San Diego County Pension Trustee Decries Investment Strategy, CIO in Newspaper

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Samantha Begovich, a trustee for the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association (SDCERA), has penned a column in an area newspaper decrying the fund’s outsourced CIO, Salient Partners, and its investment strategy.

The fund voted last year to move on from Salient Partners and hire an in-house CIO after critics called Salient’s investment strategy too risky. But the process has been slow, and Salient could retain asset management duties until November 2015.

The public nature of Begovich’s complaints is unprecedented for a trustee of a fund that, until late last year, didn’t allow its board members to talk to the media at all.

From the column, published in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

I have repeatedly asked that Salient be sent a 30-day termination letter. CalPERS and CalSTRS posted 19 percent returns for 2014. SDCERA? 9 percent. The fund will be short $700 million of its Salient moonshot this fiscal year. How did this happen?

[…]

Critics allege one-sided staging in support of Salient. In August, realists took the mic. Expert after expert said our fund was at-risk. They said it is conflicted and imprudent having one subcontractor direct all $10 billion. They erupted at the irrationality of this adviser investing 50 percent of our money in his product line. If speech bubbles were above the experts, they would’ve said, “Say what?”

Imagine dealing with someone both clergy and salesperson to you. A word picture: Your rabbi/priest/cleric says, “It would be wise and virtuous for you to invest $2 billion in Advanced Manufacturing in the CaliBaja Mega Region. I have no track record, but you should invest in my CaliBaja Advanced Manufacturing firm.” See the tension? Asked why we weren’t in rival funds with stellar track records, Salient’s Lee Partridge said: “I don’t want to talk about my competition.”

Kudos to University of California Chief Investment Officer Jagdeep Singh Baccher, manager of $91 billion, for not laughing when I asked: What do you think of our investment strategy wherein 25 percent of our portfolio puts total value at risk of loss? He paused in disbelief and sagely said: “Well, I think you have your answer, don’t you?”

The fund’s board voted 8-1 last November to move CIO duties in-house and thus cut ties with Salient Partners.

 

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Fired CIO of San Diego Pension May Retain Role Until Nearly 2016

board room chair

Trustees of the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association (SDCERA) voted in November to fire the firm acting as its outsourced CIO, Salient Partners, and hire an in-house official.

The pension fund could make that hire by March. But trustees learned this week that Salient Partners could retain its asset management duties until November 2015.

The reason for the delay: a consultant told the board that it would be best if Salient continued its duties while a new CIO adjusted to the job and developed and investment strategy.

From U-T San Diego:

Salient Partners, the embattled outside investment strategist for San Diego County’s pension fund, may continue managing much of the $10.3 billion fund through November.

The timeline, which was presented at a meeting Thursday by the pension system’s independent consultant, surprised some trustees who’ve been pressing to fire Salient since late summer.

[…]

“I also thought I understood, at the end of the year (2014), it was stated that we would be terminating the Salient contract after we hired the CIO,” said trustee and county supervisor Dianne Jacob, who moved in September to terminate the contract and begin a transition. The board rejected the motion.

[The fund’s consultant] Scott Whalen advised the board to let Salient continue managing its portions of the portfolio until a new CIO was in place and trustees had settled on a new strategy.

He said the board could fire the firm and shift the investments into index funds, but that would amount to two major portfolio transitions in a brief period.

The SDCERA board voted 8-1 in November to move CIO duties in-house and thus cut ties with Salient Partners.

San Diego Pension to Begin Recruiting New CIO In 2015, But Board Worried Internal Clashes Could Scare Candidates Away

Now HiringThe board of the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association (SDCERA) heard plans to begin recruiting a new chief investment officer in 2015 – including job postings and coming up with a pool of candidates.

Previously, it had only been decided that the fund would move on from current-CIO Salient Partners, and a general salary range for the new job was decided upon.

But board members wondered aloud at Thursday’s meeting whether the internal drama at the fund would scare good candidates away.

