In the name of preserving carefully negotiated legislation, Senate Democrats’ leaders united their caucus to vote down amendments that would have added the party’s Medicare expansion plan and expanded child tax credit into the final spending bill now moving through Congress.
That unity, though, was not universally enforced: soon after those votes, seven Democratic senators joined with Republicans to cast a pivotal vote shielding their private equity donors from a new corporate minimum tax.
The seven Democrats who joined the GOP to give private equity firms that $35 billion gift were: Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia, Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.
Five of the seven Democrats are among the Senate’s top recipients of campaign donations from private equity donors, according to data from OpenSecrets. The group collectively raked in more than $1.4 million of campaign cash from the private equity industry, which has become a huge source of capital for the fossil fuel conglomerates that are creating the climate crisis.
The contrast between voting to protect private equity donors and voting against programs for the working class effectively screamed the quiet part out loud about whom senators typically respond to — and whom they don’t.
In this case, Democratic and Republican senators responded to the demands of an industry that has not only spent more than a quarter billion dollars on the last two federal elections, but that also employs an army of government-officials-turned-lobbyists to influence lawmakers in Washington. The world’s largest private equity firm is headed by one of the Republican Party’s largest donors, and now employs the son-in-law of Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer as a lobbyist.
CalPERS is so reliably bad at market timing that the giant fund serves as a counter indicators. Last fall, CalPERS increased its allocation to private equity from 8% of its total portfolio to 13%, which is an increase of over 50%. This is after this humble blog, regularly citing top independent experts, pointed out that the investment raison d’etre for private equity had vanished in the 2006-2008 time frame, not once, but many many times as various studies kept confirming that finding. Not only did private equity no longer earn enough to compensate for its much higher risks (leverage and illiquidity) but it was no longer beating straight up large cap equities.
Now there is a way out of this conundrum: to bring private equity in house. Private equity fees and costs are so egregious (an estimated 7% per annum) that even a bit of underperformance relative to private equity indexes will be more than offset by greatly lower fees. A simpler option would be public market replication of private equity.
But the dogged way funds like CalPERS stick to private equity points to rank corruption, of the sort that landed CalPERS former CEO Fred Buenrostro in Federal prison for four and a half years.
Another problem is cash flow management. Private equity funds do not take investor money at closing. Instead, investors get “capital calls” to pony up part of their commitment to the fund so the fund manager can buy a company. These capital calls require the dough to be sent as specified in the offering memorandum, usually in five to ten days. The consequences of missing a capital call are draconian. The fund manager can seize all the investments made so far and distribute them to the other limited partners.
In the financial crisis, CalPERS had too little cash on hand to meet private equity capital calls. It wound up dumping stocks at distressed prices to satisfy the private equity demands. So the risk outlined below is real.
A new era in the decade-long battle by retirees and whistleblowers to halt massive transfers of wealth out of retirement funds and into Wall Street firms could be at hand, thanks to the case of Katie Muth.
Muth, a Democratic Pennsylvania state senator, is one of fifteen trustees who oversees Pennsylvania’s largest public pension fund, the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PennPSERS). Not long after her February 2021 appointment to the board, Muth began questioning the fund’s investments in areas like private equity, hedge funds, and real estate.
Over the past thirty years, public pension funds have moved $1.4 trillion of retiree savings into such high-risk, high-fee “alternative investments,” enriching finance industry moguls like Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group and Robert Mercer of Renaissance Technologies while often shortchanging retired public employees and teachers.
But Muth says that when she asked the fund’s investment staff for more information about its high-risk investments, she was rebuffed — so in June 2021, she sued the fund for basic information about its investments.
First, the illiquid and long-term nature of the private equity asset class, significant dispersion in returns across funds, as well as bilateral and relationship-driven fundraising, creates scarcity in access to individual funds, giving private equity funds the bargaining power when splitting the returns. As the industry’s growth deaccelerates, the pendulum of bargaining power will start to shift to limited partners, but more permanently than what we saw during the GFC.
