Calpers Reports It Paid $3.4 Billion to Private-Equity Firms

Calpers offices, in Sacramento, California.

Calpers offices, in Sacramento, California.

Photographer: Ken James/Bloomberg
  • California pension fund details full performance payments
  • Carried-interest payments never fully accounted in past

Private-equity firms reaped $3.4 billion in profit sharing for investing on behalf of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System since 1990, the sort of gains that have led to debate over why Wall Street pays lower taxes than most American workers.

The $295 billion pension fund Tuesday disclosed for the first time data on carried interest earned from buying and selling companies. That money is taxed as capital gains rather than income, which faces higher levies. Calpers shares the proceeds with managers of more than 700 private-equity funds, including those run by Carlyle Group LP, Blackstone Group LP and Apollo Global Management LLC.

Calpers invests 9.6 percent of its money in private equity, or about $28.9 billion. The pension said it earned $24.2 billion from such investments since 1990.

The disclosure by the nation’s largest public retirement fund could spur similar revelations from pensions nationwide as Wall Street’s favorable treatment has drawn scorn from presidential candidates of both parties. President Barack Obama wants to tax carried interest as ordinary income at rates up to 43.4 percent, instead of as capital gains at 23.8 percent. Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republicans Donald Trump and Jeb Bush have said they would rein in the discount.

“Private equity has the highest net returns in our portfolio,” Ted Eliopoulos, Calpers’ chief investment officer, said in a statement. “As a long-term investor, it is an important piece of our investment strategy and our mission to provide pension benefits for generations to come.”

Private-equity managers typically charge investors a 1 percent to 2 percent annual management fee on committed capital that is taxed as income. They generally also keep 20 percent of investment profits as carried interest, which is taxed at capital-gains rates. In addition, firms sometimes waive some of the management fee in exchange for an equivalent amount from a transaction such as the sale of a company, lowering their tax bills even more.

Fee Struggle

Calpers said it earned $4.1 billion in the fiscal year that ended in June while its private equity firms earned $700 million from profit-sharing agreements. Since its inception in 1990, its private-equity program has earned 11 percent for Calpers.

Calpers, which is responsible for the retirement savings of its 1.7 million members, has drawn criticism for not including the profit-sharing amounts when it reports how much it paid private equity firms each year.

The pension plan faces a $116 billion unfunded liability, the gap between promised benefits and its projected value. It has been trying to reduce risk and costs -- including fees -- after the global financial crisis shrank it by a third, meaning that taxpayers had to contribute more to cover losses.

Some public pensions already report carried interest, including New Jersey’s $79 billion fund. It reported that it paid about $600 million in private-equity fees and incentives in 2014, with $334.8 million going to carried interest, according to a January report from the New Jersey State Investment Council.

In July, 13 state and local finance officials sent a letter to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission urging it to improve private-equity and hedge-fund fee disclosure rules. New York City has told its fund managers that they risk getting kicked out of city’s pension portfolio if they don’t disclose all fees, both past and future.

Industry executives say that carried interest is a form of profit sharing, and that when it’s high, the firm did well by the investor.

“The data released by Calpers today shows the success of its private-equity program, and is excellent news for California’s public employees, pensioners, and the state budget,” James Maloney, a spokesman for the Private Equity Growth Capital Council, a Washington trade group, said in an e-mailed statement. “It also highlights the strong partnership between private equity and pensions; a partnership based on an alignment of each party’s interest.”

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