Pension Funds Plunge Into Riskier Bets—Just as Markets Are Struggling

Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/pension-funds-plunge-into-riskier-betsjust-as-markets-are-struggling-11656274270

Graphic:

Excerpt:

More than 100 state, city, county and other governments borrowed for their pension funds last year, twice the highest number that did so in any prior year, according to a Municipal Market Analytics analysis of Bloomberg data. Nearly $13 billion of these pension obligation bonds were sold last year, which is more than in the prior five years combined.

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas, the U.S.’s fifth-largest public pension fund, began leveraging its investment portfolio in 2019. Next month, the largest U.S. public-worker fund, the roughly $440 billion California Public Employees’ Retirement System, known as Calpers, will add leverage for the first time in its 90-year history.

While most pension funds still avoid investing borrowed money, the use of leverage is spreading faster than ever. Just four years ago, none of the five largest pension funds used leverage.

Investing with borrowed money can juice returns when markets are rising, but make losses more severe in a down market. This year’s steep slump in financial markets will test the funds’ strategy.

It’s too soon to tell how the magnified bets are playing out in the current market, as funds won’t report second-quarter returns until later in the summer. In the first quarter, public pension funds as a whole returned a median minus 4%, according to data from the Wilshire Trust Universe Comparison Service released last month. A portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds—not what funds use—returned minus 5.55% in the quarter, Wilshire said.

Author(s): Dion Rabouin, Heather Gillers

Publication Date: 26 Jun 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

Bloomberg, Other Publications Criticize CalPERS’ Leverage on Leverage Plan to Boost Returns While Missing Additional Types of Borrowing

Link:https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2021/12/bloomberg-other-publications-criticize-calpers-leverage-on-leverage-plan-to-boost-returns-while-missing-additional-types-of-borrowing.html

Graphic:

Excerpt:

The financial press has gone into a round of hand-wringing over CalPERS’ efforts to chase higher returns in a systematically low-return market, now by planning to borrow at the CalPERS level on top of the leverage employed in many of its investment strategies, in particular private equity and real estate.

These normally deferential publications are correct to be worried. Not only is this sort of leverage on leverage dangerous because it can generate meltdowns and fire sales, amplifying damage and potentially creating systemic stresses, but the debt picture at CalPERS is even worse than these accounts they depicted. They failed to factor in yet another layer of borrowing at private equity funds and some real estate funds called subscription line financing, which we’ll describe shortly.

…..

CalPERS tells other less obvious fibs, such as trying to depict private equity as so critical to success that it need to put more money on that number on the roulette wheel. Remember, the name of the game in investment-land isn’t absolute performance but risk adjusted performance. Not only has private equity not generated the additional returns to compensate for its extra risk at least as long as we’ve been kicking those tires (since 2012), academic experts such as Ludovic Phalippou, Richard Ennis and Eileen Appelbaum have concluded private equity has not even beaten stocks since the financial crisis.

Let us stress that unlike German investors, who have a pretty good handle on all the leverage bets in their investment portfolios and thus can make a solid estimate of how much risk they are adding via borrowing across all their investments, CalPERS is flying blind with respect to private equity. It does not have access to the balance sheets of the portfolio companies in its various private equity funds.

And while having balance sheet would be a considerable improvement over what is has now, it doesn’t give the whole picture. CalPERS would also need to factor in operating leverage. When I was a kid at Goldman, whenever we analyzed leverage (as in all the time), we had to dig into the footnotes of financial statements, find out the amount of operating lease payments, and capitalize them, as in gross up the annual lease payments to an equivalent amount of borrowing so we could look at different companies on a more comparable basis.

Author(s): Yves Smith

Publication Date: 10 Dec 2021

Publication Site: naked capitalism

Financial Stability Report

Link:https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/files/financial-stability-report-20211108.pdf

Graphic:

Excerpt:

Our view of the current level of vulnerabilities is as follows:

Asset valuations. Prices of risky assets generally increased since the previous report, and,
in some markets, prices are high compared with expected cash flows. House prices have
increased rapidly since May, continuing to outstrip increases in rent. Nevertheless, despite
rising housing valuations, little evidence exists of deteriorating credit standards or highly
leveraged investment activity in the housing market. Asset prices remain vulnerable to
significant declines should investor risk sentiment deteriorate, progress on containing the
virus disappoint, or the economic recovery stall.

