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.
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.
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.)
You can find all the major filings at Kentucky Pension Case. The two below are over the most heated current issue: whether the Tier 3 Plaintiffs can move forward. Judge Shepherd said effectively that he needed to see what the attorney general planned to do before he decided that.
Given that the justification for the attorney general repeated extension requests was to wrap his mind around the case, and the Calcaterra report looked like Kentucky Retirement Systems hiring an outside firm to brief the attorney general, the new filing is entirely old hat. It has not only has no new arguments, it is even more openly cribbed from older plaintiff filings that the original attorney general intervention, where his office at least re-wrote a fair bit of the material into white shoe tall building lawyer style. Here, nearly all of the filing is a cut and paste, including the charts.
To justify the rate increases, CalPERS asserts that there is nothing problematic with the program, other than the usual suspects of low interest rates and unexpected policyholder behavior, issues that all long-term care providers have faced. But that is, at best, a half-truth.
While all other long-term care providers have faced the same challenges, there is no evidence that any other insurer in the nation has responded with premium increases like CalPERS. For example, the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program has raised rates as much as 150%. For commercial policies, premiums rose up to 75% for UNUM Group in some states, while in California premiums for Mutual of Omaha policy premiums rose 20%, Transamerica premiums rose 25%, and Thrivent premiums rose about 37%.
During the past two decades, roughly the timeframe of the policies subject to the lawsuit, inflation has risen 49% and the cost of long-term care services about 120%. The chart below shows actual policy rates and the initial policy rate along with inflation and long-term care trends.
Walters’ piece has been picked up by the Mercury News and other in-state papers. Since the bill has yet to go to the Senate, his intervention will make it much harder for Sacramento insiders to simply waive the legislation through and pretend they didn’t know about its rancid features.
We wrote up last week in part because the Judiciary Committee staff took the unusual step of sharply questioning whether CalPERS could and should be trusted with the powers it would provide. CalPERS wants to make loans and be exempt from disclosure…including who got the loan, in what amount, what the terms were (such as interest and collateral). The latter is important not just to determine if CalPERS is making proper credit judgments but also to see if it is handing out sub-market loans to cronies. There’s a proud history of this sort of thing. Remember, for instance, the “Friends of Angelo” scandal, when Countrywide gave out mortgages on extremely favorable terms to powerful politicians including Senate Banking Committee chair Christopher Dodd (D-CT), and Senate Budget Committee chair Kent Conrad.
Similarly, the reason yours truly has not been an advocate of public banks is they were tried in the US and virtually all failed. Most states and even some cities had them. All save North Dakota’s were eventually shuttered due to large-scale corruption and losses. I have not seen any of the proponents of public banks in the US demonstrate any awareness of their history of becoming piggy-banks for local notables, much the less recommend how to stop that from happening again. What CalPERS is proposing is an even more degraded version of the old, crooked, insider-controlled public banks.
Let’s look at other reasons why allowing CalPERS to make secret loans is a terrible idea.
CalPERS and CalSTRS are already major investors in private debt, via private debt funds, so AB 386 is unnecessary.CalPERS is already #16 in the world and CalSTRS, #30. Both giant funds have demonstrated that California’s disclosure laws aren’t an impediment to making this kind of investment. It should not be surprising that no other California public pension fund is supporting this bill.
There’s no good reason to create an internal team to do private debt investing. Plenty of experts have been urging large private equity investors like CalPERS to bring private equity investing in house for years. First, the fees and costs are so eye-popping, at an estimated 7% per year, that cutting that down to say 2% or 3% means that a relatively newbie investor like CalPERS could still fall a bit short compared to industry average gross returns and still come out ahead on a net basis. Second, industry experts also confirm that there are many seasoned, skilled professional who would trade a less pressured life (particularly the costs and stresses that relate to regular fundraising) for less lavish pay.