Water With No Ice

My jaunts to a local coffee house have given me food for thought about how people listen and respond to ordinary requests. Let me explain.

A regular treat for me is a double expresso and a glass of water with no ice. Since I had adult braces removed a few years ago, it's tough to down frosty cold drinks so "straight from the freezer" is a no-no. Interestingly however, about ninety percent of the time, the person behind the counter hands me a tall H20 with (drumroll please) lots of ice. At first I thought it was carelessness on the part of one or two individuals but I started to notice that nearly everywhere I went, regardless of the type of dining venue, my pleas for room temperature liquid refreshment went unnoticed, unheeded or both. In the United States, drinking a cold beverage with lots of ice is standard fare. Maybe, as a result, servers are simply habituated to provide what they think most people want.

Does this tendency to hear what we want to hear and respond accordingly prevail elsewhere? If so, and applied to institutional investors, how does meaningful change come about? How do old habits make way for new and improved practices? My having to wait for the cubes to melt is a trivial event. When billions of dollars are at stake and people don't listen to reality or acknowledge what is needed, the consequences are material and potentially life-altering for plan participants who struggle financially because of bad fiduciary decisions.

I've noticed that discussions with some investors and asset managers since the recent market fallout bear bitter fruit. When asked if they are doing a great job addressing risk management, the answer is invariably "yes" but the reality is often quite different. Headlines aplenty in the last few years suggest that at least some decision-makers embrace the familiar (hear what they want to hear) by interpreting "risk" in the narrow context of standard deviation and correlations. Their take is that they are doing a top-notch job yet, in reality, have barely scratched the surface of what has to be done.

Investment professionals with fiduciary duties, functional or de facto, should understand that a new paradigm is upon us. As I wrote on January 1, 2009 in "History Repeating Itself or a New Start in 2009?" a "holistic risk management process must go well beyond benchmarking against point-in-time numbers alone." As I wrote in 2006, pension risks are both qualitative and quantitative in nature. Advisors, attorneys, asset managers and consultants can play a vital role in either perpetuating the myth that numbers tell the full story or bring fresh insights to the table with respect to a full and more complete assessment of where attention should be paid.

Imagine dressing up for a full course dinner and then being served a single stalk of celery. It's the same thing when a pension, endowment or foundation investment committee asks for help and then gets handed a bunch of performance reports that leave operational and business risks in the corner, unattended.

As we head into a new year, let's applaud the right-thinking investors who put risk management front and center.

Free Webinar on June 21 to Look at BP Risk Issues for Investors

Click here to join us for a free webinar on June 21 from Noon to 1:00 PM EST. Sponsored by Cenario Capital, this educational event will include a case study about the BP spill in terms of investment implications and money manager due diligence.

Besides the immediate and delayed impact on sector and individual company risks, webinar speakers focus on the numerous signals that pensions, endowments, foundation and other institutional investors should be assessing on a regular basis - either directly or via their money managers. A discussion about how portfolio holdings can be vetted on an ongoing basis includes commentary about correlations, earnings forecasts, volatility, dividend yields, factor risk and valuation.

Join us for this timely convening with experts - Mr. Steve Van Beisen (Managing Director, Cenario Capital) and Dr. Petter Kolm (Director, Mathematics in Finance, NYU Courant Institute).

Public Pensions and Hedge Funds

In "States Double Down on Hedge Funds as Returns Slide," Bloomberg reporters Adam Cataldo and Michael McDonald (August 14, 2008) suggest that public pensions may get a double whammy if alternative investments go south. New York, New Jersey, South Carolina and Massachusetts are just a few of the large public plans now allocating monies to non-traditional investments such as hedge funds, real estate and private equity. This is not necessarily good or bad though one wonders about the timing. Will current market volatility help or hinder plans in search of higher returns? This blogger is quoted as follows:

"It doesn't come risk-free," said Susan Mangiero, president of Pension Governance, LLC, a research firm based in Trumbull, Connecticut. "You could end up having a worse performance and the chain of events is lower funding status and increased taxes."

Managing director Eileen Neill, with Wilshire Associates, states the need to "diversify some of the equity risk" and to attempt strategies that will help match the growth in liabilities. As I told the Bloomberg reporters (though not included in this article), how one measures diversification potential is key to understand. Correlation analysis only goes so far when markets are turbulent and bad news tends to adversely impact otherwise uncorrelated markets. Additionally, correlation assumes a linear relationship when comparing returns for a particular investment pair (hedge fund versus a large cap equity index for example). When the relationship is non-linear, correlation is less useful as a gauge of potential risk reduction.

Just as important, past is not prologue. Assessing historical returns can be misleading at best. Stan Rupnik, Chief Investment Officer at the Teachers' Retirement System of the State of Illinois, is quoted as saying that "Chasing performance, especially in a public fund, can be a dangerous thing." It is important for trustees to make sure that "what if" analysis is being done on a regular basis, taking into account relevant risk drivers. Consider private equity and venture capital. An accelerating credit crisis has made it extremely difficult for companies to go public or for potential suitors to finance their bid. As a result, returns suffer. No surprise that pension investors (and their plan participants) take a hit too.

Editor's Note: