the next crisis." Corbett's office had no immediate comment.

 

On tour

Google Inc.'s YouTube service has made American-style comedy a paying profession around the world, but it has also made it impossible to get paid for recorded shows, forcing performers on the road all the time, says Arab American comic Dean Obeidallah, part of the Arabs Gone Wild tour that will be at Philadelphia's Helium Comedy Club on Sunday night at 6:30 and 8:30.

Comics are always having to explain themselves, and it hasn't gotten easier for Arab Americans 10 years after 9/11, says Obeidallah's fellow headliner, Maysoon Zayid, a New Jersey native who has performed from New York to Texas and Cairo to Ramallah, and does a weekly bit for the Countdown With Keith Olbermann TV show. This is her first Philadelphia show, though her sister, a pharmacist and mom, lives in West Chester.

Obeidallah, a New Yorker, praised the Phillies and complained that being a Mets fan like him "is like being a Palestinian: Every year you think it's going to be your best year. And then it sucks!"

Aren't there political and religious groups that try to shut down secular comedy in Arab countries? "Oh, yes," said Zayid, laughing. "We have those everywhere. In America, they're called 'hecklers.' "

 


Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194 or JoeD@phillynews.com. Follow him @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.