Friday, February 24, 2017

La Caisse Gains 7.6% in 2016

The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec today released its financial results for calendar year 2016, posting a 10.2% five-year annualized return:
La Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec today released its financial results for the year ended December 31, 2016. The annualized weighted average return on its clients’ funds reached 10.2% over five years and 7.6% in 2016.

Net assets totalled $270.7 billion, increasing by $111.7 billion over five years, with net investment results of $100 billion and $11.7 billion in net deposits from its clients. In 2016, net investment results reached $18.4 billion and net deposits totalled $4.3 billion.

Over five years, the difference between la Caisse’s return and that of its benchmark portfolio represents more than $12.3 billion of value added for its clients. In 2016, the difference was equivalent to $4.4 billion of value added.

Caisse and benchmark portfolio returns


“Our strategy, focused on rigorous asset selection, continues to deliver solid results,” said Michael Sabia, President and Chief Executive Officer of la Caisse. “Over five years, despite substantially different market conditions from year to year, we generated an annualized return of 10.2%.”

“On the economic front, the fundamental issue remains the same: slow global growth, exacerbated by low business investment. At the same time, there are also significant geopolitical risks. Given the relative complacency of markets, we need to adopt a prudent approach.”

“However, taking a prudent approach does not mean inaction, because there are opportunities to be seized in this environment. Through our global exposure, our presence in Québec, and the rigour of our analyses and processes, we’re well-positioned to seize the best opportunities in the world and face any headwinds,” added Mr. Sabia.

RETURNS BY ASSET CLASS


HIGHLIGHTS OF THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS

The strategy that la Caisse has been implementing for seven years focuses on an absolute-return management approach in order to select the highest-quality securities and assets, based on fundamental analysis. La Caisse’s strategy also aims to enhance its exposure to global markets and strengthen its impact in Québec. The result is a well-diversified portfolio that generates value beyond the markets and brings long-term stability.

Bonds: performance in corporate credit stands out

The Bonds portfolio, totalling more than $68 billion, posted a 3.9% return over five years, higher than that of its benchmark. The difference is equivalent to value added of $1.6 billion. Securities of public and private companies and the active management of credit spreads in particular contributed to the portfolio’s return.

In 2016, despite an increase in interest rates at year-end, the portfolio posted a 3.1% return. It benefited from continued investment in growth market debt and from the solid performance of corporate debt, particularly in the industrial sector.

Public equity: sustained returns over five years and the Canadian market rebound in 2016

Over the five-year period, the annualized return of the entire Public Equity portfolio reached 14.1%. In addition to demonstrating solid market growth over the period, the return exceeded that of the benchmark, reflecting the portfolio’s broad diversification, its focus on quality securities and well-selected partners in growth markets. The Global Quality, Canada and Growth Markets mandates generated, respectively, annualized returns of 18.6%, 10.6% and 8.1%, creating $5.8 billion of value added.

For 2016, the 4.0% return on the Global Quality mandate reflects the depreciation of international currencies against the Canadian dollar. The mandate continued to be much less volatile than the market. The Canada mandate, with a 22.7% return, benefited from a robust Canadian market, driven by the recovery in oil and commodity prices and the financial sector’s solid performance, particularly in the second half of the year.

Less-liquid assets: globalization well underway and a solid performance

The three portfolios of less-liquid assets – Real Estate, Infrastructure and Private Equity – posted a 12.3% annualized return over five years, demonstrating solid and stable results over time. During this period, investments reached more than $60.1 billion. In 2016, $2.4 billion were invested in growth markets, including $1.3 billion in India, where growth prospects are favourable and structural reforms are well underway. The less-liquid asset portfolios are central to la Caisse’s globalization strategy, with their exposure outside Canada today reaching 70%.

More specifically, in Real Estate, Ivanhoé Cambridge invested $5.8 billion and its geographic and sector-based diversification strategy continued to perform. In the United States, the Caisse subsidiary acquired the remaining interests in 330 Hudson Street and 1211 Avenue of the Americas in New York and completed construction of the River Point office tower in Chicago. In the residential sector, the strategy in cities such as London, San Francisco and New York and the steady demand for residential rental properties generated solid returns. In Europe, Ivanhoé Cambridge and its partner TPG also completed the sale of P3 Logistic Parks, one of the largest real estate transactions on the continent in 2016. In Asia-Pacific, Ivanhoé Cambridge acquired an interest in the company LOGOS, its investment partner in the logistics sector, alongside which it continues to invest in Shanghai, Singapore and Melbourne.

In Private Equity, la Caisse invested $7.8 billion over the past year, in well-diversified markets and industries. Through the transactions carried out in 2016, la Caisse developed strategic partnerships with founders, families of entrepreneurs and operators that share its long-term vision. In the United States, it acquired a significant ownership stake in AlixPartners, a global advisory firm. La Caisse also acquired a 44% interest in the Australian insurance company Greenstone and invested in the European company Eurofins, a world leader in analytical laboratory testing of food, environmental and pharmaceutical products. In India, la Caisse became a partner of Edelweiss, a leader in stressed assets and specialized corporate credit. It also invested in TVS Logistics Services, an Indian multinational provider of third-party logistics services.

In Infrastructure, la Caisse partnered with DP World, one of the world’s largest port operators, to create a $5-billion investment platform intended for ports and terminals globally. The platform, in which la Caisse holds a 45% share, includes two Canadian container terminals located in Vancouver and Prince Rupert. In India’s energy sector, la Caisse acquired a 21% interest in Azure Power Global, one of India’s largest solar power producers. Over the year, la Caisse also strengthened its long-standing partnership with Australia’s Plenary Group by acquiring a 20% interest in the company. Together, la Caisse and Plenary Group have already invested in seven social infrastructure projects in Australia.

Impact in Québec: a focus on the private sector

In Québec, la Caisse focuses on the private sector, which drives economic growth. La Caisse’s strategy is built around three main priorities: growth and globalization, impactful projects, and innovation and the next generation.

Growth and globalization

In 2016, la Caisse worked closely with Groupe Marcelle’s management team when it acquired Lise Watier Cosmétiques to create the leading Canadian company in the beauty industry. It also supported Moment Factory’s creation of a new entity dedicated to permanent multimedia infrastructure projects, and worked with Lasik MD during an acquisition in the U.S. market. Furthermore, by providing Fix Auto with access to its networks, la Caisse facilitated Fix Auto’s expansion into China and Australia where the company now has around 100 body shops.

Impactful projects

In spring 2016, CDPQ Infra, a subsidiary of la Caisse, announced its integrated, electric public transit network project to link downtown Montréal, the South Shore, the West Island, the North Shore and the airport. Since then, several major steps have been completed on the Réseau électrique métropolitain (REM) project, with construction scheduled to begin in 2017.

In real estate, Ivanhoé Cambridge and its partner Claridge announced their intention to invest $100 million in real estate projects in the Greater Montréal area. La Caisse’s real estate subsidiary also continued with various construction and revitalization projects in Québec, including those underway at Carrefour de l’Estrie in Sherbrooke, Maison Manuvie and Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth hotel in Montréal, as well as at Place Ste-Foy and Quartier QB in Québec City.

Innovation and the next generation

In the new media industry, la Caisse made investments in Triotech, which designs, manufactures and markets rides based on a multi-sensorial experience; in Felix & Paul Studios, specialized in the creation of cinematic virtual reality experiences; and in Stingray, a leading multi-platform musical services provider. La Caisse also invested in Hopper, ranked among the top 10 mobile applications in the travel industry. Within the electric ecosystem, la Caisse reinvested in AddÉnergie to support the company’s deployment plan, aimed at adding 8,000 new charging stations across Canada in the next five years.

