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Alberta learns its Crown investment corporation just lost $4 billion on a bad bet

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Premier Jason Kenney on giving a speech on March 17, 2020. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

Albertans reeling from the shock of a week that's included oil prices so low you have to pay people to haul the stuff away and a mishandled COVID-19 outbreak at a slaughterhouse south of Calgary that sent infection rates soaring were rattled again yesterday by news the province's Crown-owned money-management corporation had somehow managed to lose $4-billion.

Not that the previous 52 weeks have been much better, but if the first week of Jason Kenney's second year as premier highlights anything about his United Conservative Party government, it's that it's not just remarkably incompetent, it's remarkably unlucky too!

In a bombshell scoop, The Globe and Mail revealed Tuesday that the Alberta Investment Management Corp., which is supposed to manage $119 billion for the province's public sector pension funds and about $18 billion that's left in the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, was out more than $4 billion "on what clients are calling a wrong-way bet against sharp swings in stock prices."

Most Albertans woke up to the news yesterday. The bad trade wiped out all of the value generated by AIMCo in the previous five years, noted Opposition leader Rachel Notley, who experienced some tough breaks herself during her four years as Alberta's NDP premier. The loss was the equivalent, as the Globe's reporters noted, to more than a third of AIMCo's 2019 investment income.

I won't belabour the details of the Globe's story. You can read it yourself. Suffice it to say Kenney's spinmeisters have half a point when they complain people like Notley shouldn't be blaming the government for AIMCo's troubles because the corporation is supposed to operate at arm's length.

That's where the bad luck comes in.

Of course, no Crown corporation is ever truly at arm's length from government, even without a control-freak like Kenney at the helm.

But AIMCo was already in the middle of a nasty controversy owing to the UCP's determination to make it illegal for reluctant public pension plan boards ever to drop the company as their investment agency, whether they like it or not, and indicators the government might try to dip into AIMCo funds to prop up the province's languishing fossil fuel sector.

The Globe's reporters noted that the Local Authorities Pension Plan, Alberta's largest public sector pension, "has flagged poor performance as a problem for many years, noting in its most recent report that 'AIMCo has been short of LAPP's value-added expectations for 46 consecutive quarters, or 11 years and six months.'"

Particularly controversial was the UCP's recent decision to force the assets of the well-managed Alberta Teachers' Retirement Fund into AIMCo's coffers, a policy many teachers view as tantamount to outright theft of their retirement savings.

Yesterday, the teachers' union was back at it, pressing the government to repeal the bill that will transfer the ATRF's funds to AIMCo next year. "Teachers invest their own money into their pension plan," said Alberta Teachers Association President Jason Schilling.  "Teachers were not consulted on the takeover and this story further validates our concerns. I am calling on the Government of Alberta to finally listen to teachers and stop the takeover by repealing Bill 22."

But at yesterday's daily COVID-19 briefing, which Kenney government officials regularly hijack to make unrelated announcements, a crabby Premier Kenney made it clear to reporters' he has no intention of doing that.

That's where the incompetence comes in.

This isn't the end of the story, either. Last night, Progress Alberta, which often acts as a thorn in the UCP government’s side, published a report revealing every publicly traded oil and gas company AIMCo has invested in since it got an invest-local directive in 2015 -- "more than $1.1 billion dollars over the past three and half years" -- has seen its share price fall.

"AIMCo has been engaging in this bailout of Alberta's oil and gas industry for several years, losing tens of millions in the process," said Progress Alberta executive director Duncan Kinney. "The answer is not to keep trying to prop up Alberta's oil and gas industry with huge sums of money, but to fund a transition so these companies can adapt and function in a low carbon economy."

As for a $4-billion loss by a money-management company, no matter how well intentioned, that would be a firing offence most places. This is true even if, as AIMCo's spokesperson insisted to the Globe, no internal or external rules were broken.

One would think that would apply to the chief executive as well as the employee who made the decision. Whether that's true for chief executive Kevin Uebelein, hired in 2015, or any member of his executive team, remains to be seen. I do note with interest, however, that AIMCo is seeking a new "results focused" market risk analyst.

Ability to validate historical market data and test backfill methodologies where needed are said to be assets. I'm not sure what backfill methodology is, but it sounds like it might be handy about now!

The anniversary of Kenney's historic election victory was one week ago today. Are you ready for 155 more weeks of this stuff?

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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