Private Equity Underperformance Denialist, Pension Consulting Alliance, Tells CalSTRS to Fix Performance Problems by Scrapping Benchmark

We’ve described the important role that consultants play in defending and thus perpetuating dubious practices in private equity. As much as these advisors nominally serve limited partners like CalPERS and its Sacramento sister, CalSTRS, which is the second biggest public pension fund investor in private equity, their true loyalties are to the private equity industry.

As we discussed at length in a recent post, How CalPERS’ Consultant, Pension Consulting Alliance, Promotes Intellectual Capture by Private Equity, firms like Pension Consulting Alliance (PCA) are inherently subject to the biggest conflict of interest of all: that of needing to validate that the idea of investing in private equity is ever and always sound.

PCA is also CalSTRS’ private equity consultant. At CalSTRS’ September board meeting, PCA gave a vivid demonstration of how it is willing to prostitute itself intellectually to rationalize sustained private equity underperformance.

Recall that CalPERS has failed to meet its private equity benchmarks for the last ten, five, three, and one years. CalPERS is widely considered to have ready access to fund managers and to be disciplined about fund selection. It’s hard to think that many investors would do meaningfully better than CalPERS; indeed, PCA said in September that CalPERS did better than an industry peer group index.

But private equity is a high-risk, hoped-for high-return strategy. And yet the benchmarks that have been used in the industry for decades show that private equity hasn’t deliver the returns that go along with the risks.

The conventional benchmarks are equity indexes comprised of mid-to-smaller sized companies (private equity owned companies are much smaller than members of the S&P 500, so the use of the S&P 500 as a basis for comparison is flattering to private equity). The convention is then to add 300 to 400 basis points (3% to 4%) to allow for illiquidity risk (we’ve argued at some length that this rule of thumb is low).

CalPERS has not just fallen short of these targets. It has fallen short by a gaping chasm of several hundred basis points for the ten, five, three, and one years measurement periods.

The very fact that CalPERS’ private equity returns over the past decade have been hundreds of basis points below CalPERS’ benchmarks says that private equity falls massively short in giving enough return relative to the risks involved. Shorter: Private equity cannot be depicted as a sound investment.

So how does PCA propose to deal with this glaring problem? By refusing to measure it any more. No measurement, no problem, right? Here is the fix it recommended to CalSTRS:

Mike Moy, Pension Consulting Alliance: You will notice in the report the continuing difficulties that we have with the benchmark and your performance against that benchmark. I would argue that the problem is the benchmark, not the performance. But I think that’s, to me, an industry-wide problem, in finding an appropriate benchmark that really gives you the ability to measure success currently and in the long term. I think you really have to look at it on a absolute basis to make certain that it’s contributing to your expected performance that’s in your asset allocation.

If you are finance-literate, what Moy is trying to sell is utter sophistry. Whether by accident or design, he reveals what the benchmark gimmickry is really about. It’s not to measure performance, but to measure “success currently and in the long term.” Thus anything that conflicts with the real agenda, that of depicting private equity as a success no matter what, must be replaced with something that does.

“Absolute returns” is a totally unsuitable framework for evaluating private equity. We’ve attached an article at the end of this post that debunks the myth of absolute return investing. A money quote:

Just because something is called an “absolute-return investment” does not mean it is granted an exception to the first law of financial gravity described in the previous section: The returns of any portfolio can be broken down into market (beta) components and an alpha [manager skill] component. So, here is the money question we are asking all hedge fund managers who fancy themselves absolute-return investors: Is the expected return you offer investors attributable to your expected average exposure to the beta (single or multiple) that characterizes your normal portfolio, or is it attributable to expected alpha generated through skillful beta timing or security selection?

It’s simply ludicrous, and therefore a sign of general partner and private equity consultant desperation, to try to fit private equity into an “absolute return” framework. “Absolute return” strategies, to the extent they ever could be achieved, seek to beat the market in good times and preserve capital in bad times, as in not lose money or at least lose less money than “the market” (however you wind up defining it) overall.