In the past five years, la Caisse’s new investments and commitments in Québec reached $13.7 billion, with $2.5 billion in 2016. These figures do not include the investment in Bombardier Transportation and the $3.1-billion planned commitment by la Caisse to carry out the REM project. As at December 31, Caisse assets in Québec totalled $58.8 billion, of which $36.9 billion were in the private sector, which is an increase in private assets compared to 2015.

FINANCIAL REPORTING

La Caisse’s operating expenses, including external management fees, totalled $501 million in 2016. The ratio of expenses was 20.0 cents per $100 of average net assets, a level that compares favourably to that of its industry.

The credit rating agencies reaffirmed la Caisse’s investment-grade ratings with a stable outlook, namely AAA (DBRS), AAA (S&P) et Aaa (Moody’s).
ABOUT CAISSE DE DÉPÔT ET PLACEMENT DU QUÉBEC

Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ) is a long-term institutional investor that manages funds primarily for public and parapublic pension and insurance plans. As at December 31, 2016, it held $270.7 billion in net assets. As one of Canada's leading institutional fund managers, CDPQ invests globally in major financial markets, private equity, infrastructure and real estate. For more information, visit cdpq.com, follow us on Twitter @LaCDPQ or consult our Facebook or LinkedIn pages.
You can view this press release and other attachments here at the bottom of the page. You can also read articles on the results here.

I think the overall results speak for themselves. The Caisse outperformed its benchmark by 180 basis points in 2016, and more importantly, 110 basis points over the last five years, generating $12.3 billion of value added over its benchmark for its clients.

There is no Annual Report available yet (comes out in April), but the Caisse provides returns for the specialized portfolios for 2016 and annualized five-year returns (click on image):


As you can see, Fixed Income generated 2.9% in 2016, beating its benchmark by 110 basis points, and 3.7% annualized over the last five years, 600 basis points over the benchmark.

The press release states:
The Bonds portfolio, totalling more than $68 billion, posted a 3.9% return over five years, higher than that of its benchmark. The difference is equivalent to value added of $1.6 billion. Securities of public and private companies and the active management of credit spreads in particular contributed to the portfolio’s return.

In 2016, despite an increase in interest rates at year-end, the portfolio posted a 3.1% return. It benefited from continued investment in growth market debt and from the solid performance of corporate debt, particularly in the industrial sector.
In other words, Bonds accounted for $1.6 billion of the $4.4 billion of value added in 2016, or 36% of the value added over the total fund's benchmark last year.

That is extremely impressive for a bond portfolio but I would be careful interpreting these results because they suggest the benchmark being used to evaluate the underlying portfolio doesn't reflect the credit risk being taken (ie. loading up on emerging market debt and corporate bonds and having a government bond index as a benchmark).

I mention this because this type of outperformance in bonds is unheard of unless of course the managers are gaming their benchmark by taking a lot more credit risk relative to that benchmark.

Also worth noting how the outperformance in real estate debt over the last year and five years helped the overall Fixed Income returns. Again, this is just taking on more credit risk to beat a benchmark and anyone managing a fixed income portfolio knows exactly what I am talking about.

It's also no secret the Caisse's Fixed Income team has been shorting long bonds over the last few years, and losing money on carry and rolldown, so maybe they decided to take on more emerging market and corporate debt risk to make up for these losses and that paid off handsomely. Also, the backup in US long bond yields last year also helped them if they were short.

Now, before I get Marc Cormier and the entire Fixed Income team at the Caisse hopping mad (don't want to get on anyone's bad side), I'm not saying these results are terrible -- far from it, they are excellent -- but let's call as spade a spade, the Caisse Fixed Income team took huge credit risk to outperform its benchmark last year, and this needs to be discussed in detail in the Annual Report when it comes out in April.

Apart from Bonds, what else did I notice? Very briefly, excellent results in Real Estate, outperforming its benchmark by 320 basis in 2016. Over the last five years, however, Real Estate has under-performed its benchmark by 400 basis points.

Again, a word of caution for most people that do not understand how to read these results correctly. The benchmark the Caisse uses to evaluate its Real Estate portfolio is much harder to beat than any of its large peers in Canada.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the Caisse's Real Estate subsidiary, Ivanhoé Cambridge, is doing a truly excellent job and it is one of the best real estate investors in the world.

As far as Infrastructure, CDPQ Infra marginally beat its benchmark in 2016 by 30 basis points, but it's trailing its benchmark by 250 basis points over the last five years.

Again, the benchmark in Infrastructure is very hard to beat, so I don't worry about this underperformance over the last five years. Just like in Real Estate, the people working at CDPQ Infra are literally a breed apart, infrastructure experts in brownfield and greenfield projects.

When Michael Sabia recently came out to defend the Montreal REM project, he was being way too polite. I set the record straight on my blog and didn't hold back, but it amazes me how many cockroaches are still lurking out there questioning the "Caisse's governance" on this project (what a joke, they have a blatant agenda against the Caisse and this unique project but Michael Sabia's mandate was renewed for four more years so he will have the last laugh once it's completed and operational).


In Private Equity, the outperformance over the index in 2016 was spectacular (520 basis points or 5.2%) but over the last five years, it's a more modest outperformance (120 basis points). Like other large Canadian pensions, the Caisse invests in top private equity funds all over the world and does a lot of co-investments to reduce overall fees.

[Note: Andreas Beroutsos who formerly oversaw all of La Caisse’s private equity and infrastructure investment activities outside Quebec is no longer there (heard some unsubstantiated and interesting stories). In April, the Caisse reorganized infrastructure and private equity units under new leaders.]

In Public Equities, solid performance in Canada, outperforming the benchmark by 260 basis points in 2016 and by 160 basis points over the last five years. The Global Quality portfolio edges out its benchmark by 30 basis points in 2016 but it still up outperforming it by almost 500 basis points over the last five years.

Again, I question this Global Quality portfolio and the benchmark they use to evaluate it and I've openly stated if it's that good, why aren't other large Canadian pension funds doing the exact same thing? (Answer: it doesn't pass their board's smell test. If these guys are that good, they should be working for Warren Buffet, not the Caisse)

That is it from me, I've already covered enough. Take the time to go over the 2015 Annual Report as you wait for the 2016 one to appear in April. There you will find all sorts of details like the benchmarks governing the specialized portfolios (click on image):


Like I said, there are no free lunches in Real Estate and Infrastructure benchmarks but there are issues with other benchmarks that do not reflect the risks being taken in the underlying portfolios (Bonds and Global Quality portfolios, for example).

Net, net, however, I would say the benchmarks the Caisse uses are still among the toughest in Canada and it has delivered solid short-term and more importantly, long-term results.

It's a tough job managing these portfolios and beating these benchmarks, I know, I've been there and people don't realize how hard it is, especially over any given year. This is why I primarily emphasize long-term results, the only ones that truly count.

And long-term results are what counts in terms of compensating the Caisse's senior managers (from 2015 Annual Report, click on image):


Again, Mr. Beroutsos is no longer with the Caisse and neither is Bernard Morency. You can see the members of the Caisse's Executive Committee here (one notable addition last year was Jean Michel, Executive Vice-President, Depositors and Total Portfolio; he has a stellar reputation and helped Air Canada's pension rise from the ashes and become fully funded again).

The other thing worth mentioning is the Caisse's executives are paid fairly but are grossly underpaid relative to their peers at large Canadian funds (fuzzy benchmarks at other shops play a role here but also the culture in Quebec where people get jealous and mad if senior pension fund executives managing billions get paid million dollar plus packages even if that's what they are really worth).

I will embed clips from the Caisse's press conference as they become available so come back to revisit this comment. If you have anything to add, please email me at LKolivakis@gmail.com.

