New Dynamic Emerging Between Pension Funds and Asset Managers As Pensions Look for Lower Costs, More Transparency

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Many pension funds are moving portions of asset management duties in-house in a bid to reduce costs; many more funds are pushing for more transparency from their external asset managers.

In the wake of these trends and others, a recent State Street survey claims that a new dynamic is emerging between pension funds and their asset managers.

More details on the findings of the survey, from State Street executive Rob Baillie:

Many pension funds are looking for a new type of relationship with their asset managers. In interviews conducted as part of our research, pension funds stressed how important it was to find asset managers who can understand their objectives and investment philosophy. The ability to align interests around shared goals is also key to success in these relationships. More than half of pension funds (52 per cent) find it difficult to ensure their asset managers’ interests are tightly aligned with their own. By contrast, asset managers that can build solutions around their clients’ objectives can gain an edge in a highly competitive market.

Transparency is also a key differentiator. In today’s highly regulated environment, pension funds need granular information on the issues that drive risk and performance across their investments. This is a huge challenge in the multi-asset world: almost three out of five pension funds surveyed (58 per cent) say it is a challenge to gain a complete picture of risk-adjusted performance. Asset managers that develop the analytical tools and reporting capabilities to address this need will again have a huge advantage.

[…]

In recent years, many pension funds have decided to insource some of their asset management. This was one of the strongest findings in State Street’s survey of pension funds: 81 per cent said they intended to manage more of their assets in-house.

Insourcing doesn’t remove the need for external asset management, but it does create a new dynamic in the relationship between pension funds and their service providers. They are less willing to pay a premium for straightforward investment strategies that they can easily support in-house. What they value, however, is asset managers that are able to deliver strong and reliable returns through a tailor-made investment solution.

Read more on the survey results here.

 

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Pension Executive Pay Draws Criticism From Some Corners

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On Sunday, the Financial Times released a list of the highest-paid pension fund CEOs. [The list can be found here.]

The compensation numbers drew criticism from some corners, who said CEOs were getting paid too much at a time when workers are being told to “tighten their belts”. Observers told the Financial Times:

Chris Roberts, director of social and economic policy at the Canadian Labour Congress, described the figures as “alarming”. “These are plans in which trustees have a fiduciary obligation to the plan members. They should be in a similar [financial] relationship to plan members,” he said.

Mr Roberts added that he was particularly concerned with respect to public sector funds. “I am not convinced that these salary levels are warranted when public sector budgets are being squeezed and public sector workers are being told to tighten their belts,” he said.

[…]

Deborah Hargreaves, founding director of the High Pay Centre, a think-tank, said: “These figures highlight why we cannot rely on pension funds to hold companies to account on pay. These pension chief executives are benefiting from the high-pay culture themselves and often see nothing wrong with multimillion-dollar awards for top bosses. Scheme members often have a different outlook, but do not have a chance to have their say.”

[…]

Ms Egan [national pension official at the University and College Union for academics and researchers] said: “[USS members] are aware that [pension executives] get high bonuses because they meet their benchmarks, and yet the funds are doing poorly and members’ benefits are being cut.

“It is problematic and our members find it very difficult. There is a mismatch between the financial world and members who work in the academic world.”

The argument for high pay has always been that it’s necessary to recruit and retain top-flight talent.

Ron Mock of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan justified high executive pay in an interview with the Financial Times last year:

“[To get] upper-quartile performance, you need upper-quartile people,” said Mock.

 

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Video: Africa Pension Executive Talks Investment Strategy, Funding

Here’s an interview with John Oliphant, principle executive of the Government Employees Pension Fund.

The GEPF is the largest institutional investor in Africa; it manages $114 billion in pension assets for over a million workers.

Oliphant talks about the fund’s investment strategy, performance and funding progress.

Report: Hedge Funds Expect Pensions To Up Their Allocations in 2015

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State Street has published a new report, titled The Alpha Game, which analyzes a survey that quizzed 235 hedge fund managers on what the future holds for pensions investing in hedge funds, and other industry trends.

The majority of managers think pension funds will increase their hedge fund holdings over the next few years.

