SEC Tackles Asset Transparency, Conflict of Interest At Credit Rating Agencies

SEC Building

The SEC is finalizing two new sets of rules today: one that would increase the transparency of the asset-backed securities that caused much grief for investors, including pension funds, during the financial crisis.

The other set of rules would improve the reliability of the ratings issued by credit rating agencies.

Pension funds and other institutional investors were hit hard during the financial crisis in part because they purchased highly rated but opaque securities that seemed safe but eventually became worth pennies on the dollar.

The new SEC rules aim to increase the transparency of those investment instruments, as Reuters reports:

The new rules would lay out which information issuers would have to provide to investors on the underlying assets in the securities – which can bundle thousands of assets such as auto or home loans – in a standardized format.

The newly required information includes the credit quality and the collateral and cash flows related to each asset, said the SEC.

The SEC first proposed new rules on asset-backed securities more than four years ago. But it has struggled to craft rules that balance privacy concerns about the disclosure of sensitive loan-level data with investors’ desire to know more about the securities.

The new rules would also give investors a three-day waiting period to back out once they had agreed to a transaction, and in some cases remove references to credit ratings.

The SEC is also finalizing rules dealing with conflicts of interest at credit rating agencies. The rating agencies have been accused by investors and watchdog groups of letting business interests influence the AAA ratings they gave to bonds that would later lose significant value. From the News Observer:

To address the conflict of interest, the new SEC rules would prevent the sales and marketing departments of credit-rating agencies from having anything to do with firms seeking a rating for their financial product. Among the provision of the new rules are tighter look-back requirements designed to discourage ratings agencies employees from going to work for companies whose product they’ve rated. Investigations by McClatchy Newspapers and subsequently regulators showed how Wall Street firms played ratings agencies off each other, threatening to give competitors their business unless they got the AAA rating they sought.

The rules relating to rating agencies have not yet been completed, but the SEC said it hopes to have them finalized by the end of Wednesday.


Photo by the SEC

Fitch Upholds ‘A’ Rating for California General Obligation Bonds

Golden Gate Bridge

When CalPERS moved last week to implement 99 new types of pensionable compensation, Fitch publicly mused whether the action was a “step backward” from the state’s recent pension reforms.

But the rest of California’s economy, combined with provisions in the most recent budget which increase state funding to CalPERS and CalSTRS, was enough for Fitch to uphold its ‘A’ rating on the state’s GO bonds.

From a Fitch release:

Pension funded ratios have declined and there is a history of inadequate contributions to the teacher system; however, the state has instituted some benefit reforms and the fiscal 2015 enacted budget provides the first installment of a long-term plan to increase funding of the teacher pension system.

Full actuarial contributions to the public employees’ system are legally required, but not for the teachers’ system, leading to persistent underfunding of the latter. The state addressed teachers system funding with legislation enacted in June 2014 that will increase statutorily required contributions to the system from the state, school districts, and teachers beginning in the current fiscal year. The legislation gradually increases funding requirements, with the first installment funded in the fiscal 2015 budget, and expects that it will be fully funded by 2046.

Fitch notes that it doesn’t believe California’s two main pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, are necessarily as healthy as their current funding ratios indicate. Still, a diverse economy and the hope of “improved fiscal management” were among the factors that led Fitch to avoid downgrading the state’s debt.

Fitch explains:

System-wide funded ratios on a reported basis for the state’s two main pension systems, covering public employees and teachers, have eroded due to investment losses. Based on their June 30, 2013 financial reports, the public employees’ plan reported an 83.1% system-wide funded ratio, and the teachers’ plan reported a 67% system-wide funded ratio.

Using Fitch’s more conservative 7% discount rate assumption, funded ratios for the two systems fall to 78.8% for public employees and 63.5% for teachers. On a combined basis, net tax-supported debt and pension liabilities attributable to the state at 8.3% are above the state median of 6.1%, ranking the state 31st.

The state adopted a broad package of pension reforms in 2012 that affect most state and local systems, including through benefit reductions for new workers and higher contributions for employees. While changes are expected to generate only modest near-term annual savings for the state and for local governments whose pension plans are subject to the reforms, annual savings are expected to grow considerably over time.

Fitch considers California’s GO bond outlook to be “stable”.


Photo credit: “GoldenGateBridge-001″ by Rich Niewiroski Jr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

CalPERS Weighs Withdrawal From Commodities

CalPERS may pull back its commodities investments

California is often on the cutting edge of trends that eventually reverberate throughout the rest of the country. The same is true of CalPERS, the pension fund that was among the first to invest in real estate, hedge funds and private equity.

So when CalPERS announces a dramatic change in investment strategy, other funds drop what they’re doing and listen. Funds are certainly listening lately, as CalPERS is considering a handful of moves that would shift its asset allocation significantly.

Among them: the fund is considering taking all of its money out of commodities. From the Wall Street Journal:

One of the more-dramatic moves under consideration is a complete pullback from tradable indexes tied to energy, food, metals and other commodities, according to people familiar with the discussions. Calpers began making such investments in 2007 as a way of diversifying its portfolio and it currently has $2.4 billion in such derivatives, or less than 1% of total holdings.


The discussions are taking place between the fund’s interim Chief Investment Officer Ted Eliopoulos and Calpers’s other top investment executives. The Calpers board hasn’t yet been informed about any possible changes and no final decisions have been made, the people said.

The move, however jarring, wouldn’t be out of step with other recent investment decisions by CalPERS. The fund has shown a willingness to exit large investments it considers risky. From Wall Street Daily:

CalPERS’ potential retreat from riskier investments is evidence that it’s trying to simplify its portfolio and guard against losses during the next market downturn.