Borrowing by businesses and households. Key measures of vulnerability from business
debt, including debt-to-GDP, gross leverage, and interest coverage ratios, have largely
returned to pre-pandemic levels. Business balance sheets have benefited from continued
earnings growth, low interest rates, and government support. However, the rise of the
Delta variant appears to have slowed improvements in the outlook for small businesses.
Key measures of household vulnerability have also largely returned to pre-pandemic
levels. Household balance sheets have benefited from, among other factors, extensions
in borrower relief programs, federal stimulus, and high aggregate personal savings rates.
Nonetheless, the expiration of government support programs and uncertainty over the
course of the pandemic may still pose significant risks to households.

Leverage in the financial sector. Bank profits have been strong this year, and capital
ratios remained well in excess of regulatory requirements. Some challenging conditions
remain due to compressed net interest margins and loans in the sectors most affected
by the COVID-19 pandemic. Leverage at broker-dealers was low. Leverage continued
to be high by historical standards at life insurance companies, and hedge fund leverage
remained somewhat above its historical average. Issuance of collateralized loan obligations (CLOs) and asset-backed securities (ABS) has been robust.

Funding risk. Domestic banks relied only modestly on short-term wholesale funding and
continued to maintain sizable holdings of high-quality liquid assets (HQLA). By contrast,
structural vulnerabilities persist in some types of MMFs and other cash-management
vehicles as well as in bond and bank loan mutual funds. There are also funding-risk vulnerabilities in the growing stablecoin sector.

Publication Date: November 2021

Publication Site: Federal Reserve

Huge Credit Stress Starting in China May Easily Rock the Whole World

Link: https://mishtalk.com/economics/huge-credit-stress-starting-in-china-may-easily-rock-the-whole-world

Graphic:

Excerpt:

If funding stress signs don’t emerge, don’t conclude that there is no contagion. Contagion is playing out already if you know where to look.”

The mess in China does not stop with Evergrande. 

…..

Everglade shows the theft of wealth and money in a giant Ponzi scheme, not to be confused with real savings (i.e. net tangible assets at true market value)!

There is no savings glut. 

The alleged savings glut is nothing but a fiat Ponzi scheme where central banks have to keep money supply soaring to keep asset prices (based on debt) from imploding!

How much longer this setup can continue before it blows up in a currency crisis, war with China, or some other major economic disruption remains a key mystery.

Author(s): Mike Shedlock

Publication Date: 20 Sept 2021

Publication Site: MishTalk

Can Fiscal Alchemy Bolster Public Pension Funds?

Link: https://www.governing.com/finance/Can-Fiscal-Alchemy-Bolster-Public-Pension-Funds.html

Excerpt:

One way to put a quick sheen on pension funds’ balance sheets is to issue municipal bonds at a lower rate of interest than the pension fund is expected to earn. These “pension obligation bonds” (POBs) have a long and checkered history. The first one was sold tax-exempt by the city of Oakland, Calif., in 1985. It stirred up a hornet’s nest at the IRS, which quickly realized that the lower tax-exempt interest rate was subsidized by Uncle Sam in a no-brainer for the pension fund that in theory could just invest in taxable bonds to make a profit, even without risking money in stocks. Congress was prodded to prohibit the use of tax-exempt debt where there is a profit-seeking investment “nexus,” and thus was born a thick book of IRS “arbitrage” regulations. Consequently, POBs must now be taxable, with a higher interest cost.

When interest rates are low, as they are today, the underwriters and many financial consultants come out of the woodwork to pitch their POB deals. The lure is always the same: “Over 30 years, you will save money because history shows it’s almost a certainty that stocks will outperform low bond yields,” even if they are now taxable. I’ve written extensively on the foreseeable cyclical risks of selling POBs when the stock market is trading at record high levels: The underwriters and deal-peddlers will sneak away with their fees from the deal, and public officials will be left holding the bag whenever an economic recession or stock-market plunge drives the value of their pension funds’ “new” assets below the level of their outstanding POBs. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) has long opposed POBs for this reason, among others. POBs make sense to me only when they are issued in recessionary bear markets.

