Are 130/30 Programs Appropriate for Pension Funds?

After recently speaking to a group of public pension funds, I sat down to listen to other speakers, one of whom gave an eloquent talk about "130/30" strategies. Somewhat new on the investment scene, the goal of these "enhanced equity" strategies is to relax portfolio weight constraints that otherwise preclude a portfolio manager from expresssing a serious "thumbs down" for a particular stock. In addition, fund professionals are given latitude to emphasize favored stocks.

The mechanics are relatively straightforward. A 130/30 portfolio manager invests $1.00 in Stock X and sells $0.30 in Stock Y.  Proceeds from the short sale are used to purchase an additional $0.30 of Stock X.

Advocates assert that 130/30 funds (or variations thereof) are transparent, can be classified as equity, can be easily benchmarked and offer a possible way to increase returns. Critics counter that higher fees, frequent trading (and related costs) and relatively short track records give one pause. In addition, many of the funds employ quantitative models to drive investment decisions. In the last few months, amidst a credit crisis, more than a few quants found themselves selling off long positions while buying other stock to cover short positions. A tumble in returns and increased volatility was the unhappy result.

After the speaker concluded, I asked him how a plan sponsor is able to justify investing in 130/30 funds if its Investment Policy Statement specifically precludes short-selling, whether by design or, in the case of some public plans, short-selling is expressly prohibited. His response that pension plans are modifying their Investment Policy Statements to accommodate did not sit well with me. If trustees or other types of fiduciaries have made a conscientious decision to avoid short-selling, why change mid-stream? Mind you, this blogger is not saying that 130/30 strategies are bad or good but simply pointing out that prudent process would suggest the need for a thorough vetting of the attendant risks associated with this type of short-selling.

I asked ERISA attorney Stephen Rosenberg for his thoughts. With permission, comments from this McCormack Firm, LLC partner and fellow blogger are shown below. (Click here to read his fine blog.)

<< The fiduciary exposure - or at least the potential exposure - for the plans really runs to the rationale and due diligence, or lack thereof, in changing the pre-existing policy to allow the plan to instead invest using this strategy. The fiduciary’s obligation is one of prudence, and presumably there was a rational, intelligent reason for precluding such investment strategies for the plan’s investments. If the plan switches its policy to allow for such investing, the plan needs to be able to show an equally rational and defensible reason for the change. Otherwise, the plan and its fiduciaries open themselves up to claims, in the event the investment declines in value, that the original policy forbidding such investments was correct and the change was neither prudent nor well though out, and thus represents a breach of fiduciary duty. It may or may not be the case that such investment strategies should be part of the pension plan’s investment mix, but what is necessary to ward off fiduciary duty claims, and to satisfy fiduciary obligations, is a well thought out investigation, prior to making the change, by knowledgeable parties, into whether changing the plan’s investment policies in this regard is appropriate. The best defense to claims that such a change violated fiduciary obligations is competent third party advice from someone with nothing to gain from the change, i.e. advice on this issue from someone other than the bank seeking the investment. >>

Notable is his emphasis on getting INDEPENDENT feedback about the efficacy of a 130/30 strategy. Moreover, his comments about process make perfect sense. Before committing millions of dollars to a 130/30 type strategy, a plan sponsor should be able to thoroughly explain a change of heart about its stance on short-selling. Hopefully, for those plans for which there is an outright regulatory restriction (by virtue of state law let's say), they understand the compliance implications.

As the "short enabled" market grows, it will be interesting to track which pension plans participate and why.

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