Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Is CALPERS turning off the VC tap?

A consistent theme in Canadian innovation policy is the need to attract more foreign venture capital to underwrite our local start-ups. This is based on the theory that there is lots of venture capital willing and able to deploy cash north of the border. It's a relativistic theory that is deeply flawed, and as yesterday's Wall Street Journal hinted, one that becoming more foolhardy for the Canadian government to rely upon.

One of the largest sources of funds for VCs and Private equity players in the US has been CALPERS, the largest public pension fund in the United States. CALPERS manages more than $200 billion or so in assets and is reponsible for generating returns that will fund the pension payments to be made to retired California public employees.

In order to generate enough cash to meet these pension obligations, CALPERS typically targets investment that will generate an annual average of 7.75% return on its investments ("ROI"). Generating that level of ROI consistently has led CALPERS over the last 15 years or so to make high-risk, high-yield investments in private equity and venture capital funds. As a result, CALPERS has become one of the largest sources of fuel for the North American venture capital industry, providing more than $25 billion to those fund managers our governmetns hope to attract up here.

However, it now appears that this fuel source may be tapping out. Last year, CALPERS announced that it was reducing the number of funds that it invested in. And yesterday, CALPERS revealed its proposal to reduce the targeted ROI on new investments to 6%.

If adopted, this ROI reduction would allow CALPERS to focus on more traditional, conservative investments - in other words, away from the venture capital funds that Ontario and the federal government are seeking to attract.

This week's federal budget will be an opportunity to assess how self aware Canada's Government is about what will (or can) feed investment in our innovation economy. Will the budget provide the means for local growth? Or will it dangle bait over a drying up river bed?