Author(s): Girard Miller

Publication Date: 16 March 2021

Publication Site: Governing

Behind Greensill’s Collapse: Detour Into Risky Loans

Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/behind-greensills-collapse-detour-into-risky-loans-11615611953

Excerpt:

Behind Mr. Greensill’s failure: The business went beyond the scope of what it initially set out to do. Many of Greensill’s loans went to a small circle of borrowers close to Mr. Greensill, as well as acquaintances and his biggest outside backers.

A Wall Street Journal review of internal Greensill records, including board minutes and emails, along with interviews with more than a dozen people familiar with Greensill’s business, reveals how the company obscured its riskier loans behind a safe but barely profitable supply-chain finance business.

Greensill took on bigger, riskier long-term loans. In some cases, the loans were given other names before they were sold on to investors in the Credit Suisse funds, obscuring who the borrower was or the type of loan, the Journal found.

Author(s): Duncan Mavin, Julie Steinberg

Publication Date: 13 March 2021

Publication Site: Wall Street Journal

The Tyranny of Experts

Link: https://tinyletter.com/acs171/letters/known-unknowns-44

Excerpt:

It is a miracle anyone ever listens to us. Honestly, sometimes they shouldn’t. Other than the theory of comparative advantage, I can’t think of any correct economic insights that defy common sense. Economists, or experts in any field, are meant to offer a framework to weigh costs and benefits, help us see risks, and understand how the economy and people respond to shocks and policy. This helps people make choices that are right for them. If someone is pushing something totally counterintuitive, whether in economics or public health, we should be skeptical.
 
The same goes for debt. I heard someone say MMT has become an accepted theory – that is simply not true. And there is nothing new here. If you look at the history of debt cycles and financial crisis, they often featured some convoluted justification for why taking on tons of leverage isn’t so risky after all because this time was different – we are so much more clever now. Guess what, you might use some big words that tell you otherwise, but debt is always risky. Sure, some of the time it works out and juices higher growth, but when it doesn’t, things get really nasty. 

Author(s): Allison Schrager

Publication Date: 15 March 2021

Publication Site: Known Unknowns on TinyLetter

CalPERS’ Former CIO on Saving America’s Public Pensions

Link: http://pensionpulse.blogspot.com/2021/01/calpers-former-cio-on-saving-americas.html

Excerpt:

Gordon thinks very highly of Ben Meng and so do I. I’ve had the pleasure of talking with him a few times since he was appointed CIO at CalPERS and not only is he brilliant, he was always very nice and generous with his time.

The last time I spoke with Ben was in the summer via a webcast where he explained that CalPERS is not leveraging its portfolio by $80 billion. We spoke about a few things and I recommend you read my comment here to gain an appreciation of everything he was tying to do at CalPERS.

That was before his crucifixion In August where he was forced to resign.  

I’m on record stating the way Ben Meng was treated was absolutely shameful and disgusting.

I don’t need to expand on this, suffice it to say CalPERS lost one of the best CIOs in the world and they still haven’t replaced him.

Author: Leo Kolivakis

Publication Date: 19 January 2021

Publication Site: Pension Pulse

Saving America’s Public Pensions

Link: https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/public-pensions-how-to-increase-long-term-returns-by-ben-meng-2021-01?barrier=accesspaylog

Excerpt:

The main challenge facing the public pension industry is the high assumed rates of returns on pension assets relative to what equities or bonds are likely to deliver.Many US public pension funds expect a rate of return in the neighborhood of 7% per year. But in today’s capital-market environment, achieving that sustainably over the long term has become an increasingly daunting task.

In fact, this is not a new problem. As Chart 1 illustrates, the gap between the risk-free and assumed rate of return has been widening for the past four decades. In the1980s, the risk-free rate (as approximated by the yield for ten-year US Treasury bonds) was often far higher than the assumed rate of return, making it relatively easy for pension funds to hit their targets. Today, however, the risk-free rate is more than six percentage points below targeted return.

Author: Ben Meng

Publication Date: 15 January 2021

Publication Site: Project Syndicate