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.
When CalPERS does something as obviously nonsensical as planning to dump $6 billion of its private equity holdings, nearly 13% of its $47.7 billon portfolio, when it just committed to increasing its private equity book from 8% to 13%, it’s a hard call: Incompetent? Corrupt? Addled by the latest fads (a subset of incompetent)?
And rest assured, the harder you look, the more it becomes apparent that this scheme is as hare-brained as it appears at the 30,000 foot level. But unlike another recent hare-brained private equity scheme, its “private equity new business model,” beneficiaries won’t have the good luck of having it collapse under its own contradictions. CalPERS has loudly announced that Jeffries & Co. will be handling these dispositions, so they will get done….at least in part. But the fact that CalPERS’ staff has gone ahead and merely informed the board, as opposed to getting its approval, is yet another proof of how the board has abdicated its oversight and control by granting unconscionably permissive “delegated authority” to staff.
The one bit of possible upside would not just be unintended, but the result of CalPERS acting in contradiction to its expressed objectives: that its allocation to private equity would undershoot its targets by an even bigger margin than otherwise.
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.
Not One of 60 Major Commercial Banks Has ‘Leadership Position on Decarbonizing’
Yet the trend line of bank finance for fossil fuels is rising not declining, and not a single big commercial bank has released a plan to stop financing new fossil fuels.
It’s striking that unlike any of other sectors implicated in speeding global warming, not a single one of the 60 major commercial banks has staked out a leadership position on decarbonizing.
On the other labelled days of COP, there were all kinds of interesting mash-ups of governments, private sector actors, and think tanks offering a web of creative announcements about their determination to set ambition on one thing or another. By contrast, on Private Finance Day, the one and only announcement was relating to GFANZ. Banks and investors didn’t even try to push out additional good ideas. Everyone covered themselves in the GFANZ penumbra and then went quiet.
At the height of the last big wave of Turkey’s ongoing crisis, in August 2018, the European Central Bank issued a warning about the potential impact the plummeting lira could have on Euro Area banks heavily exposed to Turkey’s economy via large amounts in loans — much of them in euros — through banks they acquired in Turkey. The central bank was worried that Turkish borrowers might not be hedged against the lira’s weakness and would begin to default on foreign currency loans, which accounted for 40% of the Turkish banking sector’s assets.
In the end, the contagion risks were largely contained. Many Turkish banks ended up agreeing to restructure the debts of their corporate clients, particularly the large ones. At the same time, the Erdogan government used state-owned lenders to bail out millions of cash-strapped consumers by restructuring their consumer loans, many of them foreign denominated, and credit card debt.
But concerns are once again on the rise about European banks’ exposure to Turkey. On Friday, as those concerns commingled with fears about the potential threat posed by the new omicron variant of Covid-19, Europe’s worst-affected stocks included the four banks most exposed to Turkey: Spain’s BBVA, whose shares fell 7.3% on the day, Italy’s Unicredit (-6.9%), France’s BNP Paribas (-5.9%) and the Dutch ING (-7.3%).
Nevertheless, the motivations for outsourcing IMHO are not properly understood. In the auto business, which is typical of a lot of US industry, direct factory labor cost is 11% to 13% of product cost. The offsets against that are greater supervisory and coordination costs (longer shipping times and financing costs, and with that, greater risk of being stuck with inventories related to products that aren’t selling well) and just plain old screw ups due to having more moving parts.
In other words, outsourcing is better understood as a transfer from factory labor to managers and executives, at the cost of greater operational risk.
The graphic “Settlement Bet” shows options that policyholders have to choose from in the Settlement. The graphic “Settlement Happens??” shows the consequences of the “Settlement Bets” if the Settlement happens or not.
Policyholders not wanting to terminate their CalPERS policies will select not to participate (“opt out”) in the Settlement (as participation will end policyholders’ policies if the Settlement is approved).
Policyholders whose preference in light of announced rate increases would be to terminate because of the new CalPERS rate increases can be divided into two groups in light of the Settlement options: (1) those that wish simply to terminate and stop paying premiums; and (2) those who wish to terminate but are prepared to gamble with CalPERS to get a refund.
In making these choices, all policyholders are being forced to gamble a lot of money. Why the Settlement is structured as a gamble is unclear, but it is. That seems incredibly unfair to policyholders who can ill afford more financial losses after their losses already caused by CalPERS LTC.
The ongoing CalPERS long-term care insurance program crisis continues to unravel. It is also revealing overarching behavior which is both unethical and contrary to law.
CalPERS announced insurance premium increases of 52%-90% that become effective very shortly, at the same time that CalPERS has agreed to a class action lawsuit settlement over its last 85% rate increase. (In my next article I will discuss why I suspect the settlement is another con job by CalPERS.) But here I first must address a shocking revelation previously unreported about CalPERS long-term care insurance program (LTC) which needs to be recognized before moving on to the issues of the proposed settlement.