In a sense, CalPERS is turning to a bit of a “risk off” mode in this time of uncertainty.

Ultimately, with the realization that we’re in the midst of the Fed’s continued tapering, talk of interest rates hikes, and geopolitical unrest from the Middle East to the Ukraine, it may be time to dial down risk and play it safe.

In fact, this move is reflective of last fall, when CalPERS hinted at a shift away from complex investments, warning that the fund “will take risk only where we have a strong belief we will be rewarded for it.” This decision came after it had approved a new set of investment goals that reduced future exposure to equities and private equity, while increasing allocations to bonds and real estate.

A similar move by CalPERS also took place at the end of 2012, when the fund chopped commodities investments by more than half – prompting reports that it was shifting from commodities to inflation-linked bonds.

And in both incidences, the commodities markets experienced corrections.

CalPERS is weighing several other ideas, including whether forgo individual stocks in favor of securities that track broader industries.

CalPERS also made headlines last month when it announced it would cut its hedge fund allocation by 40 percent.


Photo by Terence Wright via Flickr CC License

Infrastructure Investments Becoming Big Part of Canadian Pensions


Infrastructure investments are becoming increasingly common endeavors for public pension funds. That’s true around the world, but nowhere is the trend more pronounced than in Canada, where the average pension fund has doubled its allocation to infrastructure since 2009. As reported by Benefits Canada:

Historically, Australian and Canadian investors—primarily pension funds—have dominated investment in infrastructure assets, accounting for 40% of historical allocations despite representing only 7% of total potential available capital.

Canadian pension assets totaled US$1.6 trillion in 2013, while infrastructure allocations by Canadian plans totaled US$47.2 billion. This contrasts with U.S. pension assets, which were in excess of US$18 trillion also in 2013, and whose allocations to infrastructure were only US$25.4 billion, less than those made by Canadian pension plans.

On average, Canadian pension funds have allocated 4% of their pension fund assets to infrastructure, up from 2% in 2009.

More recently, there have been some noticeable trends in infrastructure investing, both in terms of investor location and type. To date, pension funds have accounted for 72% of allocations made to infrastructure assets. Based on prospective allocations, sovereign wealth funds are expected to increase their “market share” from 13% of the total allocations to 40%, with a corresponding decrease in the percentage attributed to pension funds (45% versus the present 72%).

Funds in the United States might not be in on the game yet, but insiders say they expect state-level pension funds to significantly boost their allocations to infrastructure investments. More from Benefits Canada:

American state pension funds, as well as Asian investors[…]have started to take an active interest in infrastructure investing. These two groups currently account for 20% of allocations, but based on surveys by Preqin, are expected to increase these to 48% of total infrastructure allocations. Most notably, the Government Pension Investment Fund of Japan has committed 0.2% to infrastructure, though this translates into US$2.7 billion in investments over the next five years.

It’s a very interesting trend, and one that likely won’t reverse course in the near future. The exception may be smaller funds, who will have more trouble navigating direct investments in infrastructure. They’ll have to hire third-party managers, and that may not be appetizing to some funds who are becoming increasingly allergic to fees and investment expenses.


Photo by Kyle May via Flickr CC License

Philadelphia Funds Return 15 Percent As New Investment Strategies Play Out


The Philadelphia Board of Pensions, the entity that handles investments for the city’s pension funds, released its annual return data this week. The fund returned just over 15 percent for the fiscal year. From the Philadelphia Enquirer:

The total fund ended the fiscal year up 15.6 percent, outperforming its benchmarks by 1.96 percent. A more narrow portfolio, managed internally, did well, too, showing an 11.97 percent return, about 3.5 percent higher than similar benchmark funds.

The city’s pension system is severely unfunded, with only about half the money it needs to pay its $5 billion in obligations to current and future retirees.

The fund altered its investment strategy in recent years, in large part to the hiring of Chief Investment Officer Sumit Handa. From the Inquirer:

The board’s investment strategy has been revamped with the arrival three years ago of Handa and executive director Francis X. Bielli.

Investments were tweaked, Handa said, particularly the pension board’s fixed-income portfolio.

While investment firms handle the bulk of funds, the pension board staff manages a portfolio of about $260 million, or 5.3 percent of the pension fund. Known as the Independence Fund, it is designed as a “tactical” fund, Handa said, to be used to rapidly respond to opportunities the staff might see.

It strives for high returns at low risk. Since it was established in early 2012, it has been an overachiever by those standards. Outperforming its benchmark, it has shown only a third of the risk associated with investing in the S&P 500, while achieving 60 percent of the rate of return.

This marks the third consecutive year the fund has outperformed its benchmark. Previous to that, the fund has underperformed its benchmarks over the past five and ten-year periods.

The S&P 500 returned 21 percent over the period (July 1- June 30) that the Board of Pensions reported their annual return.

Video: The Evolution of Allocating to Hedge Funds


Bloomberg TV sat down with Agecroft Partners founder Don Steinbrugge to talk about pension fund investments in hedge funds and what it means for both sides.

Other topics touched: hedge funds facing the reality of having to settle for less fees and more transparency to play ball with pension funds, and paying pension fund staff market rates. Watch the video here:

Pension360 has also covered the recent counter-evolution of hedge fund allocation, a trend in which many pension funds across the country are pulling back their hedge fund investments.

CalPERS, for instance, plans to pull back 40 percent of their hedge fund investments in the near future.


Photo by Simon Cunningham via Flickr CC License

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