Some trustees appeared to put stock in Mr. Bensur's views. At the meeting, board member Alexander E. Aikens III, a professor at Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., called the consultant's depiction of CapGuardian's attitude "almost a show stopper." The consultant's impression is "very important to me as a trustee," he added.
Asked by the board whether other CapGuardian clients were being put off by the money manager's responses, Mr. Bensur said, "Yes, other clients are losing confidence in them."
He said another sizable state fund — which, like PRIM, used CapGuardian for both emerging markets and international equities — recently brought in the money manager's chairman, David I. Fisher, and found his responses so exasperating that, as soon he left the room, the board chairman barked "fire them."
Mr. Bensur declined to identify the fund but, among Wilshire clients, the $8.1 billion Ohio Police & Fire Pension Fund, Columbus, fits the bill. Trustees there terminated Capital International from an emerging markets mandate in April and Capital Guardian from an international equity mandate in June. David Graham, a spokesman for the Ohio plan, said fund officials declined to comment.
Capital International and CapGuardian are the two Capital Group units that serve institutional clients; they use many of the same portfolio managers and analysts.
Other consultants said they haven't picked up similar vibes of frustration with CapGuardian's response to client concerns. "I'm somewhat surprised," said Soonyong Park, head of traditional money manager research with consultant CRA RogersCasey Inc., Darien, Conn. "CapGuardian will not answer all the questions that you ask them, but they will basically kindly decline to answer."
Ted Disabato, a senior consultant with Clark Consulting, Chicago, agreed: "It sounds like they had a bad day, and maybe they lost an account because they had a bad day. But in general, CapGuardian would be one of the organizations that is more responsive than most."
Mr. Travaglini conceded that PRIM faces the risk that CapGuardian could bounce back soon, which would make the Massachusetts fund's decision to fire the firm look ill-advised. PRIM's staff decided to accept that risk, he said, reluctantly concluding that CapGuardian doesn't have a good fix on its current difficulties and has little prospect of engineering a turnaround anytime soon.
Another question is how a consultant smoothes over differences in opinion it may have with the pension funds it advises and supports. Consultants face a delicate job in handling a client when that client opts to terminate a money manager before the consultant recommends termination, competitors said.
On Oct. 5, Mr. Bensur said Wilshire and PRIM were on the same page with the decision to take back PRIM's $393 million emerging markets mandate. But the Wilshire consultant called the decision on the $554 million international equity mandate "much more touchy." Wilshire is doing research on money managers such as CapGuardian every day and its thinking "doesn't change quickly. It evolves over time," he said. At this point, Wilshire's thinking is "evolving to termination," he said.
One competitor, who declined to be named, said he wondered if the "mismatch" between Wilshire's analysis — as depicted in Mr. Bensur's statements about CapGuardian — and its recommendation — which stops short of termination — will unsettle clients. "Trustees want their consultant to have strong convictions," whether the consultant is for or against a money manager, and Wilshire seems to be somewhere in between, he said.
Another senior consultant, who also declined to be named, cited Mr. Bensur's statements about a money manager with a sterling reputation as evidence that Wilshire is struggling to hold on to clients after several senior consultants bolted earlier this year to set up a new consulting firm.
Mr. Bensur and his Pittsburgh-based colleagues replaced Dennis Sugino and Kathy Barchick when they left in February. PRIM — which leaned toward signing Wilshire to a three-year contract as 2003 came to an end — put Wilshire on a month-to-month contract at that time.
"I wouldn't read anything into it," PRIM's Mr. Travaglini said. He said it's only been six months or so since the new Wilshire team took over PRIM's account.
Wilshire spokeswoman Kim Shepherd declined to comment on speculation from unnamed sources about Wilshire's client relationships. She said Mr. Bensur also had no comment.
CapGuardian spokesman Chuck Freadhoff declined to comment, citing company policy.