From ai-cio.com:

Mary Hobson of recruitment firm EFL Associates told the board on Thursday that job postings would go up early in the new year. She said she aims to present a pool of candidates to the board for consideration by February 6.

Already, according to Hobson, between eight and ten people have contacted her expressing interest in the position.

However, board members themselves indicated that recruitment efforts could be hamstrung by their highly public and ongoing infighting.

Vice Chairman David Meyers, who has consistently supported the deal with Salient Partners, asked that transcripts of yesterday’s meeting and one in September be combined and given to serious candidates for the job.

“The hypocrisy of this board should be shared with any new CIO that comes forward,” Meyers said. “Talk about running scared.”

The salary for the new position remains capped by lawmakers at $209,000 per year, although Hobson intends to recruit candidates that could fall outside that range.

“I want to leave us wiggle room to talk to people who may need more than that, to see if you can try and push that through,” she said. The job posting will stipulate “a competitive salary,” and said, intentionally leaving compensation details “pretty vague.”

Following individual discussions with the board members, Hobson strengthened the posting to say SDCERA “encouraged diversity” from interested parties, and she would work to present them with minority and women candidates.

The CIO would oversee $10.5 billion in assets.

 

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San Diego Pension’s Risk Reduction Yields Mixed Short-Term Results

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A series of investment policy changes made by the board of the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association (SDCERA) have saved the fund from losing tens of millions – but also prevented the fund from realizing tens of millions in returns during the third quarter.

Pension funds are particularly long-term investors and no investment policy should be judged based on one quarter’s worth of results, but the outcomes of SDCERA’s allocation changes are fascinating nonetheless.

From Bloomberg:

San Diego County’s pension fund avoided a $100 million loss in the third quarter by reducing its reliance on Treasury bonds although it forfeited about $114.4 million in gains in the past three months because it rolled back its “risk-parity” strategy, the fund’s investment adviser said in a report.

In April, the board of the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association lowered the fund’s fixed-income target to 15 percent from 60 percent by eliminating Treasuries and reducing fixed-income investments and inflation-protected securities. That helped cushion the fund from $100 million in losses in the three months ended Sept. 30, according to the report by Houston-based Salient Partners LP, which manages the $10.1 billion portfolio.

Instead, the fund for 39,000 current and retired county employees lost $4 million.

In September, the board reduced the amount of money that could be invested in futures and derivatives contracts, the so-called risk-parity category the board created in April at the urging of Lee Partridge, Salient’s chief investment officer.

Partridge objected to the September move. With retirees urging board members to reduce exposure to risk, they voted 5-2 to make the change.

Since then, the fund has lost out on about $114.4 million in returns, according to Partridge’s report.

Partridge and Dan Flores, a spokesman for the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association, declined to comment until the board discusses the report on Dec. 18.

SDCERA’s board voted to fire its outsourced CIO, Salient Partners, last month.

 

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Questions Raised About “Dual Structure” of Governance At San Diego Pension Fund

puzzle pieces, question marks

Most of the news surrounding the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association (SDCERA) has been about the board’s decision to move on from its outsourced CIO, Salient Partners.

But also noteworthy are parts of SDCERA’s governance structure. At least one expert has raised concerns about the effectiveness of the fund’s “dual” reporting structure.

Dan McSwain of the San Diego Union-Tribune writes:

Structural woes were the main take-away from a parade of experts at a two-day workshop held last month by the system’s nine-member board of trustees.

[…]

One expert at the workshop, hired by the board to evaluate its governance, said the chief executive wasn’t clearly accountable for the fund’s investments. Indeed, the Houston-based chief investment officer appeared to report directly to the board.

This “dual structure” is found almost nowhere else. Instead, the CIO reports to the CEO, in a straight line of authority, at nearly every public or corporate pension fund in the world, not to mention insurance companies and private endowments.

