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Alaska's money managers top oil industry in state revenues

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 11, 2014

Even before oil prices plunged in current fiscal year 2015, something interesting happened to Alaska finances in 2014: Oil revenue, long the king, was unseated as the state's top moneymaker.

In fiscal year 2014, which ended June 30, investments led the way, bringing in $8.1 billion for Alaskans. That topped the $5.7 billion that Alaska made from oil and the $2.5 billion it got from the federal government. The remaining $1 billion included assorted taxes and fees.

Total revenue for the year amounted to $17.2 billion, close to an all-time high, according to the Alaska Department of Revenue's closely watched Fall Revenue Sources Book, released this week.

Leading the way in those investment earnings were profits from the $51 billion Alaska Permanent Fund, which earned 15.5 percent, or $6.9 billion, it said.

Meeting in Anchorage on Thursday, the fund's Board of Trustees reviewed recent results with staff and outside consultants.

"You are really firing on all cylinders" following years of strong performance, said Steve Center, with Callan Associates of San Francisco, the trustees' longtime adviser.

Also boosting investment earnings for the state was the Constitutional Budget Reserve, which took in another $1 billion.

But state budget and accounting laws, which differ from standard accounting known as GAAP, or generally accepted accounting principles, mean that much of the state's investment profits were off the table for spending, either legally or practically. Permanent Fund earnings are used to provide popular dividends to Alaskans as well as to inflation-proof the fund, while spending CBR earnings requires a legislative super-majority.

The billions in federal revenues, such as for Medicaid and highways, can generally be spent only on a specific purposes as well.

That means that petroleum revenue, most of which is "unrestricted," is vitally important for funding state services and makes up most of the "Unrestricted General Fund" monies that legislators appropriate each year.

Alaska leaders from Jay Hammond on have dreamed of a day when earnings from savings of petroleum revenues could augment or even replace oil revenues, but those days may be a long way off.

Alaska Retirement Management Board members last week were warned by advisers that investment markets have risen so much lately they may be poised for a fall. Thursday, the Permanent Fund trustees heard similar warnings from various investment experts.

For several years stock prices have been rising faster than measures of their underlying value, such as company sales or profits, said Jason Thomas, director of economic research for the Carlyle Group.

Speaking in Anchorage, he said that's something that can't keep happening indefinitely.

"Prices in the U.S. are too high -- there's no two ways about it," Thomas said.

That doesn't necessarily mean a fall is imminent, he said, but it could mean slower stock price growth in future years.

The Revenue Sources Book is predicting investment gains next year will again exceed petroleum revenues, but this time the forecast is due to low oil prices rather than an expectation of stellar investment gains.

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