How the Romney-Bain flap could change public pensions

at 10:03 AM ET, 02/13/2012

The political attacks on Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital could have a ripple effect on other private-equity firms. Bloomberg points out that these firms heavily depend on public and private pension funds, which make up about 42 percent of their capital. It’s always been an odd couple, but the tensions over Bain could make public-sector investors particularly wary:

Public employee pension funds, which must answer to ordinary workers, are sensitive to protracted debates about managers’ compensation and whether buyouts create value and jobs, says one official who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the topic. “The political attacks against Romney and Bain will definitely come up when firms pitch us their new funds,” says William R. Atwood, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Investment, which oversees $10.4 billion in pension funds. “You’d be crazy not to bring it up.”

Even before the Romney-Bain controversy, public pensions were becoming skeptical of the high fees that some private-equity firms have charged them for investing in the first place.

That said, public pensions across the country are also facing a huge financing gap. And pension plans “desperate for yield” could still be inclined to turn to private-equity, which has generally been considered “a high-performing asset class,” Dealbook’s Steven Davidoff argues.

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