America’s Largest Pension Fund Is Gambling With Risky Tech Stocks

It's rare for public pension funds to invest in such risky companies.

A NIO vehicle sits outside of the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday.
Chinese EV startup Nio went public on the NYSE in September 2018. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In a desperate bid to boost return in a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty, the nation’s largest public pension fund is piling in on notoriously risky tech stocks.

In the third quarter, California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, which manages $389 billion in assets for more than two million public service employees, bought over half a billion dollar worth of shares of Nikola, Nio, Tesla and Zoom, the pension fund revealed in an SEC filing earlier this month.

During the three-month period ended September 30, CalPERS bought $1.6 million of Nikola stock, $34 million of Nio, $221 million of Zoom and $369 million of Tesla shares.

At the end of the quarter, the pension fund owned 261,546 Nikola shares worth $5.4 million, 2.3 million Nio shares worth ($49 million), 653,764 Zoom shares worth $307 million) and 1.69 million Tesla shares worth $725 million.

CalPERS raised stakes in these companies during a period marked by extreme market volatility, in which Tesla shares jumped 100 percent, Zoom shares soared 77 percent, Nio stock tripled in price, while Nikola tumbled 30 percent after a wild post-IPO rally.

Year to date, all four companies have seen breakout stock growths. Zoom has benefited from skyrocketing virtual conferencing demand during the coronavirus pandemic. And Tesla, Nikola and Nio have ridden a renewed wave of investor hype in electric vehicle companies.

Yet, all of them have had their fair share of troubles of late. Wall Street analysts have repeatedly called out the “stock bubbles” forming around Tesla and Nio; Zoom stock ended its months-long climb recently as promising COVID-19 vaccines raised hope for a speedy return to normalcy; and in the extreme case, an activist short seller alleged that Nikola had intentionally defrauded investors in order to boost its newly listed stock.

It’s rare for public pension funds to invest in risky assets like unprofitable startups and volatile stock as they are often known as the most risk-averse among institutional investors. However, pressured by the ever-widening funding gap, pension managers would occasionally allocate a small portion of their portfolio to high-risk assets in pursuit of higher returns.

During the 2008 Financial Crisis, CalPERS was one of the major pension funds hurt badly by their ownership in subprime loan-backed assets. According to historical data, CalPERS owned $2.5 billion of securities backed by subprime loans and $140 million of unrated collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) sold by Citigroup in 2007 before the market meltdown.

As of June 30, the end of CalPERS’ fiscal 2019, public equity made up for only 0.6 percent of the pension fund’s total return. The fund earned its highest returns from bonds and real assets, such as commodities and real estate. 

America’s Largest Pension Fund Is Gambling With Risky Tech Stocks