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.
CalPERS is up to its old crooked, value-destroying ways. Its sale of $6 billion in private equity positions, at a big discount….because CalPERS was in a hurry despite no basis for urgency, shows yet again the sort of thing the giant fund routinely does that puts it at the very bottom of financial returns for major public pension funds.
In Dawm Lim’s Bloomberg story, Calpers Unloads Record $6 Billion of Private Equity at Discount, CalPERS admits to cooking the books. Not recognizing the sale (the loss in value) in the same fiscal year can only be to play shenanigans with the rate of return. So if, or more likely when, CalPERS again does badly in comparison to CalSTRS and similar funds, remember it would be even worse if CalPERS was accounting honestly.
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.
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.