Second, we will see larger scrutiny of the cost structure and the industry’s value-add. Put simply, it is an expensive asset class, with the net returns to limited partners lacking consistency in beating public benchmarks (e.g. Harris et al. 2014).3 A central tension is large funds’ management fees, which typically run at 1.5% to 2% of committed capital already in the first five years of the fund life.4 This structure is lucrative for managers but underscores the disconnect between the private equity firm’s income stream and its fund performance, especially for large funds.
Third, such pressures would make new and smaller funds particularly vulnerable. The proliferation of new funds, especially generalists’ funds, in the past decade was partly explained by the strength of capital flow and investment managers’ desire to capture a more significant share of fund economics. These funds have a higher embedded cost structure. Larger funds, therefore, have more room to compress the fees and have a higher ability to experiment in the investment space. All this gives larger-scale firms a better chance to withstand adverse pressures, resulting in market consolidation.
These findings suggest that PSERS is not likely to achieve even a 6 percent average return over the next 10-15 years—much less its current assumed return of 7 percent. This suggests there is a high probability that the public pension plan’s unfunded liabilities could get worse, not better, in the near-to-mid term. This underperformance—relative to the plan’s own return rate assumptions—will make the system’s long-term solvency challenges even larger.
In a matter of fact, understated manner, the SEC document makes clear that its enforcement regime has not succeeded in getting private equity fund managers to stop or at least considerably reduce their abuses. Recall that in 2014, then enforcement chief Andrew Bowden gave a peculiarly titled speech, Spreading Sunshine in Private Equity. The SEC has just started its initial examinations of private equity firms. Bowden said that the SEC had found serious abuses in more than half of the firms examines, including what in other circles would be called embezzlement. Bowden also said if anything the misconduct was more prevalent at the biggest firms, which was the reverse of what it found in other areas it regulated, where the crooked operators were normally boiler-room level.
This promising start quickly fizzled out. Yes, the SEC did engage in a series of enforcements actions, targeting common abuses like charging “termination of monitoring fees” which had never been contemplated in the fund agreements, and hauling up big name firms like Apollo, KKR, and Blackstone. However, this amounted to enforcement theater. The SEC acted as if “one and done,” citing particular firms for an isolated abuse, when all the big players were certain to have engaged in many others, and then acting as if everyone would shape up, was either craven or willfully blind. Bowden immediately turned to giving speeches on how private equity firms were obviously upstanding and wanted to do right. He then gave a speech at Stanford at a private equity conference where went on far too long about how he wanted his son to work in private equity and an audience member immediately said he wanted to hire him. Bowden left the agency in three weeks.
This SEC letter, by contrast, makes clear that the agency has ample evidence in its files of continued abuses by private equity fund managers. It does not mention a particularly egregious general strategy: of admitting in the annual disclosure documents, the Form ADV, that the private equity fund managers are violating their contracts with investors. Admitting a contractual violation does not cure it, but the private equity barons appear to believe they can create their own alternative reality. And until Gensler showed up, that belief looked to be correct.
Seven hundred and forty-four million dollars. That is the amount of Wall Street fees paid by the Maryland state pension plan for investment advice in fiscal 2021.
Over the past 10 years, the fees totaled roughly $4.5 billion, or about 15 percent of the plan’s earnings. For that kind of money, you would think the state gets only the prime stock and bond picks from its advisers, but, during that time, Maryland, as with most other states, failed to beat the returns of a simple 60 percent stocks/40 percent bonds index. Many large institutional investors, including public pension plans, use this 60/40 index as a barometer to gauge their portfolios’ results. They structure their portfolios to avoid a 100 percent exposure to the sometimes volatile stock market. If their results are better than the index for a given year, they claim success. Many mutual funds attract smaller individual retail and 401(k) retirement accounts by copying the index and charging low fees for passive management.
This drainage damages the financial security of public workers in Maryland and other states, and it forces greater taxpayer contributions to the plans. The ongoing situation has a secondary effect as well: The massive wealth transfer — from public workers and average taxpayers — to a small coterie of Wall Street money managers fosters a new plutocracy, successful at obscuring the problem and blocking reform.
