“It’s pretty hypocritical for Calpers to constantly lecture publicly-traded companies about governance when they don’t even know what the private money managers THEY hire are charging them?”, Mike Perry
Calpers’s Disclosure on Fees Brings Surprise, and Scrutiny
Ted Eliopoulos, the chief investment officer of Calpers, which is cutting back on its use of external money managers. Credit Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
Earlier this year, a senior executive of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the country’s biggest state pension fund, made a surprising statement: The fund did not know what it was paying some of its Wall Street managers.
Wylie A. Tollette, the chief operating investment officer, told an investment committee in April that the fees Calpers paid to private equity firms were “not explicitly disclosed or accounted for. We can’t track it today.”
It was an unusual disclosure. In the world of public pension funds, Calpers is a big fish. It manages $300 billion in retirement funds for 1.6 million teachers, firefighters, police officers and other state employees and is generally credited with being the most sophisticated investor in the pension world.
For J. J. Jelincic, a member of the Calpers board, the disclosure raised a red flag. “I am disturbed that we don’t disclose the carry,” Mr. Jelincic said, referring to carried interest, the industry term for private equity performance fees. “I am appalled and, actually, I’m not sure I believe the staff when they say they don’t know what the carry is,” he added.
It also caught the attention of Edward A. H. Siedle, a pension fraud investigator and a former lawyer at the Securities and Exchange Commission. Mr. Siedle, who has investigated public funds like those in North Carolina, Alabama and Rhode Island, and corporate retirement plans for Walmart, Caterpillar and Boeing, is seeking to investigate Calpers with the help of crowdfunding. He wants to determine, among other things, how much Calpers pays in private equity fees. He plans to pay for his project by raising $750,000 from the public through the online platform Kickstarter.
“The money manager knows to a penny what the fees are,” Mr. Siedle said. “The only explanation is that the pension fund has chosen not to ask the question because, from an accounting and legal perspective, those numbers have to be readily available. They are intentionally not asking because if the fees were publicly disclosed, the public would scream.”
Calpers paid $1.6 billion in fees to Wall Street in 2014, according to its annual report. The figure, however, does not include how much it paid in carried interest. Both Mr. Siedle and Mr. Jelincic say that figure could be as much as an additional $1 billion a year.
Private equity firms typically charge investors a management fee of 1 to 2 percent of assets and about 20 percent of any gains each year. But fees for transactions, costs for monitoring investments and legal fees are not readily disclosed. Those undisclosed fees result in a substantial weight on returns, according to a recent study by CEM Benchmarking.
Faced with ballooning deficits and lackluster performance, state pension funds nationwide are beginning to examine more closely how much they are paying Wall Street to manage their investments. Calpers for the first time this year will begin to make more payments to retirees than it receives from contributions and its investments. Pennsylvania is facing a $50 billion shortfall in its pension fund.
In New York City, the comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, commissioned a study of the city’s five pension funds that showed external managers fell more $2.5 billion short of benchmark returns over 10 years.
Mr. Siedle’s firm, Benchmark Financial Services, recently published a crowdfunded investigation into Rhode Island’s public employee pension fund. In an 81-page report, Mr. Siedle outlined how the pension fund had incurred $2 billion in preventable losses from investments in outside real estate, private equity and hedge funds. Seth Magaziner, Rhode Island’s treasurer, has disputed the report.
“Treasurer Magaziner strongly agrees with the need for greater transparency and lower fees by alternative investment managers doing business with public pension funds,” Shana Autiello, a spokeswoman for Mr. Magaziner, said.
In addition to wanting to examine the fees that Calpers pays, Mr. Siedle also wants to scrutinize the relationship its executives and placement agents — middlemen it hires to help it find money managers — have with Wall Street to determine whether any conflicts of interest exist. He plans to spend nine months sifting through Calpers’s public disclosures and will also comb through the private offering documents that external money managers give to consultants who advise Calpers.
Calpers said it was trying to address the lack of transparency around fees. In April, Mr. Tollette, the chief operating investment officer, told the investment committee that Calpers planned to require greater disclosure from the private equity firms it invests in, adding that this was an industrywide problem. Calpers is also working on a reporting program that would track data from each external firm with which it has investments.
“Calpers has long been a leader in advocating for fee economies and transparency, including in private equity,” Joe DeAnda, a spokesman for Calpers, said. “A necessary element in that effort is additional disclosure and reporting from the general partners managing the funds,” he added.
The public scrutiny comes as Calpers seeks to simplify what it has called a complex and expensive portfolio. This month, Ted Eliopoulos, the chief investment officer, said that over the next five years, Calpers would cut by more than half the 212 external money managers it invests with for private equity, real estate and global equity funds. It will reduce the number of private equity firms to 30 from 98, giving those firms $30 billion to manage. Calpers has put its money with some of the biggest private equity firms in the world, including TPG, Blackstone, Carlyle and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.
Last year, as part of its move to slim down its external investments, Calpers decided to liquidate $4 billion of hedge fund investments.
The S.E.C. has started to look more closely at private equity firms to understand how they value their assets and charge fees. The agency, which has conducted examinations of private equity firms, found that more than 50 percent of the time there were violations of law or weaknesses in a firm’s controls.
Mr. DeAnda, the Calpers spokesman, said fund officials had been “actively engaging with some of our private equity partners to help improve the disclosure and data available and have been closely monitoring the regulatory announcements and attention around this subject.”
Mr. Siedle’s investigation will not be the first for Calpers. In 2009, it hired the law firm Steptoe & Johnson to look at its use of placement agents as part of a wider pay-to-play scandal across the industry. The investigation, which cost Calpers $11 million, uncovered evidence of bribery and corruption. The S.E.C. accused Federico R. Buenrostro Jr., the Calpers chief executive from 2002 and 2008, and Alfred J. R. Villalobos, a former board member turned placement agent, with fraud. The United States attorney in San Francisco charged the two men with criminal fraud. Mr. Buenrostro pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to commit bribery and fraud. Mr. Villalobos, who pleaded not guilty, committed suicide this year.
Seeking to put the controversy behind it, Calpers adopted new policies and disclosure requirements. It continues to use placement firms.
A version of this article appears in print on June 26, 2015, on page B5 of the New York edition with the headline: Calpers’s Disclosure on Fee Uncertainties Brings Surprises, and Scrutiny.