Another expert said conflicts of interest were “inherent” in the county’s outsourced investment management structure. Yet another questioned the oversight of the retirement system’s outside lawyers, one of whom also reports directly to the board.

Still, the most obvious problem was the one nobody talked about, at least explicitly: Responsibility for this chronic buck-spreading lands squarely on White, the chief executive officer since 1996. If the county’s pension system has structural flaws, it’s hard to imagine how that’s not also a CEO problem.

Fund CEO Brian White defended the structure:

The outsourced CIO, Lee Partridge of Salient Partners, does in fact report to the CEO, White said, so the system already had the “linear” structure recommended by several governance experts.

“We’ve had a linear structure here, and I think what the board did Friday was confirm or reaffirm the linear structure,” he said, referring to the board’s vote on Nov. 21 to hire an internal CIO and have the position report directly to the chief executive.

White also said that, acting as investment strategist, Partridge was indeed supervising his own firm’s direct management of leveraged investments. But this wasn’t the “inherent” conflict of interest one expert asserted, because no money changed hands as additional fees, White said. Besides, the board of trustees endorsed the idea.

“I’m here to serve the board and support their decision,” he said. “That’s what they wanted.”

SDCERA manages $10.5 billion in assets.

 

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San Diego Pension Begins Transition To In-House CIO

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The Board of the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association (SDCERA) moved closer on Thursday to firing Salient Partners, the firm that acts as the pension fund’s chief investment officer.

Board members indicated that the firing was all but official, but that the transition to a new CIO still needs to be worked out.

From Bloomberg:

If the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association goes ahead with the proposal, it would mean the end of the fund’s five-year relationship with Houston-based Salient Partners LP, said board member Dianne Jacob, a San Diego County supervisor.

Just two months ago, the board voted 5-4 against firing Salient after some officials criticized the chief investment officer, Lee Partridge, as needlessly risking retiree income through use of futures contracts tied to securities and commodities.

“It sounds like we are going to terminate the contract,” Jacob said yesterday in a board meeting in San Diego. “It’s just a matter of timing and the transition.”

The company remains committed to its work in San Diego, said Chris Moon Ashraf, a spokeswoman for Salient at Jennifer Connelly Public Relations.

“Should the board determine that a change in provider is in the best interest of its members, Salient will work to ensure a smooth and expeditious transition,” she said in a statement.

The pension board directed its staff to set the timing for terminating the contract with Salient. The board didn’t schedule a vote on ending the contract, or take action on hiring an internal investment chief.

SDCERA pays Salient Partners around $8 million a year. Board members have previously indicated that the salary for a new CIO would likely be around $260,000.

San Diego Pension Board Votes to Move CIO In-House; Approves Other Governance Changes

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The San Diego County Employees Retirement Association formally voted on Friday to begin searching for an in-house chief investment officer to replace Salient Partners, the firm currently serving as the fund’s outsourced CIO.

The board also made several changes in governance structure. From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Near the end of a two-day board retreat this week, trustees voted 8-1 to return to an in-house chief investment officer rather than rely on an outsourced portfolio strategist.

Trustee David Myers was sole opponent to the reversal.

The board is likely to start the recruiting process for a CIO as soon as next month.

Pension officials also reversed course on their unusual governance structure, a model that had both CEO Brian White and Salient principal Lee Partridge reporting to the board.

Under the new organizational chart, the in-house chief investment officer will report to the CEO, who in turn will report to the board.

Consultants invited to the two-day retreat told trustees that retaining the dual-reporting model was not among the best practices for public pension systems.

One area of concern for trustees: could the pension fund offer a high enough salary to attract a talented CIO? More from ai-cio.com:

Board members aired their views on Friday about how much the county would be willing to pay. The matter concerned Dick Vortmann, who said he did not want SDCERA to end up with “the best of the rest” if the fund was not allowed sufficient budget to hire someone with the requisite skillset to manage investments.

Jacob said the annual salary would be in the $200,000 to $300,000 a year range. She referenced the $4.5 million that was agreed for the four year contract with Salient and said the county “would probably baulk at that.”

