Home Corporate Governance Why so uninquisitive about the CPP Investment Board, ROBers?

Why so uninquisitive about the CPP Investment Board, ROBers?

My pals the Canada’s National Newspaper, the Globe and Mail, had a couple of hours over lunch recently with the Head of our Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. The ultimate report had plenty of juice, but it was such a missed opportunity. Journo Tara Perkins got Mark Wiseman to talk about his favourite meals and choice of footwear. The central message, Ms. Perkins reports, is that Mr. Wiseman doesn’t easily “stray from routine”.

That line aptly describes the role of a business journalist, too. They rarely stray from the routine. And, if you work for a serious, award-winning newspaper, that “routine” amounts to doing primary research, asking tough questions and getting to the bottom of interesting issues. What I find so perplexing is how studiously uninquisitive the writers at the Globe’s Report on Business are when it comes to anything but positive news surrounding the CPPIB.

Despite having Mr. Wiseman’s focus for two full hours, we didn’t learn anything about stuff which is actually newsworthy: 1) CPPIB’s private equity IRRs; 2) its high MER relative to other Canadian pension plans; 3) why it went wildly overweight Sino-Forest shares prior to the accusations of fraud; 4) why CPPIB continues to own HSBC and UBS shares after these banks specifically broke CPPIB’s “anti-corruption practices” PRI guideline (these banks recently paid US$3.5 billion in fines after admitting they were engaged in illegal activity over an extended period of time); 5) why Mr. Wiseman’s not worried that 59% of a broadly representative group (53 of 135) of CPPIB’s external private equity managers were producing an IRR below 6%, which is what CPPIB’s Chief Actuary says is required for the CPPIB to be solvent over the long term; 6) why almost none of CPPIB’s February 2010 $400 million allocation to Canadian venture capital and private equity managers (via Northleaf) has actually gone into the hands of local VC managers; 7) did the Principality of Monaco actually guarantee our $400 million 7-year loan to the Formula One racing circuit, as a CPPIB SVP was quoted in the media?; 8) why CPPIB claims to lead in the field of governance and transparency, yet releases less information than plans in places like California, Oregon, Texas and Washington…?

And it’s not as though these questions weren’t on the table prior to Ms. Perkins’ timely luncheon. BNN – Business News Network tried to get Mr. Wiseman to answer some of these meaty questions last December, but his team refused due to CPPIB’s “broadcast policy” and its “disclosure policy” (see prior post “12 questions CPP Investment Board won’t be answering on BNN Today” Jan. 17-13); although the “Broadcast Policy” is secret, the terms of the “Disclosure Policy” don’t explain why these questions can’t be answered in some fashion.

Clearly, there seems to be plenty of time to talk to the Globe and Mail about collecting Asian cufflinks; but the results of CPPIB’s $40 billion of private equity exposure? We got no time for that.

Did the Globe agree long ago to “go easy” in exchange for getting regular and exclusive access? Why else would Mr. Wiseman be made available to the Globe and not Canada’s business channel, BNN, during the course of the same month? A station so widely viewed it features members of the Globe’s ROB team each and every day on its airwaves. Can you imagine what CNBC would do to the U.S. public pension plan CEO who hid behind an unpublished broadcast policy that shielded him from tough media questions?

And, as much as this blog is a bit of a backwater, it has been known to provide a feast of useful news leads over the years to the hard-working team over there at 444 Front. From Google’s acquisition of Bumptop, to the question of whether or not Ontario really needs five Pension Plans, EcoSynthetix’s IPO, the Canwest newspaper auction, the Section 116 Budget change, Biox’s IPO, the “Copenhagen impact” on clean tech stocks, DAVE Wireless and the CRTC…and let’s not forget Kevin O’Leary’s many travails over the years. It’s not as though we don’t have a nose for what makes news within the MSM, and we’re happy to help (provided there’s source acknowledgement of course {see prior post “DTM copycats at it again part 8” June 20-08}).

But, when it comes to the questions swirling around CPPIB (see prior representative posts “Our $3.4 billion Private Equity currency hit at CPPIB” Feb. 18-13, “Why is CPPIB’s MER higher than its peers?” Jan. 9-13 and “Can CPPIB be long tobacco and still follow PRI?” Dec. 19-12), which manages the pensions of 18 million Canadians, the ROBers appear to stay clear.

When there are questions about lossess in the hundreds of millions of dollars on a few high profile private equity investments (EMI, Freescale, Sunguard and TXU), you’d think they’d show as much interest in that fact as they did when CPPIB got a quick flip on its investment in Skype?

There is a media axiom about print journalists always loving the bad news: “if it bleeds, it leads”, so the saying goes. According to a poll at Helium, an online community for writers and publishers, 92% of respondents agreed with that statement. Strangely, that axiom doesn’t hold water when it comes to the CPPIB, as CBC also swallows the gainsburgers whole, as observed here less than two months ago (see prior post “CBC falls prey to CPPIB’s spin doctors” Jan. 8-13).

Perhaps there’s nothing but good news to write about when it comes to the CPPIB, and that all of my research on these many topics has been quietly explained away by the CPP media relations team with ease; that’s certainly one answer. Although one former member of the fourth estate postulated recently that newspaper writers are worried that they’ll lose their CPPIB sources if they ever dared to run a tough story. The information flow out of Canada’s largest institutional investor might just be too juicy and too frequent to risk rocking the boat.

If that’s true, for shame. There’s a reason why you’re one of my daily reads. Will all due respect, live up to it.


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One Response

  1. erik

    You are absolutely correct posing these questions of disclosure.

    Several years ago Mark [Wiseman] defended the CPPIB practice of private equity valuations because they conducted a “mark-to-market” calculation when framing annual reports. That maybe be fine for the CPPIB and Minister Flaherty but there is way too much conflict of interest in a system that relies upon undisclosed self -audit.
    Frustrated by this practice I asked the Minister to hire outside of Canada consultants to conduct periodic “value at risk” examinations that would be published like the Actuary’s report. Not surprisingly he declined to reply. Interestingly the CPPIB found “religion” and recently hired a team to do just that inside the Board. The Minister’s parliamentary secretary wrote a useless reply (available by e-mail should you wish it) when I presented the notion that a self-examination process was blatantly a conflict of interest condition.
    For reasons I can readily guess the CPPIB serves the interests of Bay Street which means not necessarily serving the Fund beneficiaries interests.

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