Lincoln’s Cooper Shuns Shoot-For-Moon Funds After Goldman

Ellen Cooper, the chief investment officer hired by Lincoln National Corp. from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. last year, is shifting the insurer’s hedge-fund bets in her first months on the job.

Cooper, who was global head of insurance strategy at Goldman Sachs’s asset-management unit, said she is moving about $125 million from so-called multistrategy funds to managers that employ individual approaches with low correlation to stocks and bonds. The insurer is invested in a customized pool of funds, and Cooper declined to name the specific investments.

Cooper, 48, is working to boost yields on Lincoln’s portfolio of $99.1 billion amid low interest rates spurred by Federal Reserve stimulus policies. While bonds make up more than 80 percent of the Radnor, Pennsylvania-based insurer’s investments, Cooper said that using hedge funds and other alternatives to increase yields is among her most important tasks.

“I’m looking for better performance and less volatility,” she said in a March 8 interview in New York. “I’m not looking to shoot for the moon here and pray.”

Hedge funds have underperformed the MSCI All-Country World Index in five of the past seven years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Multistrategy funds fell 5.7 percent last year on average, while the MSCI index gained. Individual strategies with low correlation to stock and bond markets can include funds that bet on corporate events such mergers, spinoffs and bankruptcies.

Seeking Income

Life insurers are seeking new sources of investment income as bond yields drop. Sun Life Financial Inc. is issuing private loans on toll roads and bridges, Chief Executive Officer Dean Connor said last week. American International Group Inc. had $18.9 billion in alternative investments at the end of 2012, or about 5 percent of its portfolio.

Lincoln gained 0.7 percent to $33.24 at 4:15 p.m. in New York, the highest close since October 2008.

Lincoln had $869 million, or 0.9 percent of its portfolio, in alternative investments -- a category that includes private equity and hedge funds -- as of Dec. 31. That’s up from $807 million a year earlier and $696 million in 2009. The funds added $125 million to profit in 2012, compared with $90 million the prior year.

The insurer said it is seeking to have 1.4 percent of assets in alternatives over time, with the majority in private equity.

“On corporate bonds, the yields are falling,” Edward Shields, an analyst at Sandler O’Neill & Partners LP, said by phone. “In this current low-interest-rate environment, there’s not a lot they can do with traditional investments.”

Fed’s Moves

Cooper said Lincoln isn’t adjusting the duration of its bonds to boost yields or prepare for an eventual end to Fed stimulus efforts.

“My job is not to make a bet on what’s going to happen with the Fed,” she said.

Dennis Glass, the insurer’s CEO, said in February that Lincoln added $600 million to assets including hedge funds, private equity, private placements and middle-market loans, and estimated the investments would yield 2 percentage points more than investment-grade corporate bonds. The insurer plans to commit $400 million more to alternatives, Glass said.

“We’re not jumping into this,” he said on a Feb. 7 conference call with analysts. “We’re going to put it out over time and be cautious.”

Cooper’s Career

Before joining Lincoln, Cooper was among executives at Goldman Sachs who took over duties after Eric Kirsch left to oversee the portfolio of Aflac Inc., the largest seller of supplemental health coverage. Kirsch has favored U.S. corporate bonds over Japanese government debt to boost yields at Aflac, which is based in Columbus, Georgia, and does most of its business in Japan.

Cooper, who studied actuarial science at Temple University, was chief risk officer at Aegon NV’s Americas business prior to joining Goldman Sachs in 2008. New York-based Goldman Sachs manages $131 billion in insurance assets, according to its website.

Both Lincoln and Aflac hired Goldman Sachs to advise on portfolios after adding investment chiefs. Glass said in September that after working to avoid risk at Lincoln since 2008, he began examining ways to add riskier assets to boost returns.

“My management team is not going to be a victim of low interest rates,” Glass said. “What we are doing is looking very carefully at ways to increase yield.”