Warning Long Article From New York Times!
“People come up to me in the grocery store and say, ‘How did we get suckered into this?’ ”
— Marc Hujik, of the Kenosha, Wis., school board
On a snowy day two years ago, the school board in Whitefish Bay, Wis., gathered to discuss a looming problem: how to plug a gaping hole in the teachers’ retirement plan.
It turned to David W. Noack, a trusted local investment banker, who proposed that the district borrow from overseas and use the money for a complex investment that offered big profits.
“Every three months you’re going to get a payment,” he promised, according to a tape of the meeting. But would it be risky? “There would need to be 15 Enrons” for the district to lose money, he said.
The board and four other nearby districts ultimately invested $200 million in the deal, most of it borrowed from an Irish bank. Without realizing it, the schools were imitating hedge funds.
Half a continent away, New York subway officials were also being wooed by bankers. Officials were told that just as home buyers had embraced adjustable-rate loans, New York could save money by borrowing at lower interest rates that changed every day.
For some of the deals, the officials were encouraged to rely on the same Irish bank as the Wisconsin schools.
During the go-go investing years, school districts, transit agencies and other government entities were quick to jump into the global economy, hoping for fast gains to cover growing pension costs and budgets without raising taxes. Deals were arranged by armies of persuasive financiers who received big paydays.
But now, hundreds of cities and government agencies are facing economic turmoil. Far from being isolated examples, the Wisconsin schools and New York’s transportation system are among the many players in a financial fiasco that has ricocheted globally.
The Wisconsin schools are on the brink of losing their money, confronting educators with possible budget cuts. Interest rates for New York’s subways are skyrocketing and contributing to budget woes that have transportation officials considering higher fares and delaying long-planned track repairs.
And the bank at the center of the saga, named Depfa, is now in trouble, threatening the stability of its parent company in Munich and forcing German officials to intervene with a multibillion-dollar bailout to stop a chain reaction that could freeze Germany’s economic system.
“I am really worried,” said Becky Velvikis, a first-grade teacher at Grewenow Elementary in Kenosha, Wis., one of the districts that invested in Mr. Noack’s deal. “If millions of dollars are gone, what happens to my retirement? Or the construction paper and pencils and supplies we need to teach?”
The trail through Wisconsin, New York and Europe illustrates how this financial crisis has moved around the world so fast, why it is so hard to tame, and why cities, schools and many other institutions will probably struggle for years.
“The local papers and radio shows call us idiots, and now when I go home, my kids ask me, ‘Dad, did you do something wrong?’ ” said Shawn Yde, the director of business services in the Whitefish Bay district. “This is something I’ll regret until the day I die.”
Whitefish Bay’s school district did not intend to become a hedge fund. It and four nearby districts were just trying to finance retirement obligations that were growing as health care costs rose.
Mr. Noack, the local representative of Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, a St. Louis investment bank, 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.
Mr. Noack told the Whitefish Bay board that investing in the global economy carried few risks, according to the tape.
“What’s the best investment? It’s called a collateralized debt obligation,” or a C.D.O., Mr. Noack said. He described it as a collection of bonds from 105 of the most reputable companies that would pay the school board a small return every quarter.
“We’re being very conservative,” Mr. Noack told the board, composed of lawyers, salesmen and a homemaker who lived in the affluent Milwaukee suburb.