As we wrote at some length in a post on how public pension funds that invest more in high fee strategies like private equity do worse overall, even those disappointing performance figures we mentioned earlier are exaggerated because:

¶ Private equity uses IRR (Internal Rate of Return), meaning comparisons with public equity benchmarks are a garbage in, garbage out exercise skewed to favor private equity

¶ Private equity uses valuations that are known to be questionable

But even with private equity feigning better performance than it really has by fudging its valuations in bad markets, private equity returns are, not surprisingly, very highly correlated with stock market returns. Despite all the fancy tax games and financial engineering general partners can perform when they obtain control of a company, they also have to bid in competitive markets to buy companies against other private equity buyers who know all the same tricks (as well as “strategic” buyers, meaning operators who see a fit between the target and their current businesses). Hence a lot of the potential “PE upside” is bid away in the purchase process.

As Oxford professor Ludovic Phalippou said via e-mail (emphasis ours):

I have commented on this issue of the need to benchmark private equity against public equities for years and made that point countless times. And I believe that financial economists are unanimous on this issue.

The simplest reason why PE returns need to be benchmarked against listed equities is because once a PE fund buys a company, the price is in line with similarly traded companies. The same is true when the PE fund sells it. Hence, a PE fund did nothing to create value if an investor would have earned the same return as similar listed stocks. That is why it is a benchmark.

A more elaborate answer is that all of the empirical evidence we have accumulated indicates that the correlation between listed equity and PE returns is very large (at least 80% correlation).

An absolute return benchmark, i.e. risk free rate, is absolutely unjustifiable on any ground.

From Eileen Appelbaum, co-author of Private Equity at Work:

Mike Moy notes PE’s “continuing difficulty with benchmarks” — an apparent admission that private equity is failing to meet CalSTRS’ benchmark. His conclusion is stunning — the problem, he says, “is the benchmark, not the performance.” Try telling that to your boss the next time you get a poor performance rating!

Unbelievably, Moy’s solution to the difficulty with benchmarks is to get rid of them altogether. Of course, he doesn’t say so outright. What he does say is that PE returns should be looked at “on an absolute returns basis.” The advantage of doing this? An absolute returns strategy is not benchmarked against a traditional stock market index but against a risk-free benchmark like US Treasuries, or against no benchmark at all. The goal of such a strategy is to avoid risky investments and preserve capital in the event of a market sell-off — obviously NOT what private equity is all about.

And why is PCA so keen to get rid of benchmarks now? The answer comes a few minutes later:

Christopher Ailman, Chief Investment Officer, CalSTRS: My most scary, frightening chart, chart number two. This is kind of the opposite of real estate. This is prices paid. What do you have to pay to invest and buy a company in the private market today? You can see that in the first half of ’15 it was it was 10.1 [times EBITDA]. That may go down now thanks to the summer, but basically, new investments in private equity are having to pay amongst the highest prices. Both, and PCA pointed that out in their other chart, that both private equity and real estate are priced almost to perfection, that’s a good way to put it. So it’s a tough time to make investments and hope we make money.

As Appelbaum concludes:

Why does Moy want to get rid of benchmarks? Probably because he knows that private equity is overpaying for the companies it buys, and thus funds of recent vintage are unlikely to outperform stock market benchmarks. Private equity is paying a 10.1x multiple to acquire a company. For context, at the peak of the last boom, in 2006, the multiple was 9.0x EBITDA. It’s a tough time for PE to invest and perform well — so let’s not measure its performance!

Former banker, now independent private equity researcher Peter Morris, puts this sorry picture in context:

What private equity managers actually do is quite simple. They buy companies, often with lots of debt; run them for a few years; then sell them. In between buying and selling the companies, they sometimes make big changes. But the main driver of private equity returns remains a combination of the stock market and financial steroids (meaning the high debt levels).

Once you understand how simple private equity really is, it becomes obvious how to tell if private equity has been a good investment or not. Private equity ought to outperform the stock market, for three reasons. It uses financial steroids (aka lots of debt). It is very illiquid (harder to buy and sell)*. And on top of this, buyout managers say they “create value” by running companies better.

So the key question becomes: Has private equity outperformed the stock market over the long term, net of fees, by a big margin — say, five percentage points a year or more? (Neither the cash multiple nor the internal rate of return accurately measures this.) If so, then there is a case for saying private equity was a good investment.

If private equity (net) failed to outperform the stock market by a big enough margin, then the exorbitant fees that investors have paid to private equity managers were a waste of money.

Investors like CalSTRS and their consultants, like PCA, mostly fail to address this simple question. They dance around it in several creative ways. They focus on inadequate return measures, such as cash multiples and internal rates of return, even though a better measure is readily available (the Public Market Equivalent). Instead of just comparing private equity to the stock market, they develop complex bespoke benchmarks. Then, when performance falls below these benchmarks, consultants like PCA recommend
abandoning the benchmark and looking at “absolute return” instead. It is remarkable how much time and money gets spent on avoiding the central question: has private equity outperformed the stock market over the long term by a big enough margin?

The persistent failure of private equity to beat stock market returns by a meaningful margin, even when using leverage, shows that the answer to Morris’s last question is a resounding “no.” And funds like CalSTRS and CalPERS have other routes for achieving the returns they desperately need and are failing to get from private equity. They can use a stock market strategy that mimics private equity by focusing on smaller companies that are levered but have good enough growth and solid enough balance sheets so as not to be unduly exposed to bankruptcy risk. They can, as Professor Phalippou indicated, use other “smart beta” strategies that have delivered returns in the 12% to 14% range that these pension funds have targeted. Or they can take what would be the most logical move of all: Cut the middleman out by bringing private equity in house.

But any of these approaches would make the current private equity teams at these big pension funds, and their advisors at concerns like Pension Consulting Alliance, redundant. So you see the most perverse form of leverage of all: billions of dollars thrown at private equity investments that aren’t justifiable on a risk/return basis, all to preserve a comparatively small number of jobs.


* Some financial economists contend that the only risk investors ultimately get paid for is illiquidity risk. But most illiquid investments are illiquid by virtue of having high transactions costs and/or cumbersome sale processes (think of cases where a buyer needs to get approvals to close a deal). So with illiquid investments, the matter of costs and fees is critical to determining whether that type of asset is attractive all in. The fees and costs can easily exceed whatever return premium there might be.

Siegel Waring Myth of absolute return FAJ 2006

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  1. Eric Patton

    This is so awesome. I like watching the dispensation of justice. If ever any group of people truly deserved an ass whipping, it’s these blow holes.

    I’m looking forward to, one day, serious criminal prosecutions of these jokers. And since there’s no statute of limitations on tax fraud, I’m looking forward to a fully-funded IRS one day crushing the bastards.

    How many people have died, or had their lives utterly destroyed by these greedy assholes? How many children have grown up in poverty? How many couples have gotten divorced, when perhaps their relationships could have been saved had there not been so much stress over money?

    How many war crimes have people like Obama and Bush before him (not to mention other presidents) committed trying to control the rest of the world and secure (i.e., steal) the resources of others in order to further enrich a few people here in the US?

    Fire Desrochers? Are we absolutely certain there are no criminal laws he can be charged with violating? Or the rest of them? I mean, none of them have committed any felonies? Maybe. But I’d sure like to know.

    We have plenty of prison space, and plenty of people currently residing there who shouldn’t be there. I say we explore the possibility of swapping out the current residents of most prisons with a new, more genteel set. Desrochers and Dimon could always share a cell…

    1. lambert strether

      Yes, it’s been sort of amazing to see this train of posts get rolling.

      Perhaps there could be a “War on Fraud,” taking over the “War on Drugs” machinery.* I mean accounting control fraud, of course, in the C-suites, not little guys looking a few hundred K.

      * And none of this Club Fed nonsense, with golf courses and so forth.

          1. anom de plume

            In the interest of truthiness, my understanding of Scripture is that one is forbidden from taking one’s OWN vengeance, not for avenging others.

              1. Fool

                I don’t want to be defending the Street, but we should probably be more concerned about those whose right to “due process” has become an embarrassment thereof (see Rakoff). I digress. Law and order isn’t executed by pitchforks. Putting c-suites in prison cells, while gratifying — and in many cases justified — won’t in and of itself sort out the systemic flaws of financial capitalism and social inequality.

  2. Left in Wisconsin

    What’s incredible is that the supposed returns are the only justification for pension funds to invest in PE. I am quite sure most of the pensioners whose funds are investing in PE would be mortified if they understood the business practices that underlay those returns, which it turns out are not so hot.

  3. allan

    `First they ignore you, then they laugh at you’, [Gandhi forgot to include] `then they try to change the rules’.

