While Ben is new to the role of CIO, he isn’t new to CalPERS. He spent seven years at the fund from 2008 to 2015. First, he served as portfolio manager in fixed income, and was promoted to investment director of asset allocation.
Ben also has a long career as an investment professional outside of CalPERS. For the past three years he served as the deputy chief investment officer at the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) in China. He also worked at Barclays Global Investors, Lehman Brothers, and Morgan Stanley.
We recently sat down with Ben to learn more about him, his investment approach, and why he is excited to be back at CalPERS.
What made you want to return to CalPERS?
I was honored to be offered and accept the role of CIO of CalPERS. The mission of CalPERS is to serve those who serve California. I deeply believe in that mission and I am excited to work with our CEO, Marcie Frost, and our board to do just that.
What does “Serve those who serve California” mean to you?
Our state has outstanding public servants and they have entrusted their retirement security to us. They’ve worked for it and earned it. This is not something I, or anyone at CalPERS, takes lightly. With every investment decision we make, we understand that funding retirement security is our top priority.
You recently gave your first presentation to the CalPERS Board at the January offsite meeting. Can you give us an overview of what you presented?
It was nice to present the board with my thoughts and next steps so early in my tenure as CIO. It was also very important to get their feedback just a few weeks into the job.
During the presentation, I laid out what I see as CalPERS’ challenges and opportunities. We have many challenges, like a slowing economy, but also many opportunities since we are a long-term investor.
I outlined my plan for my first 180 days. It includes a lot of listening and learning. I’ll be getting to know more about our board, our executive team, and of course our investment team.
I also asked board members for two important commitments. First, that they support the Investment Office’s laser focus on achieving investment returns so that we can pay the benefits our members have earned. And second, that they support and facilitate the same commitment from our stakeholders so that they understand what’s at stake and that improving our funded status will take time and patience.
You mentioned the slowing economy and projected lower returns in the future years. How do you plan to deal with these obstacles?
One way is to improve our investment capabilities. We need to be strategic with our asset allocation and engage in markets with higher growth potential.
We also need to focus on using a total fund investment approach. Of course, we’ll look at each asset class, like real estate or global equity, but how can we make sure these assets complement each other? We have to do it by looking at the portfolio from the total fund level.
What makes CalPERS unique?
From an investment perspective, we have a very long-term investment horizon. Most investors are focused on short– term returns, but we will be paying pensions for decades. That long horizon is one of our most important strengths, but we have to stay focused. I like the phrase “keep calm and carry on.” I think it applies in life and in investing.
What is your favorite part about being back at CalPERS?
The people and the work we get to do together as a team. I’ve been blessed to have many professional experiences. But as I’ve told many people, when I was at CalPERS I always woke up looking forward to my job. Now that I’m back, I feel that way all over again.
I know there’ll be many challenges, but I’m so grateful to be back at CalPERS doing such important work with such a talented group of people.