[…]

Board Chairman “Skip” Murphy voted with the motion, but said if the county did not agree to a pay package that would attract the right candidate, he was “in a world of hurt”.

Read more coverage of the decision here and here.

San Diego Pension Close to Firing Outsourced CIO, Bringing Investment Management In-House

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The San Diego County Employees Retirement Association (SDCERA) is on the verge of firing its controversial outsourced CIO, Lee Partridge of Salient Partners.

Board members held a mock vote on the issue, and the firing was “approved” 7-0.

If Salient Partners is indeed fired, the SDCERA would move its investment management in-house.

More on the situation from the Union-Tribune:

The county retirement board has made an informal decision to end its five-year experiment with a Texas portfolio strategist and return oversight of the $10 billion pension fund to an in-house expert.

The vote came late Thursday toward the close of another marathon meeting of the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association board, which has been racked with discord in recent months over its leverage-heavy investment policy.

An hour into a late-afternoon discussion on governance models, Trustee Dick Vortmann suggested their time might be better spent if they knew whether the board majority still supported using an outsourced chief investment officer.

“Can we take a straw poll right now?” he asked. “For Christ’s sake, if it isn’t a close debate, why are we debating?”

Minutes later, all seven trustees in attendance raised their hand to show they are ready to hire an internal investment officer to manage the fund — a function that has been served by Salient Partners of Houston.

The 7-0 vote isn’t as clear cut as it sounds.

The vote wasn’t official – and it didn’t include all the trustees. Two trustees had left the meeting before the vote was held. At least one of those trustees, David Myers, is likely to vote to retain Salient Partners. From the Union-Tribune:

The nonbinding vote excluded board members David Myers, who was absent, and Mark Oemcke, who left the meeting earlier in the day. Myers has been a staunch supporter of Salient and its main representative in San Diego, Lee Partridge. Oemcke has not.

Three of the seven board members to vote — Vortmann, Kristina Maxwell and E.F. “Skip” Murphy — said they were raising “half a hand” to reflect concern over finding the right candidate for the job.

“It’s qualified on the assumption that we can find the requisite skills to match our desired level of sophistication on our investment philosophy,” Vortmann said.

No one from Salient was at the meeting.

While not yet formalized, the decision to abandon the outsourced CIO model prompted trustees to begin the process of recruiting an in-house investment expert.

They plan to hire an executive search firm in two weeks, when the board convenes a special two-day retreat. Installing a chief investment officer is expected to take between four and six months.

SDCERA pays Salient $10 million a year to perform CIO duties.

A consultant told the SDCERA board that they could likely hire a new, qualified CIO for less than $250,000.

San Diego Fund Trustee May Have Breached Code of Ethics While Lobbying For CIO

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The San Diego County Employees Retirement Association (SDCERA) board voted last week to retain its controversial chief investment officer, Lee Partridge, and his firm, Salient Partners.

The vote was 5 to 4, and trustees on both sides of the vote were adamant about their position.

But did one trustee go to0 far while lobbying to keep Partridge? Board Vice Chairman David Myers may have breached a code of ethics when he sent emails to his subordinates asking that they vouch for Partridge. From the San Diego Union Times:

Before the county pension board met last week and decided to keep its Texas consultant in charge of investments, Vice Chairman David Myers urged retired employees to email the agency to voice support for Lee Partridge and Salient Partners.

Myers’ request also was sent to current workers, including his own subordinates at the Sheriff’s Department. The communications raise the question of whether Myers put undue pressure on rank-and-file employees to send emails on a political matter.

Two weeks ago, when U-T Watchdog asked Myers whether it was appropriate for a senior commander to make such requests of subordinate employees, he declined to respond.

The San Diego County Employees Retirement Association responded on Myers’ behalf, saying he only contacted retirees — not the hundreds of deputies that serve beneath him.

But in emails since obtained under the California Public Records Act, Myers states that he included his own subordinates in his effort to retain Partridge’s services, sending them a three-page letter in support of Partridge’s contract and asking them to advocate for it.

“I sent to all law enforcement members, active and retired,” Myers wrote to pension system CEO Brian White on Sept. 24, adding that all 40 responses he received were positive. “I am asking them to also communicate that message via email to SDCERA.”

There may be further emails from Myers to employees on the subject. The county has delayed release of five additional emails pending input from the pension system.

Those actions could be in breach of the SDCERA Code of Ethics, according to U-T San Diego:

The SDCERA Code of Ethics says trustees must remain objective and says “misuse of influence” is unacceptable. The code does not specify what types of misused influence are at issue, and agency officials declined to discuss Myers’ actions.

Jan Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department, said there is no issue with Myers’ communications with front-line staff.

“The San Diego County Sheriffs’ Department does not have a policy or procedure that would preclude an employee representative of the County’s Retirement Association from communicating to county employees on matters of interest to county employees relating to their retirement system,” she said.

Bruce Cain, a political-science professor at Stanford University, questioned the wisdom of a higher-up asking subordinates to become activists in any cause.

“Typically you don’t want senior people engaging in this kind of thing because it could be perceived as pressure,” Cain said.

Max Neiman, senior research fellow at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed, saying, “I would find that unseemly, if not a violation of ethics or the law.”

SDCERA spokesmen have maintained that Myers didn’t violate any ethics codes.

San Diego Fund Votes 5-4 To Retain Controversial CIO

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After a “tense” five-hour deliberation, the Board of the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association (SDCERA) voted 5-4 to retain its outsourced chief investment officer.

The pension fund and its CIO, Lee Partridge, have made headlines in recent months due to their high tolerance for risk and extensive use of leverage.

From Chief Investment Officer Magazine:

The board of the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association (SDCERA) declined to terminate its contract with outsourced-CIO Salient Partners at a meeting on Thursday.

As predicted by those close to the $10 billion fund, the vote came down to the wire. After nearly five hours of discussion, a motion brought by trustee Dianne Jacobs to fire Salient was blocked by five trustees, including Chairman Skip Murphy, and backed by four.

Several stakeholders presented formal recommendations about the action before the board’s vote. The majority of these representatives urged the fiduciaries not to reverse their course—a risk-parity oriented portfolio overseen and invested by Salient.

“We believe your board is at a serious juncture,” said Susan Mallett, president of the county’s retired employee association. “You are suddenly and unexpectedly considering a reversal from an investment strategy you had agreed on after years of considered discussion. As a representative of thousands of members who absolutely depend on their pensions, I have received as many worried letters about leverage as I have about the actions of this board.”

Though the majority of trustees opted not to vote for a firing, the minority was very vocal during the meeting. From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

“The CEO, Brian White, has put SDCERA in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons,” said County Treasurer Dan McAllister, who serves on the pension board as part of his elected duties. “This is not the behavior we should expect from the CEO of one of the largest public pensions in the state.”

Dianne Jacob, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, made a motion to terminate the Salient contract early in the meeting.

“It’s time to steer things back to the basics of simplicity and common sense not because we have received criticism but because it’s the right thing to do for retirees and taxpayers,” Jacob said.

Jacob received the support of only three of her colleagues on the nine-member SDCERA board — Samantha Begovich, Mark Oemcke and McAllister. Five votes were required to terminate the contract.

Begovich, a prosecutor who recently joined the board, used the strongest language against the consulting firm, saying it has taken advantage of the pension system and has a stranglehold on more than $10 billion of public funds. She said supporters of the firm for years have presented one-sided information about the wisdom and soundness of its investment approach. She called the firm poisonous for San Diego County.

The Board did express the desire to gradually unwind its contract with the CIO and directed its staff to come up with some options for taking control out of the hands of Lee Partridge.

Those options will likely be presented at next month’s board meeting.

 

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