Public Pension Profiles: Seattle City Employees’ Retirement System (SCERS) CIO, Jason Malinowski
“From more of a macro perspective, we've thought a lot about how our liabilities should impact our investment strategy,” said Malinowski.
By Lizzy Lees, NCPERS
As part of an ongoing series of public pension executive profiles, NCPERS spoke with Jason Malinowski, Chief Investment Officer of the Seattle City Employees' Retirement System (SCERS).
Please note: This interview has been edited for clarity. If you would like to participate in a public pension profile interview, please contact email@example.com.
Tell me a little about the Seattle City Employees' Retirement System and the members you serve.
Seattle City Employees' Retirement System, which we refer to as SCERS, exists for the benefit of City of Seattle employees who are non-uniformed (so excluding firemen and police). There are almost 20,000 members in total including active members, retired members, and deferred members.
What drew you to working for SCERS and how did your previous experience as Managing Director, Head of Risk and Quantitative Analysis for Alternative Investments at BlackRock prepare you for your current role?
I've had a lifelong interest in the public sector and public service, but I found myself in an investment role by happenstance. I was working at BlackRock and actually went to an evening graduate program to get a Master's in public policy, thinking that I was eventually going to move into a public policy role.
I was living in Seattle at the time working for BlackRock, and SCERS was looking for their first CIO. It really felt like a great match of my public sector interest and my experience in investments, so that's what drew me to the career. It's been fantastic and fulfilling as I'm giving back to the community in which I've lived for nearly 20 years now.
How have SCERS' investing strategies shifted since you joined in 2014?
It has changed incrementally—there was a lot of great work that was done prior to me joining. We have done a couple of changes for asset allocation. We have included new asset classes, such as infrastructure and credit fixed income. We've also done some things within asset classes. We've been in the process of globalizing our real estate allocation, as well as shifting to a global public equity portfolio. I think those are some of the micro asset class concepts.
From more of a macro perspective, we've thought a lot about how our liabilities should impact our investment strategy. And that's been a lot of work with our investment consultant, and others, to try to progress in that area.
In 2021, you co-published a white paper on liability aware investing for public pensions. Can you share what the paper is about?
We have the benefit of a great investment advisory committee that the Board appoints who are all experts in investments. They brought up this idea several years ago that we exist to meet our liabilities (retirement benefits) to our members, but we could do a better job of actually thinking about how those liabilities impact our investments. It's kind of an obvious question, but an interesting question as well, because public pensions mostly think about their assets when investing, and they think about asset volatility as the risk that they face.
We worked with JP Morgan Asset Management to write a paper that lays out this framework. Generally speaking, it's that the assets of a pension system and its liabilities tend to be correlated. When you have periods like 2022, when your assets are declining in value, that tends to correspond with periods where expected returns are increasing. And because expected returns are used to discount pension liabilities, your liabilities are also decreasing (and vice versa when assets increase). So if you understand this positive correlation with assets and liabilities, it can make you better understand the performance of your system and it could help with investment strategy.
The general takeaway is that a pension that has long-lived liabilities should invest its portfolio in long-lived assets (like equities, real assets, or long duration bonds) and avoid short-lived assets.
As a faculty advisor for the 2023 Chief Officers Summit, what are you looking forward to most at this year's event?
This is the one event that is really created by, led by, and composed of peers. So I'm looking forward to spending time with my peers and listening to a set of topics that my peers have helped generate—I think that those two things are invaluable. I've already learned so much from my peers, both from their experiences, as well as the market trends and investment strategies that they're looking at.