Alternative investments, & the joy of being situationally correct

Aug 27 2007

Back on May 21, 2007, I saw an article that I almost, almost thought worthy enough of derision that it justified a post. For reasons that now escape me, I decided otherwise at the time. However, as sometimes occurs, it’s again become current, so I’ll revisit.

This, from the Austin American Statesman:

A panic attack move into private equity?
By Robert Elder | Monday, May 21, 2007, 02:07 PM

Writing in the May 18 issue of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, Dallas investor and state of Texas pension official Frederick “Shad” Rowe tees off on the leaders of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas pension fund.

Rowe examines the Texas teacher fund’s recently announced plans to move massive amounts of its holdings into private equity and out of publicly traded stocks. The strategy strikes him as the investment equivalent of a panic attack.

(Rowe notes that the Texas Pension Review board, which he chairs, has no authority over TRS investment strategy and that he’s writing as a private citizen.)

Rowe writes that the teacher fund is trying to juice returns by moving into so-called alternative investments (hedge funds, buyout firms, hard assets such as timber, toll roads) a little late in the game. Maybe even just in time for the private equity bubble to pop and the very stocks the teacher fund is selling to rise in value.

Please ignore for a moment the fact that private equity and hedge funds are not the same thing – Rowe’s core point, I think, was that high return comes with high risk. Big shock, that. But it appeared, in May, not to have occurred to the managers of TRS. I don’t know whether TRS had gotten around to the absurd reallocation plans they announced at the time, increasing allotment to alternative investments from 3% to 35%. But Mr Rowe had the opportunity to weigh in again on the subject in a story from today’s WSJ:

Pension Managers Rethink
Their Love of Hedge Funds

August 27, 2007; Page C1

Many public pension funds in recent years have become eager to invest in hedge funds. Now, some are getting cold feet.

Pension-fund managers from Louisiana to Ohio are saying they may slow their push into these funds after the recent losses suffered at big hedge funds — including ones run by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and AQR Capital Management — have reinforced some of the risks.

Indeed, one critic suggests that pensions would be foolish to keep pursuing hedge funds. “It’s like planning a vacation to an exotic land, and finding out that there’s an outbreak of bubonic plague,” says Frederick Rowe, chairman of the Texas Pension Review Board, which provides oversight of Texas public pension funds.

I’m not certain which is more admirable – consistency, correctness, or the fact he avoided doing an overt Icky Shuffle and rubbing their nose in it. But in any event, Mr Rowe was stating the obvious back in May, all the while not claiming there was anything inherently wrong with hedge funds or their doppelgangers in the alternative investment universe, just that the TRS was clearly not thinking things through in their sudden mania for the flavor of the month.

Good for him, and, I guess, good for the teachers covered by the TRS. I have no dog in the race, but I hope the managers of the TRS paid attention back in May, for the sake of their beneficiaries.

On Gonzales

Aug 27 2007

Gad, I hate to seem to mimic the style of the “lovely and talented” John Edwards’ campaign, but my reaction to this morning’s news that Alberto Gonzales is resigning was, roughly, “What took so long?”.

No shock, but he’s being run out of town on a rail. Not alone among those with an opinion on the matter, I only think it’s a shame that he’s being run out for all the wrong reasons. The US Attorney firings? Pfft. Not a big deal – he, and the White House, have been well within bounds on the firings themselves, as previously discussed. Severe missteps, such as the McNulty Memorandum, should be considered embarrassments to him and the department, but are just horrifically bad administration, not criminal acts. As also previously discussed, his timid, goofy, and cackhanded defense of his boss, his office, and himself has been so inept that it’s been embarrassing to watch.

Never one to favor viewing people humiliating themselves (and thus, my aversion to most forms of reality TV), it’s been a cringeworthy handful of months, and the ordeal will soon be over.

Based on the WSJ story linked above and other sources, it seems there’s a race to the bottom of the barrel in search of his replacement. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff? What an awful choice he’d be, and not just because he looks like a character who could have played alongside Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice. He’s not obviously competent, and while that would make him a perfect stand-in for Gonzales, it would seem that now, in the last 17 months of the Bush administration, they ought to attempt to at least raise their game at the Justice Department.

Chertoff, far more so than the other choices mentioned in the WSJ article (Mueller, Johnson), strikes me a choice only slightly better than dragging Harriet Miers back out of mothballs and propping her up for yet another position beyond her scope.

Also odd, there were several names in the version of the WSJ story made available this morning (the link above is to a front-page version in tomorrow’s print edition, but earlier today it was the breaking news version). Louis Freeh and Ted Olson were both mentioned, and either of them strikes me as a potentially apt choice, so it comes as no shock to find them no longer on the list, as reported by the WSJ. The IHT version of the story, available here, retains mention of Olson, but also omits Freeh.

Like Rove’s resignation, the Democrats seem to have plans to continue their chase, harrying him as best they can in search of crimes not committed. Life would, I think, be far easier for the Dems if they just took what Bushies hand them on a silver platter (incompetence, ham-fistedness, PR stone-deafness) and ran with it, rather than inventing new crusades on which to wander. But that’s just me.