Local commotion does not make NPS’s firepower any less mighty

While the world’s third largest pension fund grinds on spreading it global investment footprint, asset managers are considering the repercussions of its turnover issues.

Korea’s National Pension Service has experienced its fair share of personnel commotion in recent years.

Starting top-down, former chairman Hyung-pyo Moon was found guilty in 2017 for swaying NPS’s support of an $8 billion merger between two Samsung Group affiliates. He was accused of using his role at the time as health minister to pressure the public pension fund to back the deal and jailed for two and half years.

There has been flux among other senior staff too, most notably with the position of chief investment officer, which is currently filled on an interim basis. Arguably more significant than the movement relating to those most senior positions, was the brain drain in 2016 after NPS embarked on the process of moving its headquarters to Jeonju, a relatively small town a few hours train ride southeast of Seoul, where the pension fund was formerly based.

Attrition was always on the cards with a move like that and NPS was hit by a wave of senior executive departures. Naturally, that prompted questions about repercussions on its investment program.

Today, the pension fund is in the process of hiring a new CIO, a recruitment which will be finalized “as soon as possible” an NPS spokesperson told PERE’s sister publication Private Equity International earlier this month. Furthermore, it is on the lookout for 34 new investment officers and these are expected to be hired by November.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to think such comprehensive change would not be disruptive to the pension manager’s ability to conduct business, not least because of the disruption to personal relationships – a key facet to deal-doing in real estate, as with other investment sectors.

Indeed, the changes have led to longer response times involving NPS transactions, PERE is told.

A Seoul-based manager told us it nowadays takes two to three months for NPS to review one deal and get its investment committee’s approval – not efficient, he complained. According to a further Seoul-based manager, which counts NPS as an investor in its latest private equity fund, the confusion of who to report to is a concern not likely to change anytime soon.

However, while it is harder to identify who is pulling triggers at NPS headquarters, its firepower remains evident, thanks in part to its satellite offices.

According to sources familiar with its operations, the pension fund’s regional offices in New York, London, and Singapore have the autonomy to perform and execute investments regardless of turnover and vacancies at headquarters. The £1.16 billion ($1.5 billion; €1.3 billion) purchase of London’s Plumtree Court in August is a case in point; the acquisition of the Goldman Sachs headquarters building is set to become third-highest price paid for a single real estate asset in the UK market.

Deals like that exemplify NPS’ aggressive investment approach, in spite of any personnel retention problems. As of end-2017, the pension fund had invested 10.8 percent, or 66.8 trillion won ($60 billion; €51 billion), in alternatives. It plans to beef up its allocation to global alternative investments to 12.7 percent, or 92.6 trillion won, by the end of 2019, according to a public disclosure from Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare on 30 May. By 2023, that allocation is expected to be increased to about 15 percent.

Given the size of the NPS wallet, the big cheques the pension fund writes – thought to be a minimum $100 million to $200 million according to a managing director at a placement firm – and such punchy growth ambitions, it would be hard to find a manager uninterested in working with the world’s third biggest pension – even considering any communication delays.