There is new and truly disturbing information about the CalPERS long-term care insurance program from a recent review of the enabling legislation prepared by a former California Deputy Attorney General and Court of Appeal Attorney, Linda J. Vogel.
According to Vogel’s analysis, the CalPERS long-term care insurance program since inception in 1991 has operated contrary to law.
But we also have Meng’s unreported stock trades. And Meng’s arrival happened to coincide with a big spike in personal trading violations, which CalPERS attempted to minimize by saying they came mainly from one person.
What if it turns out that the Olson report showed that Meng was a very active trader the entire time he was there? There is no way CalPERS could suppress this information, since it was required to have been reported on the Forms 700.
This would be hugely embarrassing to CalPERS, in that it would show it had hired a CIO who didn’t have his full attention on his very big ticket say job. And it would be vastly worse if Meng as head of the investment operation had been routinely violating SEC requirements for trade pre-approvals to prevent insider trading.
This possibility seems even more likely when you look at the board transcript below. Marlene Timberlake D’Adamo droned on and on and on trying to justify CalPERS not having reviewed Meng’s Form 700 to see if it looked internally consistent and/or matched up with his trading records. At first I thought this was to exhaust the board and dissipate their energy so they’d not be as persistent about their issues when they finally got the mike. But it may also be that the compliance department was clearly remiss in not reviewing Meng’s Form 700 by virtue of him being an active trader. And if he indeed was the person who’d made the big personal trading violations, that would almost mandate reviewing his Form 700.
In fact, all of the damaging information that got Meng so upset that he quit was public, and it all came directly from or was generated by Meng.
Yet the CalPERS board acts as if it’s the victim of internal saboteurs. As the transcript shows, CEO Marcie Frost and her key allies on the board, Board President Henry Jones and board member Rob Feckner repeatedly and falsely present Meng as a victim of secrets having been tossed over the transom to the press. Not only was everything that embarrassed Meng out in the open for competent reporters to write up, but in at least one and arguably two cases, Meng’s defensiveness made his situation much worse.
As we’ll show, Frost used the bogus idea that CalPERS is full of traitors as an excuse for continuing to keep the board in the dark about crucial matters like Meng being investigated for his financial conflict of interest. Frost and Feckner also claim that Meng believed that his bad press was due to saboteurs. That suggests that Frost and other senior staffers stoked Meng’s paranoia and helped precipitate his departure.
Despite having the most heavily staffed and luxuriously paid investment office of any public pension fund, CalPERS scored the worst investment returns of any of 34 funds tracked by Pensions & Investments.
As you can see at the Pensions & Investments site, CalPERS return for fiscal year 2020-2021 was 21.3%. The next lowest was tiny Kern County, more than two and a half points higher, at 23.9%. CalPERS’ Sacramento sister CalSTRS delivered 27.8%. The stars were Texas County, at 33.7&. New York Common, at 33.6%. San Bernardino County, at 33.3%, Oklahoma Teachers, at 33%, and Oklahoma Firefighters at 31.8%. Mississippi PERS came it at 32.7%, but that was gross of fees. Nevertheless, five funds earned a full 10% in investment returns more than CalPERS, and the pension fund arguably the most similar to CalPERS in terms of scale did more that 6% better.
That extreme laggard result also fell short of CalPERS benchmark of 21.7%. Recall that investment expert Richard Ennis explained at length that public pension funds and their consultants devise their own benchmarks, and they not surprisingly wind up being unduly forgiving
An earlier paper by Ennis found that even though nearly all public pension funds generated negative alpha, as in they actively destroyed value, CalPERS was one of the worst, coming in at number 43 out of 46, with a stunning negative alpha of 2.4%.
Jelincic is challenging CalPERS’ dubious denials of two different Public Records Act requests he made. One focuses on impermissible secret board discussions shortly after Chief Investment Officer Ben Meng’s sudden resignation last August. The filing not only calls for these records to be made public but also demands that board members be released to discuss all the matters that CalPERS impermissibly covered in the August “closed session”. The second involves CalPERS’ continuing efforts to hide records showing how it overvalued real estate investments by $583 million. Yet CalPERS not only has said nary a peep about bogus valuations are larger than the total amount it was slotted to invest in a mothballed solo development project, 301 Capitol Mall, but it continues to publish balance sheets that include the inflated results.
We predicted that CalPERS would be be even more inclined than usual to fight these Public Records Act requests because the filing seeks remedies beyond release of the records. First, it requests that CalPERS be found to have violated the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act. Second, to the extent that the judge rules that the board discussed items in closed session that should have been agendized for and deliberated in open session, the suit asks that board members be permitted to disclose the contents of those particular discussions in public. Third, the filing calls on the court to require that CalPERS make video and audio recordings of all closed sessions and keep them for five years (this is something that CalPERS currently does but this obligation is meant to shut the door to “the dog ate my disk” pretenses down the road.)