Some key points, from ValueWalk:

The State Street report points out that hedge fund managers are expecting increased capital flows over the next few years. The survey highlighted that nearly two-thirds (65%) of hedge fund managers anticipate ultra-high-net-worth investors will increase their hedge fund holdings, and almost the same number (63%) expect institutional investors will also up their alternative positions. Furthermore, over half (55%) of managers believe pension funds will increase their allocations to alternatives as they look for improved performance and greater diversification

Hedge fund managers also think the main reason for pension funds reducing exposure to Hedge Funds will be disappointment with returns. Nearly half (47%) noted this as their primary concern. The report noter: “This highlights the sharp focus on hedge funds’ ability to deliver value and align with institutional needs.”

Over half of the hedge fund professionals surveyed (53%) think the main reason why pension funds will invest more in hedge funds is to try and boost portfolio performance. Just over one-third (35%) think pension funds are mostly trying to improve portfolio diversification.

The full report can be read here.

 

Photo  jjMustang_79 via Flickr CC License

Study: Pension Funds Can Work Harder To Be Long-Term Investors

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A new paper by Keith Ambachtsheer and John McLaughlin dives into the question: Do pension funds invest for the long term?

Nearly all pension funds would identify themselves long-term investors if asked. But the paper reveals that there is a gap between that sentiment and the funds’ actual investment strategies.

From ai-cio.com:

The authors […] reported a significant gap between the long-term investment aspirations of asset owners and the reality of their strategies’ implementation.

[…]

On long-term investment, the authors said there was “broad consensus” among respondents to the survey that a longer investment timescale was “a valuable activity for both society, and for their own fund.”

“However, there is a significant gap between aspiration and reality to be bridged,” Ambachtsheer and McLaughlin added.

“Here too a concerted effort—both inside pension organizations and among them—will be required to break down these barriers.”

The authors listed the barriers to long-termism: some areas of regulation, a “short-term, peer-sensitive environment”, a lack of clear investment processes and performance metrics, and difficulties in aligning interests with outsourcing providers.

The paper, which also covers governance issues, can be read here.

 

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George Soros: Hedge Funds “Not a Winning Strategy” For Pensions

George Soros

Hedge fund guru George Soros said at the Davos Economic Forum last week that he doesn’t think pension funds should be investing in hedge funds. He cited the current market, management fees and recent under-performance as reasons for his view.

More from FinAlternatives:

George Soros echoed Warren Buffett’s concerns about the intersection of hedge funds and pension funds.

Speaking at the Davos Economic Forum last week, Soros said that pension funds should avoid investing in hedge funds and warned of increased risks and concerns about the global middle class and retirees. Soros cited hedge fund management fees in his argument that pushing public employee money into hedge funds is foolish.

“Current market conditions are difficult for hedge funds,” said Soros. “Their performance tends to be equal to the average plus or minus a 20 percent management fee.”

“You will always have some hedge funds that will provide outside performance …” he continued. “To put a large portfolio into a hedge fund is not a winning strategy.”

Soros founded Soros Fund Management in the late 60’s. For decades, it was one of the best-performing firms in the hedge fund industry.

 

Photo credit: www.stephan-roehl.de via Flickr CC License

Pension Funds Find Farmland To Be Fertile Investment

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Institutional investors are donning their straw hats, opening their tool sheds and getting to work in the crop fields.

Investors are drawn to farmland by strong returns and its weak correlation with other assets.

From The Economist:

Institutional investors such as pension funds see farmland as fertile ground to plough, either doing their own deals or farming them out to specialist funds. Some act as landlords by buying land and leasing it out. Others buy plots of low-value land, such as pastures, and upgrade them to higher-yielding orchards. Investors who are keen on even bigger risks and rewards flock to places such as Brazil, Ukraine and Zambia, where farming techniques are often still underdeveloped and potential productivity gains immense.

Farmland has been a great investment over the past 20 years, certainly in America, where annual returns of 12% caused some to dub it “gold with a coupon”. In America and Britain, where tax incentives have distorted the market, it outperformed most major asset classes over the past decade, and with low volatility to boot. Those going against the grain warn of a land-price bubble. Believers argue that increasing demand and shrinking supply—as well as urbanisation, poor soil management and pressure on water systems that are threats to farmland—mean the investment case is on solid ground.

