Ben Meng got the job of chief investment officer of CalPERS by convincing the trustees of the nation’s largest public pension fund that he could hit their target of a 7 percent annual return on investment by directing more of the fund’s billions into private equity.
Now, Mr. Meng is gone — only a year and a half after he started — and CalPERS, as the $410 billion California Public Employees’ Retirement System is known, is no closer to that goal. The fund is consistently short of the billions of dollars it needs to pay all retirees their pensions. And it continues to calculate that it can meet those obligations only if it gets the kind of big investment gains promised by private equity.
The strategy involves putting money into funds managed by firms such as the Blackstone Group and Carlyle, which buy companies and retool them with the goal of selling them or taking them public. Even as some of the fund’s trustees have misgivings — they say the private equity business is opaque and illiquid and carries high fees — they say they have little choice.
“Private equity isn’t my favorite asset class,” Theresa Taylor, the chair of the CalPERS board’s investment committee, said at a recent meeting. “It helps us achieve our 7 percent solution,” she said. “I know we have to be there. I wish we were 100 percent funded. Then, maybe we wouldn’t.”
CalPERS, like many other pension funds, began putting money into private equity funds decades ago. But its reliance on such funds has increased in recent years,