The obvious fix for public plans is to shift from expensive fee investments to low-fee indexing, a tactic endorsed by none other than Warren Buffett, the noted value investor and philanthropist. For large public plans, including Maryland’s, this shift, if implemented, would be gradual. Extricating the fund from its long-term contractual commitments and replacing them with passive investments is going to take time.
Due to an active group of retirees and the assistance of a former Ohio attorney general, both the Ohio state auditor and the Ohio Department of Securities have launched inquiries into the Ohio State Teachers Retirement System (STRS Ohio), a $100 billion pension that has launched billions of dollars of investments into the riskier corners of the market, namely private equity and hedge funds.
“Ohio could be the first place where the secrecy surrounding public pensions and their investments in risky, speculative, and high-fee investment vehicles could be looked at in a serious way,” said Ted Siedle, a former SEC attorney and longtime pension whistleblower.
Pointing out that pension funds across the country have routinely invoked “trade secrets” exemptions to deny the public information about investment performance and fees, Siedle said the actions taken by the state auditor and securities commissioner “could be the beginning of the end” of such secrecy — not just in Ohio, but nationwide.
Private equity investments lack transparency and are difficult to value. As opposed to publicly traded securities, limited partnerships used by private equity managers can’t provide frequent performance updates and, as a result, advise stakeholders after the end of each fiscal year. This leads to a lag in reporting important details. Moreover, shares of companies owned by private equity funds are not publicly traded, meaning that their values can only be estimated, which is subject to potential bias. Private equity firms are also not obligated by the law to publish their lists of assets in accordance with Securities and Exchange Commission rules. While this information can be found on Bloomberg Professional Terminal, it is not available to the general public. This lack of transparency should be concerning to employees and retirees who rely on these funds and taxpayers who contribute to them.
For the Pennsylvania teacher system, the management fees associated with private equity investments that the plan had to pay over the past four years ($4.3 billion) are more than the total amount members paid into the plan during the same time ($4.2 billion). The pension plan recently announced that member contributions will have to be raised going forward because of long-term investment results below the plan’s benchmark. As a point of comparison, the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System, which has double the assets of PSERS, reported 36% less in total investment fees and expenses than PSERS.
An investigation of the Chicago Policemen Annuity and Benefit Fund was funded by members of the Chicago Police Department Pension Board Accountability Group. According to the report, the CPABF is one of the worst funded public pension plans in the U.S. today with a funding ratio at year-end of only 23%. According to the report, “The toxic mix of defunding the police pension, conflicted and high-risk investments, and poor management of the pension cry out for greater transparency and accountability.”
As Arthur Levitt, Chairman of the SEC stated back in 1999 in connection with the Commission’s review of pay-to-play practices at public pensions, “Today, public funds hold more than $2 trillion of assets. These assets do not belong to the elected officials, and they do not belong to the trustees. They belong to the tens of thousands of firefighters, ambulance drivers, city clerks, bus drivers and other public employees who make our communities work. “Their interests,” as my father said twenty years ago, “must be paramount in investment of that money.”
The tremendous importance of public funds demands that they be managed with complete honesty and integrity and for the sole benefit of their beneficiaries.”
What you see in that graph is a data point for each of the plans I know their asset allocation for, with the median, 25th percentile, and 75th percentiles marked out so you can see the allocations increasing.
That pattern does not make me feel good.
Allocating more to alternatives doesn’t seem to get asset managers higher returns. But the group is generally sliding upwards in their allocations, and I’m very unhappy about this.
Private equity investments underperformed broad US stock indexes for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020. Importantly for taxpayers and governments, this underperformance of private equity weighed down public pension system asset returns during a particularly difficult year for investments.
These investment results may mark the beginning of the end of superior private equity returns that have characterized early 21st century institutional investing. If private equity returns have now fallen “back to earth,” many public pension systems can expect heightened scrutiny over their allocations to this asset class and the high investment costs that go with it.