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Defined benefit

CPPIB seeks ‘economic essence’ of investments

Board moving beyond asset class labels to better manage risks

Geoffrey Rubin
Geoffrey Rubin wants to understand how different investments affect the overall portfolio.

The vast array of alternative investments in the C$268.8 billion ($204.3 billion) Canada Pension Plan Investment Board's portfolio makes its risk management very complex, requiring a look beyond asset class labels and into what the board's head of portfolio construction called “the economic essence” of each asset.

“That's our challenge,” said Geoffrey Rubin, managing director and head of portfolio construction and research for the Toronto-based board. CPPIB manages the assets of the Canada Pension Plan, Ottawa. “At some level, we discard asset-class labels and look at risk from a very high level. Where that level is varies by the individual asset being considered.”

“From our starting point, we looked at what kind of portfolio reaches our mandate” of providing pension benefits in Canada, Mr. Rubin said in an interview, “and with what collection of investment strategies. It requires us to balance our risk-return profile across our entire portfolio. It's not enough to have certain real estate, infrastructure, private equity investments, but what all of these are contributing to the overall portfolio.”

As of June 30, CPPIB had 17.7% of its assets in private equity, 11.4% in real estate and 5.6% in infrastructure, according to the board's second quarter report. For its fiscal year, ended March 31, private emerging markets equities returned 46.8%; private developed markets equities, 30.2%; infrastructure, 16.5%; real estate, 14.1%; and Canadian private equities, 10.1%.

Overall, the board returned 18.3% for its last fiscal year.

Mr. Rubin spoke as the board on Oct. 8 announced two co-investment deals, a $900 million joint venture with commercial property manager Broe Group to acquire the Denver Julesburg Basin, an oil and gas field in Northeast Colorado, from Encana Oil & Gas (USA), and a partnership with APG Asset Management, which manages the assets of the e344 billion ($385.6 billion) Stichting Pensionfonds ABP, Heerlen, Netherlands, and real estate investment manager Goodman Group, for U.K. logistics and industrial investments that could reach 1 billion ($1.5 billion).

They're the latest examples of the board's strategy to implement its real asset and infrastructure investment strategy. The use of joint ventures spreads the risk among co-investors, Mr. Rubin said, but it doesn't lessen the board's responsibility to make prudent investments. That's where he said CPPIB's governance structure, which allows the board to freely invest without government approval, comes in.

The model is “incredibly supportive, providing a clear mandate and ability to invest in asset classes and geographies where we can take all necessary steps from portfolio planning to construction and implementation,” Mr. Rubin said. “Everything we do, including assessing risk and return, ultimately stems from that developed governance model.”

With co-investments, “more governance issues are involved,” Mr. Rubin said. “We're huge believers in partnering with very strong firms, ones with similar investment beliefs and horizons as us, and with their own strong governance. That's particularly important in emerging markets and other investments, where the (investment) expertise we bring is supplemented by the understanding our partners have in these markets and these assets.”

Extending strategy

CPPIB's overall risk-return strategy will also extend to investments the board might commit to five to 10 years into the future, in asset classes or specific investments it might not yet be aware of.

“We absolutely expect to be in new asset classes,” Mr. Rubin said, citing as recent new investments intellectual property rights and farmland. “Those are two examples of nascent asset classes. And new classes like those require us to do our level best to understand the primary drivers of performance. There's not always an accurate track record to base them on.”

Mr. Rubin said the scale of CPPIB does give it an advantage in finding such new investments, given its research staff of 60, but the board still determines the sizing of its investment exposure the same way as smaller pension funds.

“Scale is very important,” he said, “but you still need to pull all that information together. You can make some headway with some data, but with new investments, sizing investment exposure has to be consistent with the command and grasp of that investment. Funds of all sizes can do this.”

CPPIB has in fact discussed its risk management strategy with global pension funds and sovereign wealth funds, but board officials have had less interaction with their public pension brethren in the U.S.

“We'd love to show what we do to the U.S.,” Mr. Rubin said about the so-called “Canadian model.” “But it's not clear if there are conditions to really thoughtfully move into that. It's not clear if (large public U.S. plans) can do” what CPPIB does.

The style works in Canada, Mr. Rubin said, is “because we've been given a clear mandate” by the plan sponsor “that's incredibly supportive, with a model of portfolio construction — from planning to construction to implementation — to invest in asset classes and geographies where we can get the most optimal performance.”

Mr. Rubin said talking about the Canadian model with foreign pension funds and wealth funds outside the U.S. “is one of the most rewarding aspects” of his job. He has discussed issues with the $300 billion Government of Singapore Investment Corp.; Norges Bank Investment Management, which handles assets for the 6.9 trillion Norwegian kroner ($821 billion) Government Pension Fund Global, Oslo; the NZ$29.5 billion ($19 billion) New Zealand Superannuation Fund, Auckland, and similar funds in Australia.

“We discuss our singular problems and issues, and look at the difference circumstances we face, but ultimately we share the same approaches to how we run our funds,” he said. “I spend a ton of time with people at these funds, but not as much with American folks. Our contacts with them have been limited, to be honest.” n

This article originally appeared in the October 19, 2015 print issue as, "CPPIB seeks "economic essence' of investments".