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Did CalPERS Make a Mistake on Hedge Funds?

January 13, 2016, 3:46 PM UTC
Photograph by Ken James — Bloomberg/Getty Images

In late 2014, the nation’s largest public pension system said that it would eliminate its hedge fund program. It may have been a mistake.

The announcement by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System garnered nationwide headlines, and was used by hedge fund critics as a cudgel against other public pensions that were not following suit. For its part, CalPERS said that the issue was more about scale than performance, believing that there was not enough quality supply for a system of its size to maintain an allocation.

But then CalPERS seemed to change its rhetoric last week when unveiling its results for fiscal 2015 (which ended on June 30, 2015). Specifically, chief investment officer Ted Eliopoulos wrote the following in the organization’s comprehensive annual financial report:

During the 2014-15 fiscal year this was witnessed by the elimination of CalPERS’ hedge fund program, and through the diligent work to negotiate more favorable terms for CalPERS with our external managers. In the 2014-15 fiscal year we saved $217 million from these and other efforts.

In other words, California’s public pensioners benefited financially from the hedge fund decision. Performance emphasized over scale.

The trouble, however, is that Eliopoulos is looking at the savings in a vacuum. Yes, CalPERS paid less in hedge fund fees (the portfolio was around 75% liquidated through the end of last June, but not completely eliminated). In fact, things always cost less when you don’t buy them. At the same time, however, you also don’t derive any value from them. What CalPERS really needs to do is figure out how much money it would have made by maintaining its hedge fund portfolio, and then measure that against the fee savings.

CalPERS didn’t include that net return math in its report. So I whipped out a pen, calculator, and the back of an envelope. Here we go:

The fair value of the CalPERS absolute return strategy (i.e., hedge funds) was $1.155 billion in the latest CAFR. That’s down from $4.532 billion through June 30, 2014. In other words, it liquidated around $3.377 billion in hedge fund assets.

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Now this is where it begins to get a bit tricky and, I’ll readily admit, hypothetical. CalPERS reports in its new CAFR that the one-year net return for its ARS portfolio was 7.3%. This compares to 7.1% for the year-earlier period. So let’s settle on 7.2% for the best number to use.

That would mean that CalPERS would have generated around $243 million in extra hedge fund returns.

Remember, the savings that Eliopoulos cited was only $217 million. More importantly, that figure included all sorts of fees not related to hedge funds (including select private equity fees). In fact, the hedge fund fee savings—including both investment management and performance fees—was only around $67 million.

What that means is that CalPERS would have generated around $176 million more for its pensioners by maintaining its hedge fund portfolio than by liquidating it. At least on a one-year basis.

Sometimes, “savings” are synonymous with “losses.”

To be sure, my analysis has some arguable holes.

First, hedge fund performance for calendar 2015 was lousy, so it’s entirely possible that the ARS returns would have slumped over the past six months (on the other hand, CalPERS only generated one-year returns of 1% from its public equities portfolio in fiscal 2015, so perhaps its hedge funds were really constructed as a hedge). Second, we do not know exactly where cash from the liquidated hedge positions were reallocated, or the performance of said reallocation (i.e., I’m also playing in a bit of a vacuum). Finally, I’m only looking at this on a one-year basis ―namely because that’s the only available post-liquidation period. For context, the 3-year and 5-year ARS returns were 7.2% and 5.1%, respectively (both well below public and private equity figures, but better than fixed income).

But the primary point remains: CalPERS crowing about savings in the absence of net return data is disingenuous, and particularly troubling given how its headline decisions are followed by other, smaller public pensions.

A CalPERS spokesman declined comment.