Below, Michael Sabia speaks with Mutsumi Takahashi in the CTV News Montreal studios, on December 20, 2016. Listen carefully to what he says about the REM project, addressing the critics, and what he says about Quebec companies operating in global markets. Excellent discussion here.

Also, Scott Rechler, RXR Realty CEO, was on CNBC this morning talking about why it makes sense to fund infrastructure projects through PPPs. Very interesting discussion, at one point, toward the end, he said it cost $500 million per mile to construct a subway in Paris and Tokyo but it costs $2 billion per mile to construct a subway in the US because of all the regulations.

Lastly, please take the time to support this blog by donating or subscribing to it under my picture on the right-hand side. I thank all of you who take the time to show your financial support, it's highly appreciated, and I ask for others to please do the same. I work very hard to provide you with my insights on pensions and investments so please contribute to support my efforts. Thank you.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Gotham Better Hedge Fund Fees?

Hema Parmar of Bloomberg reports, Gotham Hedge Fund Explores Shifting fees to Tie Pay to Returns:
Gotham Asset Management, the $6 billion money manager run by Joel Greenblatt and Robert Goldstein, is exploring a new fee structure that ties more of the fund’s pay to performance.

The firm is in talks with some investors for its Gotham Neutral Strategies hedge fund about charging one fee: the greater of a 1 percent management fee or 30 percent of returns that exceed the fund’s benchmark, according to two people familiar with the matter. The equity fund currently charges 1.5 percent of assets in management fees and 20 percent of profits, one of the people said.

Hedge funds have been trimming and altering their fees amid a backlash over lackluster returns and criticism that the standard model of charging a 2 percent management fee and a 20 percent incentive fee is too expensive. Most hedge funds charge investors too much for the performance they deliver, Greenblatt, who is Gotham’s co-chief investment officer, told Bloomberg Television in a May 2014 interview.

The Gotham Neutral Strategies fund gained 7.5 percent last year, according to another person familiar with the matter. The HFRI Market Neutral Index was up about 2 percent in that time. Since inception in July 2009, the fund has gained an annualized 7 percent.

If the new fee structure is adopted, Gotham would join Hong Kong-based hedge fund Myriad Asset Management and others in moving to the 1-or-30 model, which has been championed by investors including the Teacher Retirement System of Texas.

As of mid-February, at least 16 multi-billion-dollar hedge funds worldwide are either in the process of implementing or have implemented the 1-or-30 fee structure that was introduced to the industry in the fourth quarter of 2016, Jonathan Koerner of Albourne Partners said in a telephone interview on Feb. 16.

“The objective of ‘1 or 30’ is to more consistently ensure that the investor retains 70 percent of alpha generated for its investment in a hedge fund,” Koerner wrote in a white paper published in December by Albourne, which advises clients on more than $400 billion of alternative investments globally. The management fees charged in a year when the fund underperforms the benchmarks are deducted from the following year’s performance fee payment, making it, in effect, a prepaid performance fee credit, he said last month.

The Gotham Penguin Fund, which wagers on and against U.S. stocks, gained 25 percent last year, according to one of the people familiar with the matter, compared with a 5.4 percent rise in the HFRI Equity Hedge Index. Since inception in 2013, the fund has returned an annualized 15 percent.

A representative for the firm declined to comment.
So what is this all about? Basically, Joel Greenblatt of Gotham is right, most hedge funds charge investors too much for the performance they deliver, and he is proposing something to better align interests with his investors.

Why isn't every big hedge fund doing this? In short, because they don't want to, perfectly content shafting their investors with insane fees no matter how they're performing, or they don't need to because they're performing just fine and have a "take it or leave it" attitude when it comes to their fees.

In the past, it was always underperfoming hedge funds what would propose lower fees to investors. But here we have a well-known, highly respected hedge fund manager who has performed well over the years stating the gig is up and he's proposing something better to his investors.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure this wonderful "1 OR 30" fee structure is going to gain traction, no matter how much sway Albourne has.

I had an exchange with Dimitri Douaire, formerly of OPTrust, on this topic on LinkedIn (click on image below);


Now, I might disagree with Dimitri on whether or not giving better terms to emerging hedge funds is a "subsidy" or whether multi-billion-dollar hedge funds should charge any management fee at all, but he's right, unless the majority of investors start implementing this fee structure across all their investments, it's not going to gain traction.

You can read more on Albourne's "1 or 30" fee structure here. In theory, it makes perfect sense, we just have to wait a decade to see if it gains any traction.

Below, an older (2011) Fortune interview where Joel Greenblatt talks about how to beat the market (see transcript here). Listen carefully to his comments, very interesting, and remember, I track Gotham's portfolio every quarter along with those of other legendary investors when I go over top funds' activity.

Last year, Greenblatt also talked with Morningstar about choosing active managers. You can watch that interview here and read the transcript as well. It's excellent and well worth listening to.

Lastly, it isn’t often that a very successful hedge fund manager with a winning strategy closes up shop, but that is exactly what Joel Greenblatt did in 1995. It’s equally unusual to get back in the business more than a decade later with a dramatically altered strategy. Greenblatt appeared on WealthTrack in 2014 to discuss his big change in portfolio strategy, from a very concentrated approach to broad diversification. Watch this interview below. 


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

CalPERS's Private Equity Disaster?

In a recent blog comment, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism laments, CalPERS’ Private Equity Portfolio Continues to Earn Way Too Little for the Risk:
We’ve said for the last couple of years that private equity has not been earning enough to compensate for its extra risks, that of high leverage and lack of liquidity.

One of the core tenets of finance is that extra risk-taking should be rewarded with higher returns over time. But for more than the last decade, typical investor portfolios of private equity funds haven’t delivered the additional returns, typically guesstimated at 300 basis points over a public equity benchmark like the S&P 500.

We’ve pointed out that even that widespread benchmark is too flattering. Private equity firms invest in companies that are much smaller than the members of the S&P 500, which means they are capable of growing at a faster rate over extended periods of time. The 300 basis point (3%) premium is a convention with no solid analytical foundation. Some former chief investment officers, like Andrew Silton, have argued that a much higher premium, more like 500 to 800 basis points (5% to 8%) is more appropriate. And that’s before you get to other widespread problems with measuring private equity returns, such as the fact that they are routinely exaggerated at certain times, namely right before a new fund is being raised by the same general partner, late in a fund’s life, and during bear markets, all of which goose overall results.

And that’s before you get to the fact that some investors use even more flattering benchmarks. As Oxford professor Ludovic Phalippou pointed out by e-mail, in the last two years, more and more investors have switched from using the already-generous S&P 500 to the MSCI World Index as their benchmark. Why? Per Phalippou: “Because the S&P 500 has been doing very well over the last three years, unlike the MSCI World Index.”

So why hasn’t private equity been producing enough over the past decade to justify the hefty fees? The short answer is too much money chasing deals. Private equity’s share of global equity more than doubled from 2005 to 2014.

And you can see how this looks in CalPERS’ latest private equity performance update, from its Investment Committee meeting last week (from page 14 of this report). In fairness, CalPERS does have a more strict private equity benchmark than many of its peers (click on image):


Since that chart is still mighty hard to read (by design?), let’s go through the sea of read ink.

The only period in which CalPERS beat its benchmark was for the month before the measurement date of December 31, 2016, and that by a whopping 3 basis points. In all other measurement periods, the shortfall was hundreds of basis points:

3 months (219)
Fiscal YTD (283)
1 year (994)
3 years (132)
5 years (479)
10 years (286)

To its credit, CalPERS has been cutting its private equity allocation. CalPERS had a private equity target of 14% in 2012 and 2013; it announced last December it was reducing it from 10% to 8%. Like so many of its peers, CalPERS hoped that private equity would rescue it from its underfunding, which came about both due to the decision to cut funding during the dot com era, when CalPERS was overfunded, and to the damage it incurred during the crisis. At least CalPERS is finally smelling the coffee.

