Category Archives: Investment management

Private Equity Titan Blackstone Admits New Normal of Lousy Returns, Proposes Changes to Preserve Its Profits

Private equity continues to make headlines, and not in a good way, despite industry efforts to spin otherwise. The latest shoe to drop is that private equity firms are trying to rewrite some well-established fund terms to allow them to continue to rake in egregious profits even as the returns of most funds have underperformed the stock market.

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Treasury Liquidity Freakout: Searching for a Market-Maker

As someone old enough to have done finance in the Paleolithic pre-personal computer era (yes, I did financial analysis using a calculator and green accountant’s ledger paper as a newbie associate at Goldman), investor expectations that market liquidity should ever and always be there seem bizarre, as well as ahistorical. Yet over the past month or two, there has been an unseemly amount of hand-wringing about liquidity in the bond market, both corporate bonds, and today, in a Financial Times story we’ll use as a point of departure, Treasuries.

These concerns appear to be prompted by worries about what happens if (as in when) bond investors get freaked out by the Fed finally signaling it is really, no really, now serious about tightening and many rush for the exits at once. The taper tantrum of summer 2013 was a not-pretty early warning and the central bank quickly lost nerve. The worry is that there might be other complicating events, like geopolitical concerns, that will impede the Fed’s efforts at soothing rattled nerves, or worse, that the bond market will gap down before the Fed can intercede (as if investors have a right to orderly price moves!).

Let’s provide some context to make sense of these pleas for ever-on liquidity.

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Private Equity Now Looking to Even Bigger Chumps, Namely 401 (k)s and Retail

One of the reasons that private equity has managed to flourish is that its biggest investor group is what is traditionally referred to as dumb money: public pension funds, which account for 25% of industry assets. Readers may recall that even CalPERS, widely considered to be the savviest public pension fund, recently had a public board meeting where the questions asked of prospective gatekeepers, the pension fund consultants, were, with one exception, softballs. And that question was the only one to address the SEC’s revelation that private equity firms have been engaging in large scale fee-skimming and other forms of grifting. And remember, the SEC also stated that the investors in these funds, known in industry nomenclature as limited partners, have done a crappy job of negotiating their agreements.

But in predictable fashion, as one group of marks, um, sales targets, starts to dry up, private equity funds, aka general partners, are hunting for new ones. And having gone very systematically after every conceivable large pot of money, the only place left for them to go is down market, in terms of size and sophistication.

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State Street, Governor Elect Rauner Both Implicated in Pay-to-Play Scandals

The more rocks you turn over in public pension land, the more creepy crawlies you find. No wonder private equity has such a secrecy fetish. The most obvious, and most offensive to the public, are so-called pay-to-play scandals, in which public officials who are in a position to influence how funds are invested, take campaign funding from individuals or firms who are currently managing government funds or in short order get a mandate.

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SEC Commissioner Kara Stein Fighting for Tougher Bank Sanctions, Stymies Bank of America Settlement

One of the things that continue to be a source of anger in the American public is the way that banks were rescued en masse without the perps, the managers and producers in the businesses that produced toxic product facing much if anything in the way of consequences. Another is that the banks pay fines that are inadequate relative to the amount of damage that they did.

SEC commissioner Kara Stein has been using her post as a surprisingly effective bully pulpit to pressure the agency and other regulators into upping their game. It’s unusual for an SEC commissioner to play that role; the post is typically a runway for becoming either a lobbyist or a director on financial services company boards. Even more rare is that Stein is regularly crossing swords with SEC chairman Mary Jo White, who is taking a much more industry-friendly line than she promised at the time of her confirmation. It’s virtually never done to have a commissioner from the same party buck the chairman.

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Gretchen Morgenson on the Damage of Private Equity Secrecy (and a Mention of Our CalPERS Suit)

Gretchen Morgenson filed a must-read story on the range and some of the consequences of the private equity fetish for secrecy. The short version is that if the private equity industry had nothing to hide, they wouldn’t be hiding it.

Even so, Morgenson’s story is certain to be an eye-opener to readers fresh to this topic and has important revelations for even those who’ve been on this beat for a while.