It is not just the asset appreciation and yields that attract outside capital, says Bruce Sherrick of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: as important is the diversification to portfolios that farmland offers. It is uncorrelated with paper assets such as stocks and bonds, has proven relatively resistant to inflation, and is less sensitive to economic shocks (people continue to eat even during downturns) and to interest-rate hikes. Moreover, in the aftermath of the financial crisis investors are reassured by assets they can touch and sniff.

Read the full report from the Economist here.

Arizona Pension CIO Counters Claims of Being States Worst-Performing System

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Ryan Parham, chief investment officer of the Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS), penned a piece in the Arizona Capitol Times on Thursday defending his fund against claims of being Arizona’s “worst-performing pension plan.”

But Parham says the raw return numbers don’t tell the whole story. Here’s what Parham has to say:

All too often, fiction and gossip move faster than truth and reason. As such, it is often stated by our detractors that our $8 billion portfolio is the state’s “worst-performing pension plan,” which gives the impression that our investment staff is incompetent and responsible for the trust’s sagging pension funding levels.

The truth is: the Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System has an enviable investment record. Prominent industry consultants rank PSPRS among the top 4 percent of all U.S. pension funds in risk-adjusted returns for the past three years. We also join the top 11 percent of all U.S. pension funds for the past five years. While these facts might not make for a provocative headline, they matter to our beneficiaries, our contributors, our staff and our elected officials.

[…]

Last fiscal year, PSPRS outperformed national risk-adjusted averages by one half of 1 percent. It sounds miniscule, but it meant an additional $380 million in value to the trust. Our actively managed strategy is simple: Diversify assets and reduce exposure to publicly traded equities, the greatest driver of market volatility. High-risk strategies and lack of diversification have proven disastrous for PSPRS, as evidenced by $1 billion losses suffered in the 2000-2001 “dot-com” market crash.

While it is true that in recent years PSPRS’ returns have been less than its sister plan, the Arizona State Retirement System (ASRS), it is important to remember our innovative, low-risk, moderate return strategy is by conscious design, due to a pension benefit that PSPRS alone must pay to pensioners. This benefit, called the Permanent Benefit Increase, or “PBI,” siphons and distributes half of all returns in excess of 9 percent to eligible retirees. Not only are these increased payment levels made permanent, the investment gains only serve to increase – not decrease – unfunded future liabilities.

Read the entire column here.

 

Photo: “Entering Arizona on I-10 Westbound” by Wing-Chi Poon – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Kolivakis Weighs In On CalPERS’ PE Benchmark Review

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It was revealed last week that CalPERS has plans to review its private equity benchmarks. The pension giant’s staff says the benchmark is too aggressive – in their words, the current system “creates unintended active risk for the program”.

Pension360 last week published the take of Naked Capitalism’s Yves Smith on the situation. Here’s the analysis of pension investment analyst Leo Kolivakis, publisher of Pension Pulse, who takes a different stance.

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By Leo Kolivakis [Originally published on Pension Pulse]

I was contacted in January 2013 by Réal Desrochers, their head of private equity who I know well, to discuss this issue. Réal wanted to hire me as an external consultant to review their benchmark relative to their peer group and industry best practices.

Unfortunately, I am not a registered investment advisor with the SEC which made it impossible for CalPERS to hire me. I did however provide my thoughts to Réal along with some perspectives on PE benchmarks and told him unequivocally that CalPERS current benchmark is very high, especially relative to its peers, making it almost impossible to beat without taking serious risks.

Almost two years later, we now find out that CalPERS is looking to change its private equity benchmark to better reflect the risks of the underlying portfolio. Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, aka Susan Webber, came out swinging (again!) stating CalPERS is lowering its private equity benchmark to justify its crappy performance.

There are things I agree with but her lengthy and often vitriolic ramblings just annoy the hell out of me. She didn’t bother to mention how Réal Desrochers inherited a mess in private equity and still has to revamp that portfolio.

More importantly, she never invested a dime in private equity and quite frankly is far from being an authority on PE benchmarks. Moreover, she is completely biased against CalPERS and allows this to cloud her objectivity. Also, her dispersion argument is flimsy at best.

Let me be fully transparent and state that neither Réal Desrochers nor CalPERS ever paid me a dime for my blog even though I asked them to contribute. I am actually quite disappointed with Réal who seems to only contact me when it suits his needs but I am still able to maintain my objectivity.

I remember having a conversation with Leo de Bever, CEO at AIMCo, on this topic a while ago. We discussed the opportunity cost of investing in private markets is investing in public markets. So the correct benchmark should reflect this, along with a premium for illiquidity risk and leverage. Leo even told me “while you will underperform over any given year, you should outperform over the long-run.”

I agreed with his views and yet AIMCo uses a simple benchmark of MSCI All Country World Net Total Return Index as their private equity benchmark (page 33 of AIMCo’s Annual Report). When I confronted Leo about this, he shrugged it off saying “over the long-run it works out fine.” Grant Marsden, AIMCo’s former head of risk who is now head of risk at ADIA, had other thoughts but it shows you that even smart people don’t always get private market benchmarks right.

And AIMCo is one of the better ones. At least they publish all their private market benchmarks and I can tell you the benchmarks they use for their inflation-sensitive investments are better than what most of their peers use.

Now, my biggest beef with CalPERS changing their private equity benchmark is timing. If we are about to head into a period of low returns for public equities, then you should have some premium over public market investments. The exact level of that premium is left open for debate and I don’t rely on academic studies for setting it. But there needs to be some illiquidity premium attached to private equity, real estate and other private market investments.

Finally, I note the Caisse’s private equity also underperformed its benchmark in 2013 but handily outperformed it over the last four years. In its 2013 Annual Report, the Caisse states the private equity portfolio underperformed last year because “50% of its benchmark is based on an equity index that recorded strong gains in 2013″ (page 39) but it fails to provide what exactly this benchmark is on page 42.

Also, in my comment going over PSP’s FY 2014 results, I noted the following:

Over last four fiscal years, the bulk of the value added that PSP generated over its (benchmark) Policy Portfolio has come from two asset classes: private equity and real estate. The former gained 16.9% vs 13.7% benchmark return while the latter gained 12.6% vs 5.9% benchmark over the last four fiscal years. That last point is critically important because it explains the excess return over the Policy Portfolio from active management on page 16 during the last ten and four fiscal years (click on image).

But you might ask what are the benchmarks for these Private Market asset classes? The answer is provided on page 18 (click on image).

What troubles me is that it has been over six years since I wrote my comment on alternative investments and bogus benchmarks, exposing their ridiculously low benchmark for real estate (CPI + 500 basis points). André Collin, PSP’s former head of real estate, implemented this silly benchmark, took all sorts of risk in opportunistic real estate, made millions in compensation and then joined Lone Star, a private real estate fund that he invested billions with while at the Caisse and PSP and is now the president of that fund.
And yet the Auditor General of Canada turned a blind eye to all this shady activity and worse still, PSP’s board of directors has failed to fix the benchmarks in all Private Market asset classes to reflect the real risks of their underlying portfolio.

All this to say that private equity, real estate, infrastructure and timberland benchmarks are all over the map at the biggest best known pension funds across the world. There are specific reasons for this but it’s incredibly annoying and frustrating for supervisors and stakeholders trying to make sense of which is the appropriate benchmark to use for private market investments, one that truly reflects the risks of the underlying investments (you will get all sorts of “expert opinions” on this subject).

 

Photo by  rocor via Flickr CC License

Chart: Which Type of Private Equity Investors Are Most Resistant to Letting An Underperforming Fund Change It’s Terms?

limited partners, private equity

Consider this scenario: A limited partner invests money in a private equity fund under a certain set of terms and conditions. But eventually, it becomes clear the fund isn’t achieving the preferred performance and the general partner (PE firm) approaches the LP to re-set the terms of the deal.

A recent survey asked institutional investors whether they would comply with the GP’s request.

Turns out, pension funds would be more resistant to the changing of terms that any other type of institutional investor – over 60 percent said they would refuse to re-set terms.

 

Chart credit: Coller Capital