LOS ANGELES -- Tremors emanating from Orange County, Calif., have disrupted the formerly quiet and virtually anonymous world of intergovernmental investment pools.
In the Western states, more so than elsewhere, county and state treasurers are working feverishly to reassure bondholders, politicians, credit agencies, and reporters that the billions of dollars they invest on behalf of the public are safe.
Arizona Treasurer Tony West, who is also president of the Western State Treasurers Association, said he has fielded calls from the governor on down, and he is now creating an oversight committee for his state's $1.6 billion pool.
Although the committee idea was born before Orange County filed for bankruptcy Dec. 6, West said the crisis will certainly speed the process along.
"You guys have everyone stirred up," he said of the daily barrage of media calls he has received. "There will be a lot more public oversight soon, and people will be able to see how their money is invested on a regular basis."
Many treasurers are also taking pains to distance themselves from the high-risk investment strategies employed by former Orange County treasurer-tax collector Robert L. Citron.
Some officials bristle at the mere mention of Orange County in relation to their own investment pools -- an ironic turn of events from years past when Citron was labeled a financial whiz and enjoyed almost celebrity status among his peers.
"Orange County is probably an anomaly," said Nevada Treasurer Robert Seale, who took over Dec. 1 as president of the National Association of State Treasurers.
"This gentleman was apparently very aggressive for a very long time," Seale said about Citron. "I don't think that's common."
In media-saturated California, Patricia Beal, administrator of the state's $8.5 billion local agency investment fund, said her phone has been ringing off the hook, but most of the calls have been from reporters.
"We consider ourselves plain vanilla," Beal said she tells them. "We believe in safety first, and then liquidity, and then yield. That's how we've always done business."
On the county level, in some respects, the pressure to show proof of safety and liquidity is greater.
The treasurer of Monterey County, Calif., last week issued a statement to the board of supervisors explaining his conservative use of reverse repurchase agreements -- borrowing tools that have become tainted in light of their role in Orange County's $2 billion investment fund loss.
"Before discussing the characteristics of the investments," wrote Monterey Treasurer Lou Solton, "I want to clearly state for the record that Monterey County is not and will not become subject to any cash flow crisis that would cause an 'Orange County' condition to arise."
In San Diego County, treasurer-tax collector Paul Boland is trying to fight off an Orange County-style panic that has swept over his investors since he disclosed a 10.7% value decline in the county's $3.3 billion portfolio.
Boland told a meeting of local agency finance directors last week that if the 150 depositors did not keep their money in the fund and continue making deposits, they would risk "a run on the bank."
Even in places far removed from the fiscal woes of California, Orange County is taking its toll.
Montana disclosed this month that it has a $25 million stake in the Orange County fund, and the state's money is in jeopardy.
"The only reason local officials are focusing on us is because we own $25 million of Orange County notes," said Carroll South, executive director of the Montana Board of Investments.
The principal is due June 30, and the state received its last monthly interest payment on Dec. 1, as scheduled, South said. But he is unsure whether Orange County will be able to make the next payment due Jan. 3.
"We're just taking it a month at a time," South said. "We've had this pool for 20 years, and to my knowledge, no one has ever lost anything."
Soem treasurers have taken the Orange County crisis as an opportunity to improve public fund management, as well as to boast about their own conservative investment strategies -- another ironic turn considering Citron's well-publicized bragging about his high rate of return.
"We have the safest pool in the world," said Idaho Treasurer Lydia Justice Edwards. "I have an investment policy of my own that is more strict than the law."
Edwards said her $328 million local agency fund is extremely short-term in nature and does not leverage nearly as much as Orange County or many other public fund pools.
"You hate to see anything the magnitude of Orange County, but it makes us more aware and it does make us take a look at our situation," Edwards said. "Are we doing everything we should be doing to protect those assets?
"So, from my perspective, this has not been bad."
Seale, Nevada's treasurer, echoed the statement. He said he is hoping to hammer out significant changes in the way public officials invest the public's money.
Seale and other members of the National State Treasurers Association are taking a hard look at investment policies around the country.
The group hopes to come up with some broad guidelines to ensure that a comparable financial disaster doesn't strike at the state level.
"This is an opportunity to step out there and say, 'Wait a minute, this is public money. We need to be conservative,'" Seale said. "You can't go around chasing yield."