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NJ Pension Fund Scandal: Chris Christie’s Nose is Getting So Long He Needs to Get a Hacksaw

If you see politics as a form of bloodsport, there’s nothing more fun that seeing a politician start attacking a reporter. That almost without exception means the charges have hit a weak spot, that the incumbent has little to no valid defense and instead starts lashing out.

In this case, it’s particularly amusing to see New Jersey governor Chris Christie as the would-be pugilist. We are seeing that while Garden State pols may be great on the offensive in bare-knucle fights, they have a glass jaw when put on the defensive.

Here, the combatants are International Business Times reporter, David Sirota, against various officials with close ties to Christie who administer state pension funds. Sirota has been making a mini-speciality of state pay-to-play scandals.

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An Accident Waiting to Happen: The $1 Trillion Leveraged Loan Market

A new article in Bloomberg gives a well-researched overview of a mess-in-the-making that regulators are choosing to ignore: the leveraged loan market. For newbies, “leveraged loans” means “risky loans to big companies”. For the most part, they fund private equity buyouts and restructurings. The juicy fees on these financings, 1% to 5% of the amount raised, versus an average of 1.3% for junk bonds, is a big reason why none of the incumbents is particularly eager to change a market that is working just fine for them in its current, creaky form.

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Investment Bombshell: CalPERS Exiting Hedge Funds

CalPERS, the largest public pension fund in the US, is widely seen as an industry leader and its practices are emulated by other public pension funds. CalPERS has just announced that it is withdrawing from hedge fund investing entirely.

Ironically, the very first post on this website, on December 19, 2006, Fools and Their Money (Hedge Fund Edition), chided CalPERS for its continued loyalty to hedge funds.

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Is New Jersey Fudging Its Pension Fund Results to Defuse a Christie Scandal?

You cannot make stuff like this up. New Jersey, in its attempt to diffuse a pension fund scandal that implicates Chris Christie (it roused him to respond in public), looks to have committed the classic crisis management blunder of a cover-up worse than the original crime.

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Philip Pilkington: The Efficient Markets Hypothesis Has Been Proved Wrong But Economists Do Not Want to Listen

Yves here. The Efficient Markets Hypothesis, along with the Capital Assets Pricing Model, is one of the cornerstones of financial economics. Pity both are wrong.

Actually, it’s worse than a pity, since financial economics informs not only how professional investors construct their investment portfolios, but similarly is the foundation for orthodox thinking among retail investors. And the Efficient Markets Hypothesis and the Capital Assets Pricing Model both understate market risk, so following their dictates leads investors to take on more risk than they intended to.

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Pump and Dump: How to Rig the Entire IPO Market with just $20 Million

How much does it cost to manipulate an entire market? Not much. And it’s getting cheaper!

It was leaked on Tuesday by “people with knowledge of that matter,” according to the Wall Street Journal, that VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers had decided in May to plow up to $20 million into message-app maker Snapchat, for a tiny portion of ownership. An undisclosed investor also committed some funds. The deal, which apparently hasn’t closed yet, would give Snapchat a valuation of $10 billion.

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Burger King the Latest to Jump on the Corporate Tax Inversion Bandwagon

A number of corporations have engaged in corporate tax “inversions” this year, which typically involves a large U.S. company merging with a smaller counterpart in a lower-tax country abroad, then moving the corporate billing address to the lower-tax country to reduce the overall tax burden. The actual headquarters and the executives go nowhere, but the nominal address changes so the company can avoid U.S. tax rates. A number of corporations in the pharmaceutical space have pulled this off in 2014, but it took the drugstore giant Walgreen to flirt with the idea (through a merger with the Swiss company Alliance Boots) for the non-financial press and the public to really catch on. Outcry actually stopped Walgreen from going through with the inversion; they merged with Alliance Boots, but kept their headquarters in the U.S. Clearly, it was easier to rally public scrutiny to a consumer-facing brand attempting to skip out on America while still using the public resources afforded any company selling their wares here.

Now, the same coalition that stopped the Walgreen inversion will get another chance with Burger King:

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