However, even with these appalling results, CalPERS does have another avenue: it could pursue private equity on its own, which would virtually eliminate the estimated 700 basis points (7%) it is paying to private equity fund managers. CalPERS confirmed this estimate by Ludovic Phalippou in its November 2015 private equity workshop. Since at that point it had gathered private equity carry fee data, that means the full fees and costs are at least that high; it would presumably have reported a lower number or flagged the figure as an high plug figure. Getting rid of the fee drag would mean much more return to CalPERS and its retirees, and would make private equity more viable.

CalPERS has two ways it could go. One would be a public markets replication strategy, which would target the sort of companies private equity firms buy. Academics have modeled various implementations of this idea, and they show solid 12-14% returns. However, as we’ve discussed at length, and some pubic pension funds have even admitted, one of the big attractions of private equity is…drumroll…the very way the mangers lie about valuations, particularly in bad equity markets! Private equity managers shamelessly pretend that the value of their companies falls less when stocks are in bear territory, giving the illusion that private equity usefully counters portfolio volatility. Anyone with an operating brain cell knows that absent exceptional cases, levered equities will fall more that less heavily geared ones. So the reporting fallacy of knowing where you really stand makes this idea unappetizing to investors.

The other way to go about it would be to have an in-house team that does private equity investing. A group of Canadian public pension funds has gone this route and not surprisingly, reports markedly better results net of fees than industry norms. And this is becoming more mainstream, as Reuters reported last Friday (hat tip DO):
Some of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds are increasingly striking their own private equity deals rather than relying on external fund managers, in a drive to cut costs and gain more control.

With some $6.5 trillion in assets, sovereign investors already account for 19 percent of capital committed to private equity, according to data from research firm Preqin.

But mega-funds such as the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and Singapore’s GIC, are hiring specialists to find or vet deals – enabling them to negotiate with private equity firms from a position of strength or to go it alone.

In 2012 sovereign investors participated in just 77 direct private equity deals. By 2016, that had risen to 137, Thomson Reuters data shows. Deal value more than trebled to $45.2 billion from $14.8 billion….

This allows funds to better protect their interests when markets go south. One sovereign investor who spoke on condition of anonymity said that during the global financial crisis, some external funds behaved irrationally.

“They had different liability streams than us, so they were under pressure to sell at a time when they should have been investing more,” the source said. “Going more direct means you don’t have to worry about whether your interests are aligned with other investors’.”
And to its credit CalPERS is considering joining this trend…after having been deterred from leading it. From a 2016 post:
In 1999, CalPERS engaged McKinsey to advise them as to whether they should bring some of their private equity activities in house. My understanding was that some board members thought this issue was worth considering; staff was not so keen (perhaps because they doubted they had the skills to do this work themselves and were put off by the idea of being upstaged by outside, better paid recruits).

In hearing this tale told many years later, I was perplexed and a bit disturbed to learn that the former managing partner of McKinsey, Ron Daniel, presented the recommendations to CalPERS of not to go this route. Only a very few directors (as in the tenured class of partner) continue at McKinsey beyond normal retirement age; one was the head of the important American Express relationship at the insistence of Amex. Daniel served as an ambassador for the firm as well as working on his former clients. Why was he dispatched to work on a one-off assignment that was clearly not important to McKinsey from a relationship standpoint, particularly in light of a large conflict of interest: that he was also the head of the Harvard Corporation, which was also a serious investor in private equity?

Although the lack of staff enthusiasm was probably a deal killer in and of itself, the McKinsey “no go” recommendation hinged on two arguments: the state regulatory obstacles (which in fact was not insurmountable; CalPERS could almost certainly get a waiver if it sought one), and the culture gap of putting a private equity unit in a public pension fund. Even though the lack of precedents at the time no doubt made this seem like a serious concern, in fact, McKinsey clients like Citibank and JP Morgan by then had figured out how to have units with very divergent business cultures (investment banking versus commercial banking) live successfully under the same roof. And even at CalPERS now, there is a large gap between the pay levels, autonomy, and status of the investment professionals versus the rank and file that handles mundane but nevertheless important tasks like keeping on top of payments from the many government entities that are part of the CalPERS system, maintaining records for and making payments to CalPERS beneficiaries, and running the back office for the investment activities that CalPERS runs internally.

Why do I wonder whether McKinsey had additional motives for sending someone as prominent as Daniel to argue forcefully (as he apparently did) that CalPERS reject the idea of doing private equity in house? Clearly, if CalPERS went down that path, then as now, the objective would be to reduce the cost of investing in private equity. And it would take funds out of the hand of private equity general partners.

The problem with that is that McKinsey had a large and apparently not disclosed conflict: private equity funds were becoming large sources of fees to the firm. By 2002, private equity firms represented more than half of total McKinsey revenues. CalPERS going into private equity would reduce the general partners’ fees, and over time, McKinsey’s.

In keeping, as we pointed out in 2014, McKinsey acknowledged that the prospects for private equity continuing to deliver outsized returns were dimming. That would seem to make for a strong argument to get private equity firms to lower their fees, and the best leverage would be to bring at least some private equity investing in house, both to reduce costs directly and to provide for more leverage in fee discussions. Yet McKinsey hand-waved unconvincinglyabout ways that limited partners could contend with the more difficult investment environment, and was discouraging about going direct despite the fact that the Canadian pension funds had done so successfully.
Better late than never. Let’s hope CalPERS pursues this long-overdue idea.
Yves Smith, aka Susan Webber of Aurora Advisors, is back at it again, going after CalPERS' private equity program, enlisting "academic experts" like this professor at Oxford who sounds credible but the problem is like so many academics, he doesn't have a clue of what he's talking about, and neither does Yves Smith, unfortunately.

Before Ludovic Phalippou, there was a blogger who warned the world of bogus benchmarks in illiquid asset classes and keeps hammering the point that it's all about benchmarks stupid! This blogger even did a short stint on Yves' blog, Naked Capitalism, before leaving to write for another popular blog for a brief while, Zero Hedge (I now post my comments only on my blog and I'm much happier. My advice to bloggers is not to routinely post anywhere else even if they are popular blogs.).

My views on benchmarking illiquid assets have evolved because I realize how hard it is to benchmark these assets properly (never mind what Yves and Phalippou think), but that doesn't mean we shouldn't pay attention to these benchmarks (we most certainly should).

Ok, let me be fair here, Yves' comment above is not ALL nonsense, but there are so many gaps here and the way the information is presented is so blatantly and foolishly biased that a relatively informed reader might read this comment and think CalPERS should just nuke its multi-billion PE program just like it nuked its hedge fund program a couple of years ago.

Knowing what was going on at CalPERS's hedge fund program, I actually agreed with that decision. CalPERS never staffed that team appropriately, they didn't know what they were doing and the program produced very disappointing returns, year in, year out, net of billions in fees they were doling out to their lousy external hedge fund managers.

Private equity at CalPERS was also one HUGE mess prior to the arrival of Réal Desrochers in May 2011 to head that group. Basically, up until then, CalPERS was everyone's private equity cash cow, giving everyone and their mothers an allocation. Their program became one giant PE benchmark for the entire industry.

The problem with that approach is it simply doesn't work, especially in private equity where there is a huge dispersion of returns between top funds and bottom funds and there is evidence of performance persistence (although the evidence is somewhat mixed pre and post-2000).

