What is CalPERS’s job? There’s actually an answer: it’s to “Provide responsible and efficient stewardship of the System to deliver promised retirement and health benefits, while promoting wellness and retirement security for members and beneficiaries.” I suppose “the System” is defined somewhere, and blah blah blah health benefits and wellness and beneficiaries, but I prefer to stop at the capitalized abstraction: CalPERS provides responsible and efficient stewardship of the System.
“Responsible” and “efficient” can conflict, though:
The second-largest pension fund in the United States is considering a move to an all-passive portfolio while at the same time, the largest brokerage firms are falling over themselves to push passively managed exchange-traded funds. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System’s investment committee started a review of its investment beliefs last week, with the main focus on its active managers ….
CalPERS oversees about $255 billion in assets, more than half of which already is invested in passive strategies. … “CalPERS investment consultant Allan Emkin told the investment committee that at any given time, around a quarter of external managers will be outperforming their benchmarks, but he said the question is whether those managers that are doing well are canceled out by other managers that are underperforming.”
So: financial markets exist to allocate capital to its most productive uses.1 One use of capital that may not be all that productive is allocating capital, so it’s understandable that rich sophisticated capital-allocators like CalPERS would allocate less capital to the business of allocating capital. Why spend so much money on external active manager fees when they turn out not to be that good at active management? Just index, right? Read more »
Here’s a delightful idea that is also a nice piece of synergy. Apparently Yale economist and half-a-housing-index Robert Shiller has been floating this idea since 2009 but I just saw it today in a new Harvard Business Review piece (via Counterparties):
Corporations use a combination of debt and equity to finance their investments and operations. Nations, in contrast, rely exclusively on debt. When a nation’s economy stalls and its debt continues to grow—you may have noticed this happening a lot recently—disaster looms for the country’s taxpayers. This is why Europe is in turmoil right now. But things don’t have to work this way.
Here’s an audacious alternative: Countries should replace much of their existing national debt with shares of the “earnings” of their economies. This would allow them to better manage their financial obligations and could help prevent future financial crises. It might even lower countries’ borrowing costs in the long run.
The proposal is for something he calls “trills,” which pay a dividend equal to one trillionth of GDP: Read more »
You may have heard that the Dow hit 13,000 today before subsiding to a shameful 12,965.69. You may not have heard this, or cared, because the Dow is for morons, being a price-weighted index of thirty semi-random companies that, gah, aren’t even “industrial” any more.** There are alternative theories but those theories are wrong:
Joe Weisenthal in defense of the Dow has been noting its very high correlation with other, broader, more sensible indexes. I see this as further undermining the Dow’s legitimacy. If it’s very different methodology were leading to some kind of meaningfully different result, then we could perhaps argue that it’s adding value in some kind of way. But instead what’s going on is that the Dow’s creators are hand-picking which stocks to include in the index specifically with an eye toward constructing an index that mirrors the other, better indexes out there. Apple and Google, for example, aren’t in the Dow and aren’t doing to get in any time soon because their very high share prices would skew the index in weird ways. This just goes to show that the Dow’s creators already “know” the right answer (from looking at the S&P 500 and the Wilshire 5000) and then are trying to assemble an index to create the predetermined result.
Maybe! An alternative theory is maybe suggested by [Occam's razor and] this piece from the Journal this weekend about index funds that I just loved and so am now going to inflict on you at unnecessary length: Read more »