Many happy returns for Connecticut treasurer

Denise Nappier hates to lose. And in her more than eight years as Connecticut State Treasurer and sole fiduciary of the state’s $24.5 billion pension fund, the Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds, she’s pitched a lot of battles.

One scuffle that still brings up bitter memories for Nappier, even though it technically was a victory in her favor, was the much-publicized slugfest she had with Forstmann Little & Co. She took the New York buyout firm to court in 2002, accusing it of overexposing Connecticut’s pension money to two failing companies, XO Communications Inc. and McLeodUSA Inc., while trying in vain to resuscitate them.

Nappier, known for promoting strong corporate governance in the companies her state invests in, sought the return of more than $120 million to cover the pension fund’s share of the losses. The two-year battle ended ambiguously in 2004. A jury found Forstmann Little guilty of breech of contract, but refused to award damages under the argument that, by honoring the firm’s capital calls, the pension fund acquiesced to the investments. Nappier, who believes the jury did not have a deep-enough understanding of private equity to make an informed decision, disagrees.

“When we find it necessary to go after money we lost through investor malfeasance, we should then not be penalized because we answered the capital call,” Nappier, 55, told a roomful of buyout professionals at the 19th annual Buyouts Symposium East conference earlier this year. “We have to rely on the partnership with the GP, and we do so in good faith.”

Connecticut still managed to recoup $15.5 million from Forstmann Little in exchange for dropping its appeal.

Elected to her third term as state treasurer last year, Nappier has been battling to protect pension fund assets since the beginning of her tenure. Her predecessor ensured that. Nappier inherited in 1999 a state treasury tainted by the corrupt acts of former treasurer Paul Silvester, who later pled guilty to taking kickbacks from buyout firms and placement agents. Silvester’s transgressions included receiving more than $100,000 in questionable campaign contributions in 1998 from buyout firm Triumph Capital, and directing an additional $2 million in Triumph Capital money to a girlfriend and another acquaintance. At the same time, Silvester gave Triumph Capital $200 million in state pension funds to invest.

When Nappier took office, the treasury put in place a self imposed, three-and-a-half year moratorium on new private equity commitments. During that time, it negotiated with general partners to reduce its private equity exposure from Silvester’s 20% allocation to 11 percent. Nappier ultimately recovered more than $1 billion in mismanaged or illegal private equity investments made by the former treasurer. “It is really unfortunate that my predecessor chose private equity investments as a vehicle for corrupt activities,” Nappier says. Connecticut reentered the private equity market in 2003, making its first investment in the $6 billion KKR Millennium Fund.

Great Performance

Despite a rough start with the industry, there’s a lot that Nappier does like about private equity—most of all, the returns.

Since she assumed the treasurer’s office in 1999, the pension’s private equity performance has flourished, realizing a net IRR of 19.7 percent on post-vintage 1999 funds. And when vintage year 2005 and 2006 funds—which she said are still in their J-curves—are excluded, that number pops up to 23.5 percent, she said.

On top of generating outsized returns, Nappier sees private equity as a vehicle through which she can help enact positive social, economic and environmental changes. “In our industry we call that the double bottom line,” she said.

In particular Nappier commended buyout giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., whose proposed buyout (with TPG) of TXU Corp. includes environmental concessions like doubling the Texas utility’s investments in alternative energy, and foregoing the construction of eight coal-fired power plants.

New York turnaround firm KPS Capital Partners also got a nod from the treasurer as a firm that’s been able to outperform the market while also making a name for itself as a union-friendly partnership believed to have saved about 11,000 jobs through its deals.

Indeed, the numbers speak to Nappier’s confidence in the asset class. Connecticut’s state pension fund, which currently has about $24.5 billion in assets under management, has a target allocation to private equity of 11 percent. That’s almost double the exposure that the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) targets with its 6% target allocation, and nearly three times that of the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS), which has a 4% target allocation to private equity.

On average, Nappier signs off on between $500 million and $600 million in private equity commitments per year. Of that amount, 20% goes to venture capital and 80% goes to buyouts, mezzanine and special situations funds.

On the buyout front, most of the pension’s commitments are to mid-market and large-market funds. However, the pension is taking steps to access the small market as well. Connecticut is currently below its target allocation: It has roughly $1.4 billion on the books, but $1 billion of committed capital has yet to be called down.

Corporate Governance

Nappier is well known for her shareholder activism, taking companies like Home Depot and Sun Microsystems to task for issues related to executive pay. In the case of Sun Microsystems, Nappier led a proposal that ended last November with 44% of the company’s shares voting to ask Sun’s board to enact an annual shareholder vote on executive compensation. The goal is to give shareholders the power to vote on pay packages recommended for top corporate executives.

Does she see a need for better corporate governance among buyout shops? “It would be reasonable to suppose that private equity could be the next landscape for governance reform,” Nappier says, “particularly because so much of the money in your deals comes from public pension funds.”

Indeed, Nappier’s affinity for private equity’s returns has not blinded her from what she sees as potential conflicts of interest in her role as the protector of Connecticut taxpayers’ money. She says that while buyout firms themselves can operate with minimal public exposure, “public pension funds invest in a fish bowl. We have to answer not only for the returns of our investments, but also for the unintended consequences.”

She called attention to the reputation buyout firms have for taking over public companies and initiating large-scale layoffs to cut costs. Those can be difficult to justify, she says, when general partners are raking in millions of dollars in management and ancillary fees, some of which come directly from the company’s balance sheet.

Nappier acknowledges that, in some cases, these job cuts are necessary to cut fat and get a company back on track. But she says that firms that take public pension money should strongly consider public interests. “We should be mindful of where the money really comes from,” she notes. “In my case, the taxpayer of the State of Connecticut may have something to say if my investment in a private equity firm lands them in the unemployment line.”

While praising carried interest for directly tying compensation to company performance, Nappier worries that as buyout fund sizes grow well beyond their former bounds, the traditional 1.5% to 2% management fees are beginning to look more and more like “profit centers.”

She also advocates for stronger rights when it comes to limited partner agreements. To date, Nappier has only backed funds that honor “no-fault divorce” clauses. Such clauses give limited partners the power to remove the general partner of a fund and either terminate the partnership or appoint a new general partner if there is strong disagreement over the way the fund is being managed. No-fault divorce clauses are especially important in situations where “GPs are throwing good money at a bad deal in an attempt to prop up a company that will eventually go bankrupt,” Nappier explains.

How hard is Nappier’s going to fight for change in private equity? She describes her approach to dispute resolution as measured, preferring to talk through differences rather than litigate them. And that’s likely how she’ll tackle the issues where she’d like to see change. “In the rare instance when my fiduciary duty causes me to seek a judicial remedy, I find it very unfortunate that matters could not be resolved in my conference room as opposed to the court room,” she says.

And you can almost count on there being conference-room battles in the months ahead. When it comes to corporate governance in private equity, Nappier says, “I am at the juncture of past indifference, and moderate activism.”