    Congratulations on a truly excellent series that is getting under someone’s skin.

  4. ricardo

    I’d like to point out that the speaker is misidentified in the copy following the second video window on this post. The speaker in question is Christopher Ailman, the Chief Investment Officer at CalSTRS.

  5. Jim Haygood

    ‘that’s, to me, an industry-wide problem, in finding an appropriate benchmark’ — Mike Moy

    Well, it ain’t that hard, Mike. After all, this is the Golden Age of Indexing, with literally thousands of indexes available from dozens of index providers.

    Along these lines, State Street (which provides CalSTRS’ GX Private Equity Index benchmark) has just announced a brilliant new private equity index:

    State Street Liquid Private Equity Investable Index [is] a new solution that provides public access to private equity sector exposures.

    For asset owners, the index provides a liquid means to increase or decrease effective private equity exposure … while preserving liquidity to meet capital calls.

    For asset managers, the index provides access to a liquid return stream similar to private equity … without the traditional impediments of illiquidity, lack of investment transparency, layered fee structures and large minimum investments.

    Turning illiquid underlying assets into “liquid” vehicles is Wall Street’s version of making silk purses from sow’s ears. This model already has been used in dozens of fixed income funds that hold illiquid bonds, such as junk bonds. Vanguard has taken out $3 billion in credit lines to meet potential redemptions without having to dump illiquid bonds onto a bidless market.

    “Liquid PE” — yeah, right! They must have seen that turnip truck I rode in on.

    1. Larry

      I did not realize the bond market is that locked up.

      This was my favorite part of the news announcement:

      The index was developed from research generated by State Street’s academic partnership, State Street Associates, which suggests that private equity managers collectively outperform the public equity markets in part by anticipating the relative performance of economic sectors.

      Okay then. So the collection of 2200 PE funds outperform public equity markets. I would love to see that research study and understand how, if that’s the case, CalPERS could have such woeful performance.

      1. Jim Haygood

        Treasuries and agencies, issued in huge quantities, aren’t a problem. Corporates are a different story. BlackRock pointed out that five US banks (JP Morgan, B of A, Citi, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley) between them have 7,622 different bonds outstanding (compared to 3,809 stocks in the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund). Some of these bonds are tiny, one-time, obscure issues. But they are at least investment grade.

        It’s when you get into the junk-rated corporate sector, which behaves more like equities during market stress, that liquidity problems develop. Some of these issues don’t trade every day, or even every week. It’s not even an online market. When the going gets tough, dealers might just stop answering the phones … or pick up and say “Vinnie’s Pizza, whuduya want?”

        Seeing the problem coming, this week the SEC proposed new liquidity safeguards. But there’s a 90-day comment period, and meanwhile junk is getting sold hard. Hold onto your seat, this could be a bumpy ride.

        1. lambert strether

          Maybe “some damned thing in the bond market” is why Janet Yellen had her fainting spell? *

          I’ve been trying to come up with a parallel, and I can’t really, except in post-Lehman 2008, when I’m told all the principals were in terrible physical shape, due to the stress.

          * Yes, I know this sounds like court gossip, but that’s where we are, isn’t it?

      2. Yves Smith Post author

        As we indicated. CalPERS actually beats a private equity market index, so its performance is BETTER than the typical PE investor.

        The issue is not that of “beating the stock market.” First, that State Street study, like almost all studies of PE performance, is bogus via using IRR as the basis for measuring PE performance. IRR exaggerates PE’s results.

        Second, they may have used the S&P 500 index, which is also not a good benchmark (bigger companies which can’t grow as quickly as smaller ones, and hence is flattering to PE, since PE-owned companies are way smaller than S&P 500 firms. You need an apples to apples comparison).

        Third, PE should not just “beat” the stock market, it should beat it by 300-400 basis points (3% to 4%) to justify the risks investors take by investing in PE. PE has undeniably, persistently underperformed on that well-established basis for measuring performance. And that’s before you factor in my first and second issues above.

        One big problem is that that the GPs don’t make performance data available, so there is no true universe of PE. All studies are based on samples, and you have to be concerned about sample bias.

