Global Hedge Funds Seek a Slice of Japan’s $740 Billion Pension Funds After Quake

Hedge Funds Seek a Slice of Japan’s $740 Billion Pension Funds After Quake (Bloomberg, June 28, 2011):

Global hedge funds are vying for allocations from Japan’s corporate pension fund managers, who oversee about $740 billion and are seeking alternatives to stocks following the March earthquake.

Prosperity Capital Management, the largest manager of Russia-focused funds with about $5 billion in assets, plans to open an office in Tokyo in August. Van Biema Value Partners LLC, a New York-based fund of hedge funds with about $800 million in assets, is targeting Japanese pensions by offering funds that buy securities seen as inexpensive relative to the market.

Japanese pension funds are redoubling their quest to offset the world’s lowest bond yield and a falling birthrate, which have curbed contributions, after the March 11 temblor sent the benchmark Nikkei 225 (NKY) Stock Average to its biggest intraday drop since 1987. Thirty-one percent of 135 retirement funds plan to increase alternative investments such as hedge funds from this fiscal year starting April 1, according to a JPMorgan Asset Management (Japan) Ltd. survey in May.

“After the earthquake, there has been strong emphasis on gaining exposure to investments outside Japan, both for pure diversification reasons and to try to achieve higher returns,” said Michael van Biema, a former Columbia Business School professor and the founder of van Biema Value Partners. “The big problem is that most of the large pensions still have about 60 percent of their money in Japanese government bonds. You just can’t earn a reasonable rate of return doing that.”

Alternative Assets

Of 215 Japanese pension funds in a Daiwa Institute of Research Survey, more than 26 percent — the most since 2005 — said they planned to make additional investments in alternative asset classes, which include hedge funds. The expected increase in allocations comes after Japanese pensions shifted to single managers from funds of hedge funds that suffered from poor returns following the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (LEHMQ) in September 2008.

Among those seeking Japan’s institutional money, D.E. Shaw & Co., the $20 billion hedge fund founded by David Shaw, opened an office in Tokyo last September to offer alternative investments to pension funds. Robeco Group, the Dutch money manager owned by Rabobank Groep NV, wants to double assets from Japanese pensions over two years with alternative investments including managed futures strategies, Tetsuya Tanaka, senior executive advisory of the firm’s Japan unit said in a telephone interview on June 13.

Limiting Losses

Hathersage Capital Management LLC, a New York currency hedge fund, has teamed up with Tokyo-based KTOs Capital Management LLC to help Japanese pensions hedge against a strengthening yen. Brevan Howard Asset Management LLP, with $32.6 billion under management, is offering its managed futures funds to a Japanese pension.

The Nikkei fell as much as 14 percent immediately after the quake. It rose 0.7 percent today and trimmed its loss since March 10 to 7.5 percent.

“Having had the investments in the managed futures fund helped limit losses from the downturn in the stock markets after the quake,” said Yukou Takahashi, the adviser of the 13 billion yen pension fund at Tobu Group, which has invested in managed futures funds including one run by Brevan Howard. “We want to lower the risk of our equity investments and we picked macro funds because they have low correlation to stocks.”

World’s No. 2

Alternative investments, which can include real estate and infrastructure, now account for 12 percent of the pension’s total portfolio from 8 percent two years ago, said Takahashi. Tobu Group includes Tobu Railway Co. and Tobu Store Co.

The U.S. represents more than 60 percent of all pension fund assets in hedge funds, while Europe accounts for 29 percent and Japan only 1.75 percent, according to London-based research firm Preqin Ltd.

Japan has the world’s second-biggest pension market with assets of $3.47 trillion after the U.S. with $15.27 trillion, according to Towers Watson & Co.’s 2011 Global Pension Asset Study. Of the Japanese total, more than 60 trillion yen ($743 billion) is in corporate pensions, according to Daiwa Institute.

Prosperity Capital is bringing to Japan its Russian Prosperity Fund that invests solely in Russian equities and employs a “friendly activist” strategy by trying to maximize the value of the firms it invests in, said Tomas Olsson, a partner who will become the Asia-Pacific chief representative based in Tokyo later this year.

‘Great Opportunity’

The fund has had an annualized return of 26 percent since inception in 1996, according to the firm. Japanese clients, including high-net-worth investors and some pensions, account for 5 percent of Prosperity’s investor base, according to Olsson. The firm started to approach pension funds in November, he said.

“Not only for us, but for other hedge funds, Japan is still a great opportunity because most portfolios have such a low level of diversification outside of developed countries,” Olsson said.

Japanese managers currently account for about 3.5 percent of the Asia portfolio of van Biema and the firm plans to increase that to about 10 percent to 13 percent over the coming months, said van Biema. The van Biema Asia Value Fund Ltd., which invests in Asian hedge funds, has had a net annualized return of about 20 percent since inception in August 2008, according to a letter to investors.

Reech AIM

Reech AIM Group, the European alternative asset management group founded by Christophe Reech, is also looking to attract Japanese investors by offering its so-called CTA strategy that uses computer systems to invest solely in exchanged-traded futures, said Philip Catmur, the London-based partner of the strategy. The offering, which has $85 million, currently does not yet have Japanese investors, he said.

The Rochester Fund Ltd. has had annualized return of 13.1 percent since inception in November 2002 through, according to a letter to investors.

“Japanese pension funds and investors are becoming much more aware of the risks in their portfolios,” Catmur, who was formerly the deputy head of international fixed income at Tokyo Mitsubishi International in London, said in an interview in Tokyo today. “Japan is obviously a big market, but it’s also a sophisticated market — their understanding of the benefits of the CTAs and which CTAs will achieve their objectives.”

The company’s executives have made three trips to Japan this year as a sign of “our commitment to the region,” he said.

The planned increase in allocations to alternative assets was the biggest among 10 investment options, according to the JPMorgan Asset survey.

‘Accelerate Diversifying’

“Some of them will likely accelerate diversifying their assets after the quake as they recognized the risks of investing in Japanese equities,” said Hidenori Suzuki, the head of the strategic advisory group at JPMorgan Asset in Tokyo.

Japanese pensions’ focus on steady returns makes them a less demanding group of investors for overseas funds, said Akira Takahashi, the head of Credit Suisse Securities (Japan) Ltd.’s asset management group in Tokyo.

“Overseas investors tend to expect double-digit returns from hedge funds, but Japanese pensions are more focused on stable returns and some as low as 3 to 5 percent,” he said. “From the hedge-fund’s point of view, it’s important for them to diversify their investor base because they are now in an environment where money isn’t automatically flowing in.”

Japanese hedge funds returned 0.7 percent this year through May, compared with a 1.6 percent gain by the global hedge-fund index, according to Eurekahedge Pte. Assets stood at $16 billion at the end of May, compared with the peak of $39 billion in April 2006, according to the Singapore-based data provider.

Global hedge fund assets were $1.82 trillion in May, below the $1.95 trillion peak in June 2008, according to Eurekahedge.

“We’re seeing Japanese pensions that have never invested in hedge funds looking to do so and the catastrophe is giving them more reason to seek assets with better returns,” said Yasuo Sugeno, a senior analyst at Daiwa Institute in Tokyo.

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