CalPERS begins search for next CIO as incumbent Meng resigns

Meng’s short tenure saw the $390bn institution announce a controversial leverage strategy to meet its long-term return target.

Ben Meng, the chief investment officer of California Public Employees’ Retirement System, has stepped down after less than two years in the role.

Deputy CIO Dan Bienvenue will replace Meng on an interim basis and CalPERS will start an immediate search for a permanent successor, according to a 5 August statement.

Meng joined as CIO in January 2019 from State Administration of Foreign Exchange, China’s foreign exchange regulatory agency in Beijing. This is the second time he’s left CalPERS, having previously served as investment director of asset allocation and portfolio manager of fixed income between 2008 and 2015.

Ben Meng
Meng unveiled a leverage-backed strategy in June to push into PE

“I deeply believe in the CalPERS mission of serving those who serve California,” Meng said in the statement.

“I’m proud of the work we did to change the portfolio, build a skilled Investment Office, and set CalPERS on a strong path to achieve our return target. But at this time, it’s important for me to focus on my health and on my family and move on to the next chapter in my life.”

Meng’s tenure saw the $390 billion institution develop a bold strategy to meet its long-term return target. The “7 Percent Solution” would involve a “moderate level of leverage to take advantage of the low borrowing cost in today’s low interest rate environment and use those funds to acquire assets with potentially higher returns”, Meng said in CalPERS’ 15 June investment committee meeting.

Meng’s plan drew mixed responses from board members and stakeholders.

“I’m encouraged by his work and support his efforts to help us achieve the returns we need to pay benefits our members have earned,” board president and investment committee member Henry Jones told sister publication Buyouts in an email earlier this year.

During public comment, one stakeholder – retired prosecutor David Soares – criticised Meng’s remarks in an interview with Bloomberg in which the CIO had put the chances of hitting its 7 percent target return over a decade at less than 50-50 even if it allocates more to private assets and uses leverage.

“In other words, adding risk of not just missing return targets but adding the risk of actually losing trust assets to creditor failure and bankruptcy during the coming global pandemic downturn, has less likelihood than guessing when a coin flip will turn up heads,” Soares said.

“Mr Meng’s leverage strategy is speculative in nature and by its very nature is an inappropriate strategy for a fiduciary charged with protecting public trust assets to pursue.”

– Justin Mitchell contributed to this report.