the CalPERS decision
The California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), the largest public pension system in the US and an early adopter of hedge funds, has announced that it will terminate its entire $4 billion in hedge fund investments over the coming year.
The decision comes after a review of CalPERS’ hedge fund performance by its investment staff following the death from cancer of the organization’s Chief Investment Officer, Joseph Dear. Mr. Dear, a strong proponent of alternative investments such as hedge funds, took the reins at CalPERS in early 2009. His appointment came in the wake of a sharp, recession-induced drop in the value of CalPERS’ assets–and as an alternatives-related “pay to play” scandal involving pension consultants and so-called “placement agents” was unfolding (see my post).
The stated reason for the move is that hedge funds are too complex and too high-cost. Reading between the lines, this seems to me to mean that the hedge funds CalPERS used didn’t provide either the promised diversification or superior returns. My guess is that the professional staff, who have the best understanding of the products, wanted to act quickly, before a new political appointee could arrive to muddy the waters.
In one sense, the CalPERS move should come as no surprise. Although there are a small number of hedge funds run by superb investors, the average offering has pretty steadily underperformed the S&P 500 for over a decade. In addition, the elevated fee structure results in most of what profits there are going to the fund manager, not the client. These factors call into question the rationale for having made the investments in the first place–to reduce the underfunding of pension plans through superior investment performance, so that higher contributions to the plans by the corporation or government body that sponsors them can be avoided. The evidence seems to me to be that hedge funds generally make the underfunding problem worse, not better.
On the other hand, it takes a substantial amount of courage to fire managers who have strong local political connections.
CalPERS is a trend-setter. It may well be in this instance, too. A lot depends on whether the next CIO supports the investment staff decision to end hedge fund exposure or overrides objections. In the former case, this could signal the gradual return to less speculative trading-oriented, more fundamentally driven securities markets.