A report recently released by PricewaterhouseCoopers finds that alternative assets held by the world’s largest asset managers will double by 2020 — a trend that will be driven largely by pension funds.
The makeup of alternative assets currently:
CalPERS announced Wednesday that it had chosen a firm to run its new $200 million private equity emerging manager commitment. The firm: GCM Grosvenor.
Calpers said the new program would launch by the end of the year via a fund-of-funds vehicle. The pension fund would also invest $100 million in AGI Resmark Housing Fund, LLC, a San Francisco Bay Area-focused multi-family residential apartment development fund.
Calpers considers itself a leader in developing and implementing newly formed firms or firms raising first- or second-time funds, called emerging manager programs. Since 2010, the pension fund has committed $900 million to these types of funds.
Grosvenor, a large independent alternative asset management firm, manages approximately $47 billion in assets and multiple emerging manager programs for large institutional investors, including public pension plans and corporate plans.
San Francisco-based AGI Capital is an emerging manager-led real estate investment company that focuses on enhancing communities while delivering strong market returns for investors and partners.
CalPERS has invested $12 billion with emerging managers since 1991.
New research from Towers Watson reveals that pension funds are the largest buyer of alternative investments among institutional investors (a designation that includes insurance companies, banks, endowments, etc.).
The research also details the rapid rise of alternatives as a major part of pension fund portfolios—globally, alternatives make up 18 percent of pension portfolios. That number has more than tripled since 1999, when pensions allocated 5 percent of assets toward alternatives.
The research — which includes data on a diverse range of institutional investor types — shows that pension fund assets represent a third (33%) of the top 100 alternative managers’ assets, followed by wealth managers (18%), insurance companies (9%), sovereign wealth funds (6%), banks (3%), funds of funds (3%), and endowments and foundations (3%).
“Pension funds continue to search for new investment opportunities, and alternative assets have been an area where they have made, and continue to make, very significant allocations. While remaining an important investor for traditional alternative managers, pension funds are also at the forefront of investing in new alternatives, for example, in real assets and illiquid credit. But they are by no means the only type of institutional investor looking for capacity with the top alternative managers. Demand from insurers, endowments and foundations, and sovereign wealth funds is on the rise and only going to increase in the future as competition for returns remains fierce,” said [Towers Watson head of manager research Brad] Morrow.
“Pension funds globally continue to put their faith in diversity via increasing alternative assets to help deliver more reliable risk-adjusted returns at the total fund level. This is evidenced by the growth, significant in some instances, in all but one of the asset classes in the past five years. Most of the traditional alternative asset classes are no longer really viewed as alternatives, but just different ways of accessing long-term investment themes and risk premiums. As such, allocations to alternatives will almost certainly continue to increase in the long term but are more likely to be implemented directly via specialist managers rather than funds of funds, although funds of funds will also continue to attract assets, as borne out by this research,” said Morrow.
The research was part of the Global Alternatives Survey, an annual report produced by Towers Watson.
Does it make sense for local governments to turn over the assets of their employee pension plans to insurance companies, who would in turn make monthly payments to retirees?
Here is the problem: for all of my posts about alternative assets in public pensions (though those are troubling when they are a huge portion of the portfolio), it’s not the financial risks per se, or even the longevity risk, that has been killing public pensions, though those do contribute.
It’s that governments are great at promising, but not so great at putting money by to pay for those promises.
Insurers are willing to write group annuities to back pension promises — they did this with GM and Verizon pensions — but you have to give them all the assets they require to back that business. A “fair price” would be less than what is statutorily required, probably, because statutory requirements tend to be very conservative in valuing the liabilities, in order to protect policyholders/annuitants. This is called surplus strain.
But the thing is, even with the “fair price”, governments would have to pay amounts way beyond what they’re paying now, just to meet the pension promises made for past service, forget about any future service accruals.
The main problem is that not enough money has been put by. The risk is not so much that public pensions across the country have been investing too riskily or anything like that (but overly risky investing can make the bad situation worse.)
Now, not all pensions are underfunded as grossly as New Jersey or Illinois. But you don’t get to a 72% overall funded ratio just from those two states.
While insurers might be able to reduce the worry about longevity risk and financial risk for fully-funded plans, they cannot help politicians trying to lowball pension costs.
Her answer, in other words: “No”.
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The endowment investment model, which is widespread among university endowments (hence the name), is often flagged as the best-in-class framework for long-term investors. This is an approach to institutional investment that is almost entirely outsourced and seeks to generate high returns through an aggressive orientation toward private equity and other alternative assets. In 2013 the average U.S. endowment had an allocation to alternatives of 47 percent, down from the previous year’s peak of 54 percent but still much higher than a decade before.
The model was pioneered by David Swensen, chief investment officer at Yale University, through the investment policies he implemented at the school’s endowment. Using this model, Swensen managed to generate a remarkable 15 percent internal rate of return over a 20-year stretch leading up to 2007. Because of Yale’s wild success, the endowment model was copied by hundreds (and probably thousands) of other endowments and institutional investors around the world. Although the model remains popular today, some institutional investors now see it as being at odds with long-term investing and perhaps even damaging to the long-term investment challenge.
Here’s why: The success or failure of this model seems to be based on access to top-performing managers, as endowments believe that certain managers can and do deliver alpha (returns above a market benchmark). The institutions that have privileged access to top managers see themselves as lucky passengers on an investment return rocket ship powered by hedge funds, private equity firms and other alternative managers.
So most (though not all) endowments won’t do anything to rock the boat with these managers. Thanks to this fear of restricted access, the asset managers would seem to hold the power to discipline and influence asset owners. It’s for this reason that many university endowments are more secretive than the most-secretive sovereign wealth funds. They are protecting their external asset managers from scrutiny. In addition, they are protecting themselves from having to inform their stakeholders about how much they are paying in fees (if they even know what they’re paying managers).
And therein lies a fundamental problem with the endowment model: The agents seem to be in charge of the principals.
Read the full piece here.
Photo by Chaval Brasil