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How Fast Can CalPERS’s $360 Billion Grow?

Ben Meng helped run China’s $3 trillion reserve fund, but this job could be harder.
Ben Meng, chief investment officer of CalPERS.

Ben Meng, chief investment officer of CalPERS.

Photographer: Carlos Chavarría for Bloomberg Businessweek

In January, Ben Meng started his job as chief investment officer of a seriously big fund: the $358.4 billion California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, the largest U.S. pension. But neither the scale nor the political spotlight that comes with the role seems likely to intimidate him. For the last three years, he was deputy CIO at the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), the tightly controlled $3 trillion reserve fund in China. “It’s not often that an individual has the opportunity to hold key roles for two of the largest pools of capital in the world,” wrote Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive officer of private equity giant Blackstone Group LP, in an email.

Perhaps more daunting for Meng is this figure: 7 percent. That’s CalPERS’s annual return target. It may not sound very high given that the S&P 500 returned almost an annualized 11 percent in the five years through January 2018. But CalPERS made only an annualized 6.3 percent in that period. And deep into both a bull market and economic expansion, there may not be a lot of easy gains to be made from here.