        As Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt wrote in Private Equity at Work:

        Because there is no publicly available or comprehensive data set on private equity, all studies of performance suffer from incompleteness and biases, and different methods of calculating returns lead to different results. But some methodologies and data sets are more credible than others. Reports that PE funds substantially outperform the stock market come almost entirely from industry sources that use the internal rate of return as a measure of performance. This measure is deeply flawed, for reasons examined in this chapter, and many finance scholars reject its use. Industry reports are also biased, as they rely on the data and methods of self-interested parties.

        Our review covers the most credible research by top finance scholars. They report much more modest returns to private equity funds, with some showing that the median fund does not beat the stock market and others showing that median returns are only slightly above the stock market.

    2. say_what?

      “Vanguard has taken out $3 billion in credit lines to meet potential redemptions without having to dump illiquid bonds onto a bidless market.” Jim Haygood

      No doubt helped along by ZIRP via the nation’s counterfeiter-in-chief, the Fed?

  6. cnchal

    Former banker, now independent private equity researcher Peter Morris, puts this sorry picture in context:

    Comparing pirate equity to the stock market ought to be obvious. But pirate equity vested interests claim to have suspended the laws of financial gravity. They pretend that returns in private equity are somehow unrelated to the real world – meaning, the stock market.

    That is a definition of the real world I have doubts about. How real is that world when central banks inflate the stawk market with phunny money that can go poof in an instant, and take the hard earned “invested” money with it?

    I like Yves punchline with one addition.

    So you see the most perverse form of leverage of all: billions of dollars thrown at private equity investments that aren’t justifiable on a risk/return basis, all to preserve a comparatively small number of bullshit jobs.

    1. Larry

      I thought about the same thing you did. The stock market is a reflection of the price of control over private companies in common understanding. Considering the amount of share buybacks that happen in the world of publicly controlled companies, I would say that there is plenty of finanical engineering going on in the “real world” as well. Though how you would otherwise benchmark public pension funds investments in PE is beyond me. At least you can track and follow a basket of publicly traded companies and say here’s what PE has to beat to justify the lock up of capital and much larger risk.

  7. flora

    Using real data to challenge the experts – like the Pension Consulting Alliance (PCA) or ratings agencies – on their expertise when they go off the rails and directly harm investors is critically important. Not letting them hide behind the cloak of “expert” while they misinform is necessary to ever getting PE investment ideology turned around. Many, many thanks to NC for pulling back the curtain on these Wizards of Oz.

  8. Andrew Foland

    I’m financially semi-literate so I like to reduce things to “equals” as much as possible to understand how to compare them. I believe the PE issue boils down to something like this:

    An investor could achieve the same level of returns as PE using levered public equity, with a leverage of X. The public equity strategy would, however, have lower volatility and no illiquidity concerns.

    So (a) is this right? (b) What is X? (I’d hazard a guess it’s around 20%?) ( c) Just how much lower would the volatility be?

    1. Jim Haygood

      Ostensibly, according to index provider State Street, their GX private index fell only about 30% peak to trough (3Q 2007 to 1Q 2009), while less-leveraged public equities fell over 50%. GX PE index chart:

      This result is contrary to theory, and highly unlikely. As a parallel example, real estate in several cities also dumped about 50% during the crisis, according to actual transactions. If instead of using comparable sales, you had collected a quarterly “free home value estimate” from a local “buy now before prices go up” Realtor(TM), that would be analogous to both the GX index and to the underlying valuations from private equity partnerships. Valuations are never as volatile as actual markets, where panic sales can and do occur.

      PE gets away with smoothed valuations because PE victims investors can’t actually sell when they want to. So the myth that PE investments only declined 30% in the 2008 crisis lives on, and may even be repeated in the next go-round.

      If PE investments were transferrable as limited partnership units (e.g., oil & gas drilling partnerships) held by individuals are, the emperor’s absence of clothes would be painfully revealed. As individuals trying to peddle their unwanted LP units are warned,

      ‘We have prepared the following list of firms making a market in limited partnership units. Please remember that investments traded on a secondary market involve wide price variations, and often times, substantial discounts. You should allow up to eight weeks to complete the transaction.’

      Individuals have been unloading illiquid LP units on the secondary market for years. They’re lucky to get 20 or 30 cents on the dollar. But white-shoe PE investors think this don’t apply to them? Think again, my friends!

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