pension consultants and placement agents: the CalPERS report

the situation

Imagine you’re a global equity portfolio manager.  You have a top quartile record over virtually any period during the prior ten years.  In fact, there’s no one in the US, and only one in the EU, who can equal or better your numbers.  You have presentation skills polished by intense preparation by experts both inside and outside your firm, as well as your many hours of practice.

You visit a pension consultant in Connecticut.  You show him your numbers, make your presentation, and await his comments.

He has only two:

–your presentation skills are terrible.  Before he can recommend you to any clients, you must take a remedial course from his firm.  It costs $25,000.

–he’s not sure you know enough about foreign markets.  The only way he can gain the confidence he needs is if you subscribe to his firm’s international information service.  He shows you the latest copy.  It’s a worthless collection of news clippings–superficial, and weeks behind what your own information network provides.  It costs $50,000 a year.

Summary:  despite the fact your record is better than that of anyone he is currently recommending to clients (who are, incidentally, paying him large amounts of money to do manager searches for them), those clients will only hear your name if you agree to make an upfront payment (read: bribe) of $75,000 and agree to continuing payments of $50,000 a year.

We decline.

Welcome to the Realpolitik of pension consulting.

the CalPERS report

The consultant I’ve described lacks finesse.  It would be more common for a pension manager to agree buy analytic services from a consultant, who would examine the manager’s product offerings for their potential attractiveness to customers.  Paying the consultant to come to your offices and spend time digging through your products will not only give the consultant the knowledge of your products that might otherwise take five years of you visiting him to impart.  But it might engender a feeling of obligation as well.

The biggest weapon in the consultant’s arsenal, however, is his control over the types of products he will recommend that his client buy.  They will be all highly specialized, offering the maximum potential for the consultant to “add value” by applying asset allocation services to the individual pieces a given asset manager sells, thereby customizing a portfolio.

CalPERS wouldn’t see the sometimes seamy interaction between manager and pension consultant.  But that’s small potatoes compared with what the consultant earns by selling manager selection and asset allocation services.

None of this is mentioned in the just-released CalPERS investigative report on placement agents and consultant services.  In fact, the part about consultants is much like the amuse bouche in a five-course meal.  What the report says is this:

1.  Somehow, while it continued to pay pension consultants as neutral third-parties to find managers and monitor performance, CalPERS ended up hiring the same organizations as money managers, as well.  Talk about the fox guarding the chicken coop.

CalPERS has finally worked out that, in addition to not being a sound action from a fiduciary standpoint, this is a no-win situation for it.  If the performance is outstanding (and my casual reading suggests it isn’t), there’s still the blatant conflict of interest.  If it’s poor, there isn’t even a pragmatic justification for the breach of prudent behavior.

2.  The big issue in the report, though, is placement agents.  These are well-connected individuals who sold their privileged access to CalPERS management for tens of millions of dollars in fees paid by third-party money managers, some of whom gained CalPERS as a client.  This appears to have happened predominantly in CalPERS alternative investment and real estate areas.

The report of the investigation, lead by law firm Steptoe and Johnson, LLP, is a carefully crafted document.

The authors point out that they received “universal and unlimited cooperation”  only from CalPERS and its current employees, less than that from others.   Some relevant people, notably former CalPERS CEO Fred Vuenrostro and former board member Alfred Villalobos, refused to cooperate entirely (understandably, perhaps, in the case of the named individuals because the report notes both are defending themselves against charges brought by the California Attorney General).

As I read it, the report makes several, not entirely consistent, points about the attempts of several of CalPERS key alternative investment managers to buy influence through Villalobos and Vuenrostro:

a.  CalPERS lost no money (not relevant from an economic point of view, but likely a key point under state securities laws)

b.  the main operational failure was on the part of the board of directors in not reining Villalobos and Vuenrostro in, and in some cases, aiding their influence-peddling efforts; the staff of CalPERS consistently resisted unwarranted pressure from Vuenrostro to select certain managers or not negotiate fees diligently

c.  nevertheless, the report also cites the case of the former head of CalPERS’ alternative asset arm, who appears to have accepted inappropriate favors from Apollo Global Management, while CalPERS was negotiating to buy a stake in Apollo

d.  in addition, many of the third-party managers who paid a total of $180 million to placement agents, Apollo Global Management, in particular, remain among CalPERS’ “most trusted external managers.”

e.  again, despite the contention that the staff of CalPERS acted entirely appropriately, the report also says that four alternative asset managers, Apollo, relational, Ares and CIM, “agreed to a total of $215 million in fee reductions for CalPERS.”

my thoughts

At least this behavior is out in the open.

To me, the conclusions in the placement agent part of the report don’t add up.  It may be, however, that CalPERS is so deeply entwined with the alternative asset managers who paid placement agents all that money and who overcharged the agency by close to a quarter billion dollars that it isn’t able to extricate itself.  So it has decided to make the best of a bad situation.  We’ll probably find out more as pending lawsuits wend their way through the legal system.

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