When Réal Desrochers took over CalPERS PE program, he did what he did at CalSTRS, namely, clean it up, getting rid of underperformers and focusing on having a concentrated portfolio of a few top-performing funds. In others words, allocate more money in fewer and fewer funds, and watch them like a hawk to see if it's worth reinvesting in new funds they raise.

It's fair to say Réal Desrochers and his team inherited one huge private equity mess because they're still cleaning up that portfolio, years after he got in power (that is something Yves neglects to mention).

Still, private equity is an important asset class, one that has delivered excellent returns for CalPERS over the last 20 years, net of fees (click on image):


As far as its benchmark, CalPERS started mulling over a new PE benchmark two years ago and I reviewed the latest publicly available annual PE program review (November, 2015) which states the current policy benchmark of 2/3 FTSE US = 1/3 FTSE ROW (rest of world) + 300 basis points "creates unintended active risk for the Program, as well as for the Total Fund." (click on image):


Now, instead of reading nonsense on Naked Capitalism, take the time to read this attachment on private equity that CalPERS put out in November 2015, it's excellent and discusses performance persistence and the problems benchmarking private equity.

I have long argued that the benchmark should be the S&P 500 + 300 basis points but the truth is the deals are increasingly outside the US and that 300 basis points spread to capture illiquidty and leverage is a bit high and this benchmark does expose the program and the Total Fund to active risk (ie. risk it underperforms its benchmark by a considerable amount) on any given year (not over the long run).

Having said this, when I went over CalPERS fiscal 2016 results back in July, I said they weren't good and that they were smearing lipstick on a pig:
Lastly, and most importantly, let's go over CalPERS's news release, CalPERS Reports Preliminary 2015-16 Fiscal Year Investment Returns:

The California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) today reported a preliminary 0.61 percent net return on investments for the 12-month period that ended June 30, 2016. CalPERS assets at the end of the fiscal year stood at more than $295 billion and today stands at $302 billion.

CalPERS achieved the positive net return despite volatile financial markets and challenging global economic conditions. Key to the return was the diversification of the Fund's portfolio, especially CalPERS' fixed income and infrastructure investments.

Fixed Income earned a 9.29 percent return, nearly matching its benchmark. Infrastructure delivered an 8.98 percent return, outperforming its benchmark by 4.02 percentage points, or 402 basis points. A basis point is one one-hundredth of a percentage point.

The CalPERS Private Equity program also bested its benchmark by 253 basis points, earning 1.70 percent.

"Positive performance in a year of turbulent financial markets is an accomplishment that we are proud of," said Ted Eliopoulos, CalPERS Chief Investment Officer. "Over half of our portfolio is in equities, so returns are largely driven by stock markets. But more than anything, the returns show the value of diversification and the importance of sticking to your long-term investment plan, despite outside circumstances."

"This is a challenging time to invest, but we'll continue to focus on our mission of managing the CalPERS investment portfolio in a cost-effective, transparent, and risk-aware manner in order to generate returns for our members and employers," Eliopoulos continued.

For the second year in a row, international markets dampened CalPERS' Global Equity returns. However, the program still managed to outperform its benchmark by 58 basis points, earning negative 3.38 percent. The Real Estate program generated a 7.06 percent return, underperforming its benchmark by 557 basis points. The primary drivers of relative underperformance were the non-core programs, including realized losses on the final disposition of legacy assets in the Opportunistic program.

"It's important to remember that CalPERS is a long-term investor, and our focus is the success and sustainability of our system over multiple generations," said Henry Jones, Chair of CalPERS Investment Committee. "We will continue to examine the portfolio and our asset allocation, and will use the next Asset Liability Management process, starting in early 2017, to ensure that we are best positioned for the future market climate."

Today's announcement includes asset class performance as follows (click on image):


Returns for real estate, private equity and some components of the inflation assets reflect market values through March 31, 2016.

CalPERS 2015-16 Fiscal Year investment performance will be calculated based on audited figures and will be reflected in contribution levels for the State of California and school districts in Fiscal Year 2017-18, and for contracting cities, counties, and special districts in Fiscal Year 2018-19.

The ending value of the CalPERS fund is based on several factors and not investment performance alone. Contributions made to CalPERS from employers and employees, monthly payments made to retirees, and the performance of its investments, among other factors, all influence the ending total value of the Fund.

The Board has taken many steps to sustain the Fund as part of CalPERS' Asset Liability Management Review Cycle (PDF) that takes a holistic and integrated view of our assets and liabilities.
You can read more articles on CalPERS's fiscal 2015-2016 results here. CalPERS's comprehensive annual report for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2015 is not yet available but you can view last year's fiscal year annual report here.

I must admit I don't track US public pension funds as closely as Canadian ones but let me provide you with my insights on CalPERS's fiscal year results:
  • First, the results aren't that bad given that CalPERS's fiscal year ends at the end of June and global equity markets have been very volatile and weak. Ted Eliopoulos, CalPERS's CIO, is absolutely right: "When 52 percent of your portfolio is achieving a negative 3.4 percent return, that certainly sets the main driver for the overall performance of the fund." In my last comment covering why bcIMC posted slightly negative returns during its fiscal 2016, I said the same thing, when 50% of the portfolio is in global equities which are getting clobbered during the fiscal year, it's impossible to post solid gains (however, stocks did bounce back in Q2).
  • Eliopoulos is also right, CalPERS and the entire pension community better prepare for lower returns and a lot more volatility ahead. I've been warning about deflation and how it will roil pensions for a very long time. 
  • As far as investment assumptions, all US public pensions are delusional. Period. CalPERS and everyone else needs to lower them to a much more realistic level. Forget 8% or 7%, in a deflationary world, you'll be lucky to deliver 5% or 6% annualized gains over the next ten years. CalPERS, the government of California and public sector unions need to all sit down and get real on investment assumptions or face the wrath of a brutal market which will force them to cut their investment assumptions or face insolvency. They should also introduce risk-sharing in their plans so that all stakeholders share the risks of the plan equally and spare California taxpayers the need to bail them out.
  • What about hedge funds? Did CalPERS make a huge mistake nuking its hedge fund program two years ago? Absolutely not. That program wasn't run properly and the fees they were doling out for mediocre returns were insane. Besides, the party in hedge funds is over. Most pensions are rightly shifting their attention to infrastructure in order to meet their long dated liabilities. 
  • As far as portfolio returns, good old bonds and infrastructure saved them, both returning 9% during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016. In a deflationary world, you better have enough bonds to absorb the shocks along the way. And I will tell you something else, I expect the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan and the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan to deliver solid returns this year because they both understand liability driven investments extremely well and allocate a good chunk into fixed income (HOOPP more than OTPP).
  • I wasn't impressed with the returns in CalPERS's Real Estate portfolio or Private Equity portfolio (Note: Returns in these asset classes are as of end of March and will end up being a bit better as equities bounced back in Q2). The former generated a 7.06 percent return, underperforming its benchmark by 557 basis points and suffered relative underperformance in the non-core programs, including realized losses on the final disposition of legacy assets in the Opportunistic program. CalPERS Private Equity program bested its benchmark by 253 basis points, earning 1.70 percent, but that tells me returns in this asset class are very weak and the benchmark they use to evaluate their PE program isn't good (they keep changing it to make it easier to beat it). So I'm a little surprised that CalPERS new CEO Marcie Frost is eyeing to boost private equity.
In a nutshell, those are my thoughts on CalPERS fiscal 2015-16 results. Is CalPERS smearing lipstick on a pig? No, the market gives them and everyone else what the market gives and unless they're willing to take huge risks, they need to prepare for lower returns ahead.

But CalPERS and its stakeholders also need to get real in terms of investment projections going forward and they better have this conversation sooner rather than later or risk facing the wrath of the bond market (remember, CalPERS is a mature plan with negative cash flows and as interest rates decline, their liabilities skyrocket).
CalPERS latest annual report for 2015-2016 is now available here. I stand by remarks that CalPERS Private Equity program is delivering paltry returns, but the truth is these are treacherous times for private equity and there is gross misalignment of interests going on.

Even Canada's mighty PE investors aren't returning what they used to in this asset class despite having developed much better capabilities to co-invest with their general partners (GPs) in larger transactions to lower overall fees. 

Here is something else Yves and her academic friend don't understand about what exactly is going on at Canada's large pensions and large sovereign wealth funds in terms of direct investments in private equity. The bulk of direct investing at Canada's large pensions is in the form of co-investments after they invested billions in comingled funds where they pay 2 & 20 in fees, not in the form of purely direct (independent) private equity investments where they source their deals on their own, invest in a private company and fix up its operations.

I explained the key points on private equity at large Canadian pensions in this comment:
  • Private equity is an important asset class, making up on average 12% of the total assets at Canada's large public pensions. 
  • All of Canada's large public pensions invest in private equity primarily through external funds which they pay big fees to and are then able to gain access to co-investment opportunities where they pay no fees. In order to gain access to these co-investments, Canada's large pensions need to hire professionals with the right skill set to analyze these deals in detail and have quick turnaround time when they are presented with opportunities to co-invest.
  • Some of Canada's large public pensions, like Ontario Teachers and OMERS, engage in purely direct (independent) private equity deals where they actually source deals on their own and then try to improve the operational efficiency of that private company. Apart from paying no fees, the added advantage of this approach is that unlike PE funds who try to realize gains in three or four years, pensions have a much longer investment horizon on these investments (ten++ years) and can wait a long time before these companies turn around.
  • However, the performance of these type of purely direct (independent) deals is mixed with some successes and plenty of failures. Also, we simply don't have independently verifiable information on how much is truly allocated in independent direct deals versus fund investments and co-investments, and how well these independent direct deals have done over the long run relative to fund investments and co-investments.
  • The reality is that despite their long investment horizon, Canada's large public pensions will never be able to compete effectively with the large private equity titans who are way more plugged into the best deals all around the world.
  • This is why CPPIB, Canada's largest pension, focuses purely on fund investments and co-investments all around the world in their private equity portfolio. They will never engage in independent direct deals like they do in infrastructure. Their philosophy, and I totally agree with them, is that they simply cannot compete on direct deals with premiere private equity funds and it's not in the best interests of their beneficiaries.
  • Under the new leadership of André Bourbonnais, PSP Investments is also moving in this direction, as Guthrie Stewart's private equity team sells any independent direct stakes to focus its attention solely on fund investments and co-investments to reduce overall fees (again, I agree with this approach in private equity).
  • CPPIB and PSP will be the world's top private equity investors for a very long time as they both have a lot of money coming in and they will be increasingly allocating to top credit (private debt) and private equity funds that can make profitable long-term private investments all over the world. 
  • Ontario Teachers, the Caisse, bcIMC, OMERS and other large Canadian pensions will also continue to figure prominently on this list of top global private equity investors for a long time but they will lag CPPIB and PSP because they are more mature pensions with less money coming in. Still, private equity will continue to be an important asset class at these pensions for a long time.
Last week, at the CFA Montreal lunch with PSP's André Bourbonnais, PSP's CEO stated these key points on their private equity program:
  • Real estate is an important asset class to "protect against inflation and it generates solid cash flows" but "cap rates are at historic lows and valuations are very stretched." In this environment, PSP is selling some of their real estate assets (see below, my discussion with Neil Cunningham) but keeping their "trophy assets for the long run because if you sell those, it's highly unlikely you will be able to buy them back."
  • Same thing in private equity, they are very disciplined, see more downside risks with private companies so they work closely with top private equity funds (partners) who know how to add operational value, not just financial engineering (leveraging a company us to then sell assets).
  • PSP is increasingly focused on private debt as an asset class, "playing catch-up" to other large Canadian pension funds (like CPPIB where he worked for ten years prior to coming to PSP). André said there will be "a lot of volatility in this space" but he thinks PSP is well positioned to capitalize on it going forward. He gave an example of a $1 billion deal with Apollo to buy home security company ADT last February, a deal that was spearheaded by David Scudellari, Senior Vice President, Principal Debt and Credit Investments at PSP Investments and a key manager based in New York City (see a previous comment of mine on PSP's global expansion). This deal has led to other deals and since then, they have deployed $3.5 billion in private debt already (very quick ramp-up).
  • PSP also recently seeded a European credit platform, David Allen‘s AlbaCore Capital, which is just ramping up now. I am glad Miville asked André about these "platforms" in private debt and other asset classes because it was confusing to me. Basically, hiring a bunch of people to travel the world to find deals is "operationally heavy" and not wise. With these platforms, they are not exactly seeding a hedge fund or private equity fund in the traditional sense, they own 100% of the assets in these platforms, negotiate better fees but pump a lot of money in them, allowing these external investment managers to focus 100% of their time on investment performance, not marketing (the more I think about, this is a very smart approach).
  • Still, in private equity, PSP invests with top funds and pays hefty fees ("2 and 20 is very costly so you need to choose your partners well"), however, they also do a lot of co-investments (where they pay no fees or marginal fees), lowering the overall fees they pay. André said "private equity is very labor intensive" which is why he's not comfortable with purely direct investments, owning 100% of a company (said "it's too many headaches") and prefers investing in top funds where they also co-invest alongside them on larger transactions to lower overall fees (I totally agree with this approach in private equity for all of Canada's mighty PE investors). But he said to do a lot of co-investments to lower overall fees, you need to hire the right people who monitor external PE funds and can analyze co-investment deals quickly to see if they are worth investing in (sometimes they're not). He gave the example of a $300 million investment with BC Partners which led to $700 million in co-investments, lowering the overall fees (that is fantastic and exactly the right approach).
The reality is CalPERS, CalSTRS and other large US pensions do not have people that can analyze these co-investment deals quickly to invest and lower fees. Why? Because their compensation is low and they cannot attract the talent to do a lot more co-investments to lower overall fees and boost the performance of their private equity program.

But there is no question that PSP and other large Canadian pensions still invest a huge chunk of their private equity assets with top funds where they pay big fees in comingled funds to gain access to larger co-investment opportunities.

In fact, at the end of the lunch, Neil Cunningham, PSP's Senior Vice President, Global Head of Real Estate Investments, shared his with me:
On private equity fees, he agreed with André Bourbonnais, PSP doesn't have negotiating power with top PE funds because "let's say they raise a $14 billion fund and we take a $500 million slice and negotiate a 10 basis reduction on fees, that's not 10 basis points on $500 million, that's 10 basis points on $14 billion because everyone has a most favored nation (MFN) clause, so top private equity funds don't negotiate lower fees with any pension or sovereign wealth fund. They can just go to the next fund on their list."
Whether you like it or not, in order to invest properly in private equity, and make big returns over any public market benchmark over the long run, you need to pay big fees to the private equity kingpins.

But if you're smart like Canada's large pensions, you will tell them "Ok boys, we're going to invest a lot of money in your PE funds, pay the big fees like everyone else, but you'd better give us great co-investment opportunities to lower our overall fees."

Sounds easy but in order for CalPERS and other large US pensions to pursue this long-overdue idea, they need to get the governance and compensation right at their shops to attract qualified people to analyze co-investment opportunities quickly and diligently. And that isn't easy.

Below, Maria Bartiromo interviews CalPERS CIO Ted Eliopoulos on Fox Business Network's Mornings with Maria. Listen carefully to what he says about what they can and cannot bring in-house.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Overestimating Canadian DB Plans' Liabilities?

The Canada News Wire reports, Canadian pensioners not living as long as expected:
New research finds longevity for Canadian pensioners is lower than anticipated – which may actually be costing defined benefit (DB) plan sponsors.

Canadian male pensioners are living about 1.5 years less than expected from age 65, according to the latest data from Club Vita Canada Inc. – the first dedicated longevity analytics firm for Canadian pension plans and a subsidiary of Eckler Ltd. Female pensioners are living about half a year less than expected.

"Based on our data, some DB plans are overestimating how long their members are currently living and are therefore taking an overly conservative approach to funding their liabilities," explains Ian Edelist, CEO of Club Vita Canada. "Correcting that overestimation could reduce actuarial reserves by as much as 6% – improving Canadian pension funds' and their plan sponsors' balance sheets just by using more accurate, granular and up-to-date longevity assumptions."

The data comes from Club Vita Canada's first annual and highly successful longevity study completed in 2016 – one of the largest, most rigorous research studies on the impact of longevity on defined benefit pension and post-retirement health plans.

The newly created "VitaBank" pool of longevity data (provided by Club Vita Canada members) spans a wide range of industries and geographic regions in both the public and private sectors. VitaBank is currently tracking more than 500,000 Canadian pensioners from over 40 pension plans. Unlike the most widely used study to set longevity expectations – the Canadian Pensioners' Mortality (CPM) study, which relies on data up to 2008 – VitaBank includes fully cleaned and validated data up to 2014.

The Club Vita Canada study brings to the Canadian pension market leading-edge modelling techniques already used by the insurance industry and in other countries. Club Vita U.K. recently released similar results, noting £25 billion could be wiped off the collective U.K. DB deficit by using more accurate longevity assumptions.

"Naturally, the ultimate cost of a pension plan will be determined by how long its members actually live. But assumptions made today really do matter for such long-duration commitments," explains Douglas Anderson, founder of Club Vita in the U.K. "Club Vita's data gives DB plan sponsors the tools they need to evaluate their willingness to maintain their longevity risk or offload that risk to insurers."

About Club Vita Canada Inc. (clubvita.ca)

Club Vita Canada Inc. was created by Eckler Ltd. It is an extension of Club Vita LLP, a longevity centre of excellence launched in the U.K. in 2008 by Hymans Robertson LLP. By pooling robust data from a wide range of pension plans, Club Vita provides its members with leading-edge longevity analytics helping them better measure and manage their retirement plan.

About Eckler Ltd. (eckler.ca)

Eckler is a leading consulting and actuarial firm with offices across Canada and the Caribbean. Owned and operated by active Principals, the company has earned a reputation for service continuity and high professional standards. Our select group of advisers offers excellence in a wide range of areas, including financial services, pensions, benefits, communication, investment management, pension administration, change management and technology. Eckler Ltd. is a founding member of Abelica Global – an international alliance of independent actuarial and consulting firms operating in over 20 countries.
I recently discussed life expectancy in Canada and the United States when I went over statistics on gender and other diversity in the workplace, noting this:
Statistics are a funny thing, they can be used in all sorts of ways, to inform and disinform people by stretching the truth. Let me give you an example. Over the weekend, I went to Indigo bookstore to buy Michael Lewis's new book, The Undoing Project, and skim through other books.

One of the books on the shelf that caught my attention was Daniel J. Levitin's book, A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age. Dr. Levitin is a professor of neuroscience at McGill University's Department of Psychology and he has written a very accessible and entertaining book on critical thinking, a subject that should be required reading for high school and university students.

Anyways, there is a passage in the book where he discusses the often used statistic that the average life expectancy of people living in the 1850s was 38 years old for men and 40 years old for women, and now it's 76 years old for men and 81 for women (these are the latest US statistics which show life expectancy declining for the first time since 1993. In Canada, the latest figures from 2009 show the life expectancy for men is 79 and for women 83, but bad habits are sure to impact these figures).

You read that statistic and what's the first thing that comes to your mind? Wow, people didn't live long back then and now that we are all eating organic foods, exercising and have the benefits of modern medical science, we are living much longer.

The problem is this is total and utter nonsense! The reason why the life expectancy was much lower in 1850 was that children were dying a lot more often back then. In other words, the child mortality rate heavily skewed the statistics but according to Dr. Levitin, a man or woman reaching the age of 50 back then went on to live past 70. Yes, modern science has increased life expectancy somewhat but not nearly as much as we are led to believe.

Here is another statistic that my close friend, a radiologist who sees all sorts of diseases told me: all men will get prostate cancer if they live long enough. He tells me a 70 year old man has a 70% chance of being diagnosed with prostate cancer, an 80 year old man has an 80% chance and a 90 year old man has a 90% chance."

Scary stuff, right? Not really because as my buddy tells me: "The reason prostate cancer isn't a massive health concern is that it typically strikes older men and moves very, very slowly, so by the time men are diagnosed with it, chances are they will die from something else."

Of course, the key word here is "typically" because if you're a 50 year old male with high PSA levels and are then diagnosed with prostate cancer after a biopsy confirms you have it, you need to undergo surgery as soon as possible because you might be one of the unlucky few with an aggressive form of the disease (luckily, it can be treated and cured if caught in time).
So, much like the US, it seems the recent statistics on life expectancy in Canada are not that good. Again, you need to be very careful interpreting the data because the heroin epidemic has really skewed the numbers in both countries (much more in the US).

But let's say the folks at Club Vita Canada and Eckler are doing their job well and Canadian pensioners are living less than previously thought. Does that mean that Canadian DB plans are overestimating their liabilities?

Yes and no. Go read an older comment of mine on whether longevity risk will doom pensions where I stated:
I actually forwarded [John] Mauldin's comment to my pension contacts yesterday to get some feedback. First, Bernard Dussault, Canada's former Chief Actuary, shared this with me:
True, longevity is a scary risk, but not as much as most think, the reason being that the calculations of pension costs and liabilities in actuarial reports take into account future improvements in longevity.

For example, as per the demographic assumptions of the latest (March 31, 2011) actuarial report on the federal public service superannuation plan (http://www.osfi-bsif.gc.ca/Eng/Docs/pssa2011.pdf), the longevity at age 75 in 2011 is projected to gradually increase by about 1 year in 10 years (2021). For example, if longevity at age 75 was 12.5 in 2011, it is projected as per the PSSA actuarial report to be about 13.5 in 2021

This 1 year increase at age 75 over 10 years is much less than the average 1year increase at birth every 4 years over the 20th century reported by the Society of Actuaries (SOA). However, this is an apple/orange comparison because longevity improvements are always larger at birth than at any later age and were much larger in the first half of the 20th century than thereafter than at any later age.
Bernard added this in another email correspondence where he clarified the above statement:
Annual longevity improvement rates are assumed to apply for the whole duration of the projection period under any of the periodical actuarial reports on the PSSA, i.e. for all current and future contributors and pensioners.

Moreover, the federal public service superannuation plan is actuarially funded, which means that each generation/cohort of contributors pays for the whole value of all of its accrued benefits. In other words, the financing of the plan is such that there is essentially no inter-generational transfer of pension debt from any cohort to the next.
Second, Jim Keohane, President and CEO of the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan (HOOPP), sent me his thoughts:
I am not sure how longevity improvements will play out over the coming decades and neither does anyone else. I wouldn't dispute the facts being quoted in this article, but what I would point out is that these issues are not exclusive to DB plans. They are problems for anyone saving for retirement whether they are part of a DB plan a DC plan or not in any plan. DB plans get benchmarked against their ability to replace a portion of plan members pre-retirement income (typically 60%). If you measured DC plans on the same basis they are in much worse shape, in fact, they only have about 20 to 25% of the assets needed to produce that level of income.

