The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

October 16, 2012

Crowell seeks second term in bumpty post-2008 world

By Scott Mooneyham for the SNAP

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 — RALEIGH — In the post-Great Recession world, being a state treasurer is no path to wide and lasting popularity.

In North Carolina, the state treasurer is responsible for investing the state’s $75 billion pension fund. Invariably, that means rubbing shoulders with investment bankers and hedge fund managers.

In other words, the treasurer wheels and deals with the same folks that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd derisively refers to as “the masters of the universe,” a collection that includes those whose cockamamie housing-finance schemes helped wreck the economy.

So, it should come as no surprise that Democratic State Treasurer Janet Cowell has had to endure some criticism (a good bit of it from this column) during her first term in office.

Most recently, Cowell took a publicity hit for a pension fund investment in the ill-fated Facebook initial public offering.

In a $75 billion portfolio, the state’s $4.1 million loss may have been next to nothing, but it caused some to question why fund managers would be putting money into something that many sophisticated investors avoided.

In her first term, Cowell, 44, fired her chief investment officer (who was put into that job by her predecessor, Richard Moore) because of ethics questions. The treasurer also provided ill-timed raises to top investment officials while rank-and-file state workers received no pay hikes.

Cowell, though, seeks a second term touting the relative stability of the state pension fund and the state’s good standing when it comes to borrowing money. She has put new ethics policies in place and established new internal controls for better review of investing decisions and policies.

Last year, Cowell set aside potential political risk by agreeing to take on the thankless task of overseeing always-volatile state employees health plan.

Her Republican opponent is a certified public accountant from Elkin, Steve Royal.

Royal, 61, raised eyebrows recently by proposing the creation of a regional currency where North Carolina would join with other states to create an asset-backed currency to use if and when the U.S. dollar began to fail.

Royal described the “auxillary currency” as a “form of insurance.”

Given that North Carolina and other states don’t have any secret stashes of gold or silver laying around, it isn’t clear what that asset would be.

Cowell called the idea far out of the mainstream and a threat to undermine “everything we have worked so hard to build.”

Royal also has said that he wants more pension fund dollars managed internally, rather than allowing the investments to be made by outside managers who handle billions in investments for multiple institutional investors.

Royal comes into the race having never held public office. He had also raised very little money through the middle of the summer.

It may not matter.

With so little voter attention, the race is likely to be a referendum on Cowell’s first term, Royal’s qualifications or lack thereof, or some combination of the two.