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CalSTRS head hobnobs at Swiss Alps conference

January 27, 2010 |  2:46 pm

Beleaguered Wall Street bankers might be staying away from this year's World Economic Forum at Davos, the Swiss ski resort.

But that hasn't discouraged Jack Ehnes, the chief executive officer of the California State Teachers' Retirement System, from attending his fourth get-together of global movers and shakers from economics, business and government. The conference runs through Sunday.

Though his $134-billion fund, the nation's second-largest in assets, lost about 25% of its portfolio as of the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2009, the CalSTRS board approved Ehnes' request for the European trip, which is expected to cost around $4,000.

"It is a beneficial trip for us," said Ricardo Duran, a spokesman for the fund. "It keeps us in the forefront of some of the issues the board has identified as being important and that they want to deal with -- one of them being climate risk." Duran also noted that Ehnes' contacts with business and governmental leaders also are valuable.

During the invitation-only event, Ehnes is scheduled to make a speech on "financing low-carbon growth" and plans to present a paper as part of the World Council on Aging about "green investing in 2010," Duran said.

Though Ehnes is taking an active role in the 40th annual Swiss conclave, his counterparts at the country's biggest government pension fund, the California Public Employees' Retirement System, are staying away from the high-profile meeting. The $200-billion fund is embroiled in a controversy over multimillion-dollar commissions paid to sales middlemen from investment managers that help them secure business with CalPERS.

CalPERS' portfolio is down about 20% from a 2007 peak.

"Given the current fiscal realities, we are trying to reduce the cost of travel," said spokesman Brad Pacheco.

Critics of California's pension systems, however, say they don't have a problem with Ehnes' attendance at Davos. "I don't have a heartache with the money," said Marcia Fritz, the head of Californians for Pension Reform, a group that is pushing to put two measures on the ballot that would reduce pension benefits by delaying eligibility for retirement for future state and local government and school district employees.

"I think it's good that he's going because the pension funds we have are international both in scope and size," Fritz said. "I think it's good for him to interface with other countries because he can see  that the other funds are moving toward their members having longer working lives."

Ehnes' wife, Cindy Ehnes, the director of the California agency that regulates health maintenance organizations and preferred provider organizations, also is attending the Davos forum, taking vacation days from her job as a top state administrator. Her expenses are not being paid with state or pension fund money, CalSTRS said.

-- Marc Lifsher