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Public pensions keep faltering on private equity

The California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) is expected to release its aggregate data on carried interest payments to its private equity funds, at just about the same time that most American attentions will be turned toward turkey and transit. But I’m sure this timing is just a coincidence, as the public pension giant required its private equity partners to submit their carry information just a scant 133 days ago.

All of this prompted a broader Wall Street Journal story this morning, which breathlessly claimed that public pension systems are now publicly disclosing that “total costs were as much as 100% higher than originally disclosed.” No footnote about how total disclosed costs are almost always 100% more than they were when undisclosed (or infinitely higher, depending on your mathematical lexicography). Nor a mention about how such fees were typically included in net returns. At least it did acknowledge that higher carried interest payments are actually more positive than negative, since carried interest is a percentage of profits. If you aren’t paying any carry, then your private equity portfolio isn’t generating any returns.

But here is the real stunner from the WSJ, in regards to South Carolina’s public pension system:

Pension officials said quarterly financial statements provided by private-equity managers typically didn’t show precisely how the value of the state’s investments had changed or how profits had accrued over multiple years. The statements also often followed a calendar year rather than the state’s fiscal year, said Andrew Chernick, managing director of operations for the state retirement system investment commission. That made it difficult to isolate the impact on South Carolina, he said.

Seriously? You are fiduciaries of a $29.3 billion pension system and struggled to reconcile a calendar year with your fiscal year. Did you consider investing in a first-year accountant? Or maybe just a calculator? Even harder to imagine is that Chernick confessed to such failures to a national newspaper (under the presumed guise of pity).

I continue to struggle with which is worse: Private equity firms trying to pull one over on their public pension investors, or those public pensions so readily allowing it to happen. Dumb money indeed.

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