I would also add that Canadian public sector pension plans are in much better shape than their U.S. Counterparts. We use realistic return assumptions and are in a much stronger funded position.
Third, Jim Leech, the former CEO of Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan (OTPP) and co-author of The Third Rail, sent me this:
Very consistent with my thoughts/observations. It is a shame that "short term" motivations (masking reality by manipulating valuations, migration from DB to DC, elimination of workplace plans altogether, kicking the can down the road, etc) have taken over what is supposed to be a "long horizon" instrument (pension plan).

But Jim Keohane makes a good point - this applies ONLY to DB valuations. Anyone with DC (RRSP), ie. most Canadians, is really jiggered by longevity increases.
No doubt about it, the Oracle of Ontario, HOOPP and other Canadian pensions use much more realistic return assumptions to discount their future liabilities. In fact, Neil Petroff, CIO at Ontario Teachers once told me bluntly: "If U.S. public pensions were using our discount rate, they'd be insolvent."

Mauldin raises issues I've discussed extensively on my blog, including what if 8% is really 0%, the pension rate-of-return fantasy, how useless investment consultants have hijacked U.S. pension funds, how longevity risk is adding to the pressures of corporate and public defined-benefit (DB) pensions.

Mauldin isn't the first to sound the alarm and he won't be the last. Warren Buffett's dire warning on pensions fell largely on deaf ears as did Bridgewater's. I knew a long time ago that the pension crisis and jobs crisis were going to be the two main issues plaguing policymakers around the world.

And I've got some very bad news for you, when global deflation hits us, it will decimate pensions. That's where I part ways with Mauldin because longevity risk, while important, is nothing compared to a substantial decline in real interest rates.

Importantly, a decline in real rates, especially now when rates are at historic lows, is far more detrimental to pension deficits than people living longer.

What else did Mauldin conveniently miss? He ignores the brutal truth on DC pensions and misses how the 'inexorable' shift to DC pensions will exacerbate inequality and pretty much condemn millions of Americans to more pension poverty.
The important point is that last one, a decline in interest rates is far, far more damaging to pension liabilities than an increase in longevity risk.

Last year, I wrote a comment on why ultra low rates are here to stay, and San Francisco Fed President John Williams penned a note today that pretty much agrees with me:
The decline in the natural rate of interest, or r-star, over the past decade raises three important questions. First, is this low level for the real short-term interest rate unique to the U.S. economy? Second, is the natural rate likely to remain low in the future? And third, is this low level confined to “safe” assets? In answer to these questions, evidence suggests that low r-star is a global phenomenon, is likely to be very persistent, and is not confined only to safe assets.
So, if you ask me, I wouldn't read too much into this latest study stating Canadian pensioners are living less than previously thought and Canadian DB plans are "overestimating" their liabilities (persistent low rates = persistent pension deficits).

Worse still, the stakeholders of these DB plans might take this data and twist it to their advantage by asking to lower the contribution rate of their plans. This would be a grave mistake.

Lastly, I want to bring something to your attention. Last week, after I wrote my comment on a lunch with PSP's André Bourbonnais, where I stated that the Chief Actuary of Canada is rightly looking into whether PSP's 4.1% real return target is too high, I received an email from Bernard Dussault, Canada's former Chief Actuary, stating he didn't agree with me or others that PSP's target rate of return needs to be lowered.

Specifically, Bernard shared this with me:
I still do not understand why "suddenly" investment experts (including Keith Ambachtsheer) think that the expected/assumed long term real rate of return will decrease compared to what it has been expected/assumed for so many years in the past.

I look forward to Bourbonnais' and the Chief Actuary's rationale if they were to reduce the 4.1% rate below 4.0%.

The rationale I used for the 4% I assumed for the CPP and the PSPP when I was the Chief Actuary is briefly described as follows in the 16th actuarial report on the CPP:
The CPP Account is made of two components: the Operating Balance, which corresponds in size to the benefit payments expected over the next three months, and the Fund, which represents the excess of all CPP assets over the Operating Balance.

In accordance with the new policy of investing the Fund in a diversified portfolio, the ultimate real interest rate assumed on future net cash flows to the Account is 3.8%. This rate is a constant weighted average of the real unchanged rate of 1.5% assumed on the Operating Balance and of the real rate of 4% which replaces the rate of 2.5% assumed on the Fund in previous actuarial reports.

The long term real rate of interest of 4% on the Fund was assumed taking into account the following factors:

  • from 1966 to 1995, the average real yield on the Québec Pension Plan (QPP) account, which has always been invested in a diversified portfolio, is close to 4%;
  • as reported in the Canadian Institute of Actuaries' (CIA) annual report on Canadian Economic Statistics, the average real yield over the period of 25 years ending in 1996 on the funds of a sample of the largest private pension plans in Canada is close to 5%, resulting from a nominal yield of about 11.0% reduced by the average increase of about 6% in the Consumer Price Index;
  • using historical results published by the CIA in the Report on Canadian Economic Statistics, the real average yield over the 50-year (43 in the case of mortgages) period ending in 1994 is 4.03% in respect of an hypothetical portfolio invested equally in each of the following five areas: conventional mortgages, long term federal bonds (Government of Canada bonds with a term to maturity of at least 20 years), Government of Canada 91-day Treasury Bills, domestic equities (Canadian common stocks) and non‑domestic equities (U.S. common stocks). The assumed real rate of 4% retained for the Fund is therefore deemed realistic but erring on the safe side, especially considering that:
 Ø replacing federal bonds by provincial bonds in this model portfolio would increase the average yield to the extent that provincial bonds carry a higher return than federal bonds; and
Ø the 3-month Treasury Bills, which bear lower returns, would normally be invested for the Operating Balance rather than the Fund.

From a larger perspective, assuming a real yield of 4% on the CPP Fund means that the CPP Investment Board would be expected to achieve investment returns comparable to those of the QPP and of large private pension plans.

On the other hand, I think I heard Bourbonnais saying last year at a presentation of the PSP annual report to the Public Service Pension advisory Committee (and I could well have misheard or misinterpreted what he said) that he was reducing the proportion of equities in the PSP fund in order to reduce the volatility/fluctuation of the returns.
If he is really doing this, then that would be a valid reason for reducing the expected 4.1% return. Besides, if he is doing this, I opine that this is not consistent with the PSP objective to maximize returns. Indeed, a more risky investment portfolio carries higher volatility though BUT it is coupled with a higher long term average return (which both the CPP and the PSP funds have achieved on average over at least the last 15 years).
As I explained to Bernard, PSP Investments and other large Canadian pensions are indeed reducing their proportion in public equities precisely because in a historically low rate environment, the returns on public equities will be lower and more importantly, the volatility will be much higher.

I also told him that given my long-term forecast of global deflation, I think more and more US and Canadian pensions should lower their target rate and that the contribution rates should rise.

Of course, someone may claim the only reason PSP and others want to lower their actuarial target rate of return is because it lowers their bar to attain their bogey and collect millions in compensation.

I'm not that cynical, I think there are legitimate reasons to review this target rate of return and I look forward to seeing the Chief Actuary's report to understand his logic and why he thinks it needs to be lowered.

I would also warn all of you to take GMO's 7-year asset class return projections with a shaker of salt (click on image below):


GMO may be right but I never bought into this nonsense and I'm not about to begin now. I guarantee you seven years from now, they will be way off once more!

Below, Goldman isn't buying into 2017's bull market hype. They must be reading my comments but remember what I told you last Friday when I went over top funds' Q4 activity, the real risk in these markets is another melt-up, even if it's a slow, insidious one, to shake all those shorts out and force portfolio managers underperforming their index to chase returns by buying risk assets at higher valuations. That's when the real fun begins but don't worry, we're not there yet.