Early bird builds state's coffers

Shannon Litz/Nevada Appeal

Shannon Litz/Nevada Appeal

It's well before 8 a.m. when Stacey Mraz arrives at her office.

That's 8 a.m. New York time, not Carson City time.

"We're on Wall Street time," says her boss, state Deputy Treasurer Mark Mathers.

He said investment decisions must be made early because the best offers go fast. "By 11 a.m. Eastern, you're going to get the stuff nobody else wanted," he said.

"It's very competitive," said Mraz, the management analyst who actually invests state money.

Before that market opens for business, she must figure out how much money the state has each day, how much it will receive, and how much it must pay out. It's her job to invest everything over what's needed each day to try to make the state and a long list of local governments a bit of money.

On an average day, she'll move about $80 million in General Fund money and another $60 million in the Local Government Investment Pool.

It was far more this past Friday because the state had to have the cash to distribute sales tax revenues to Nevada's 17 counties and K-12 education funds to the state's school districts.

Mraz said that knowing those bills were coming, they planned a total of $405 million in investments to mature Friday so that the Department of Taxation and Controller's Office could make those payments. On top of that, she said she bought another $200 million in new investments.

It's far different than the average worker, who probably looks at his or her 401K quarterly, if that often.

"We're minutely," she said.

Mathers said the state's General Fund portfolio totals about $1.5 billion, and the local government money the state manages is an additional $500 million-$600 million. In addition, there's the Permanent School Fund with $300 million.

He emphasized the state's investments are extremely conservative.

"We're not buying stock," he said. "It's about capital preservation. It's taxpayer money and we don't take risks."

That means T-bills and other government investments, certificates of deposit from highly rated banks and some commercial paper - not stocks - from highly rated companies like General Electric and Coca-Cola.

"It's ultra-high capital debt," he said.

While the state investors stay away from most banks, Mathers said Canadian banks are good investments for the state because unlike the United States, that nation's laws don't allow securitizing mortgages.

"Most of them are triple-A," he said. "They avoided all that mess."

Mathers, his staff and Treasurer Kate Marshall herself carefully adjust investment policies when the situation or the rules change.

Mraz said the state projects cash flow well into the future, so it knows how much money will be needed each day, paying special attention to days like Friday when huge bills must be paid.

From a nondescript basement office, the main feature of which is four computer screens, she starts each day by figuring out exactly what the state has in its numerous bank accounts and how much must go out.

Then she starts looking at what's available in the market instruments that the state is allowed to purchase.

It's all done electronically through the treasurer's computer system and Bloomberg, the system used by everyone who deals on the New York Stock Exchange.

The investments range from commercial paper that can take up to 270 days to mature to short-term notes that take just a few days. But each day before buying, she checks the news to make sure the corporation, bank or even governmental entity hasn't run into trouble and been downgraded. The state doesn't buy anything rated lower than A, and it tries to stick with AA and AAA, Mathers said.

But it isn't just the rating. It's also the date each investment will mature so that when the state needs the money, it's available and not locked into an investment. That meant finding a large number of investments that matured this past Friday so the state had the cash to make those big payments to the counties and schools.

Of course, not all large payments are foreseeable. That's why taxation and other state agencies must check with the Treasurer's Office before paying large bills.

"If it's something huge and we're unable to pay it, we call and say, 'Don't send that out,'" she said.

As a side benefit, she said the job, which she has been doing nine years, pretty much exhausts her desire to go on spending sprees with her own money.

"I love my job," she said.


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