As 2008 rolls in, uncertainty is on the minds of many. Will there be a recession? Will market volatility persist? Will asset prices continue to converge, making it more difficult to diversify? One question in particular is oft-discussed, notably the issue of strategic asset allocation for defined benefit plans. In a December 17, 2007 news release, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System Board of Administration announced its intent to invest nearly 70 percent of its $250 billion under management to stocks. Private equity will account for 10 percent, up from 6 percent. According to Charles P. Valdes, Investment Committee Chair, “These revised allocation markers reflect the promise of our private equity, real estate, and asset-linked investment classes."
In stark contrast, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation went in the opposite direction a few years ago, now bearing the burden of a positive equity risk premium. In a December 20, 2007 article entitled "The $4 billion trade-off: PBGC misses out by eschewing stocks in favor of LDI," Financial Week reporter Doug Halonen points out the perils of allocating a high percentage of assets to fixed income. He rightly points out "the irony" that numerous companies are seriously investigating the economics of adopting a liability-driven investing strategy which almost always entails a shift away from stocks to bonds and/or interest rate derivatives.
Importantly, the decision to invest in alternatives, including private equity, must reflect a careful analysis of the likely risk-return tradeoff, mapped to the objectives and constraints of a particular pension plan. A short-term focus could create upset for those exposed to holdings that more logically lend themselves to a long-term commitment. In today's "Wall St. Way: Smart People Seeking Dumb Money," New York Times reporter Eric Dash writes that investors in Ohio Public Employees Retirement System and Fidelity Investors "would have made more money this year investing in an old-fashioned index fund that tracks the S&P 500-stock index" rather than plunking down money for the IPO of "private equity powerhouse" Blackstone Group. Perhaps that's true but does it matter if their respective goals are to realize capital gain over the next five to seven years? (Note that this blog's author has no knowledge of the intent of either investor.)
Allowing for upside potential (and statistics do validate a big move into private equity by pensions, endowments and foundations), lack of liquidity and valuation difficulties are harsh realities. However, barriers are starting to soften. Barry Silbert, CEO of Restricted Stock Partners, operates the Restricted Securities Trading Network, a mechanism for trading insider stock options, convertible bonds and private investments in public equity. A recent venture capital injection is arguably a validation of this attempt to enhance fungibility of otherwise "infrequently traded" instruments. The PORTAL Alliance, brings together the Nasdaq Stock Market and leading securities firms to "create an open, industry-standard facility for the private offering, trading, shareholder tracking and settlement of unregistered equity securities sold to qualified institutional buyers ("QIBs")." If successful in allowing for ready buys and sells, institutions may be more open to kicking the private equity tires.
For further reading, these websites (a few of many) may be of interest: