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Canadian institutions stick to alternative investments, but success with such programs not a sure thing for anyone: Opalesque Roundtable

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Success with an alternative investment program is not a sure thing for anyone

The large Canadian Pension funds like Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP) have an excellent track record (average annual return of 10.2% since inception) and reputation as astute and very sophisticated investors. OTPP was one of the first institutions to use derivatives in 1990 and made its first investment in hedge funds already in early 1995. OTPP’s strong focus on innovation, which is continued until today, was was born of a simple lack of diversity in the assets: When the fund was started on Jan 1st 1990, it had billions of dollars in Ontario debentures that were not tradable, and therefore intelligent and meaningful diversification was recognised as an immediate and vital necessity.

OTPP’s success is attributed to its governance and very specific objectives that were laid out at the fund’s inception. What stands out in OTPP’s governance is a strong board of largely independent professional members, who give large amounts of delegated authority to the group of professional investors and remunerate them in a way that’s linked to their performance. The success of Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan has been noticed, not only globally, but also within Canada, and that has created the path for other large Canadian institutions, including corporate pensions. With OTPP, CPPIB, OMERS, Caisse dépôt, PSP, Alberta Teachers, and others, it can be said that Canada is today known, talent wise, for ice hockey and for its institutional investors.

The Role of Governance and Alpha

Interestingly, there are marked differences between the Canadian institutional investors and the ones based in the US and Europe. As mentioned, governance in Canada has many consequences, and one of them is the pension’s ability hire and pay competitively, something that is much restricted in the US. Europe has similar freedom to attract talent, but European institutions are so heavily regulated that these very smart, talented people are prevented from doing very often what they would like to do. Somehow Canada shares with Europe the ability to pay for talent and intelligence and also enjoys the freedom that North American regulation gives their investors. That makes Canada very special.

About 8.5% of OTPP’s $154.5 billion CAD assets (as of Dec. 2014) are externally managed, and Jonathan Hausman’s group makes up the majority of that. In this Roundtable, Jonathan discusses the role of alternatives for OTPP, how OTPP invests into alternatives, and why OTPP is actually growing their risk budgets towards alternative investments. Jonathan also expressed that his group feels “very strongly that there is such thing as alpha”. While other investors believe that there is no replicable process that one can identify, “we believe that there is, and which is why we think that some managers are really the ones worthy to identify and find, and cultivate and develop partnerships with.” Hausman also believes that higher levels of alpha come with managers at earlier stages of their development.

However, success with an alternative investment program is not a sure thing for anyone. Over the years there were also failures, in Canada and elsewhere. Institutions with significant assets and the objective to manage them using alternatives and be progressive failed in the end with their attempt. When you take a deeper look at those, participants of this Roundtable believe those schemes did not work where the governance and the specific objectives weren’t working in the first place.

Information management and systems: The Investor’s GPS

OTPP, like other very large, sophisticated investors, have recognised the importance of having quality, real time information about markets and their investments, and have therefore made significant efforts to build cutting-edge infrastructures around information management. When information is provided to you faster and more efficiently, people and institutions become better investors. Risks decrease because you are surrounded by and have access to a superior informational system. It’s like having a GPS to better navigate through markets and investments: It allows you to drive more often. It allows you to go to places you never dared to go, you can see exactly where you are and where you are going.

This Roundtable, sponsored by Sigma Analysis & Management, took place April 2015 at the Sigma office in Toronto with:

  1. Ela Karahasanoglu, Principal and Senior Manager Research Consultant, Mercer
  2. Jonathan Hausman, Vice President of Alternative Investments and Fixed Income Emerging Markets, Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan
  3. Claude Robillard, Managing Director, Investor Relations, West Face Capital
  4. Michael Beaton, Head of Direct Trading, Carlyle Liquid Market Solutions / DGAM
  5. Luis Seco, President and CEO, Sigma Analysis & Management
  6. Ranjan Bhaduri, Chief Research Officer, Sigma Analysis & Management
  7. Tim Pickering, CIO and Co-Founder, Auspice Capital Advisors
The group also discussed:
  • Why it is important to separate, not just psychologically, but also operationally, long-term alternatives from short-term alternatives
  • How does OTPP identify external managers? What are the selection criteria? What does the relationship with external managers look like?
  • Why OTPP thinks managed accounts are a much better way to build the relationship with external managers
  • What is the concept of “tacticality” that OTPP is trying to increase now?
  • Could Toronto be the “Hollywood” of the hedge fund industry?
  • Why there is a receptive global audience for Canadian investment ideas
  • Update on Liquid Alternatives, Currencies, Multi-Asset Strategies, Energy
  • New hedge fund fee models based on volatility
  • When do investors and consultants rate a manager positively even in absence of a longer term track record?
  • Mercer has widened the manager base they are covering by including smaller and emerging managers. How can funds get onto their radar?
Enjoy!

Matthias Knab
Knab@Opalesque.com

Access the Opalesque Roundtable Series - Canada 2015 | Download here

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