Pension Fund Bets On The Biz… Budget Busting

In Europe it’s not uncommon for pension funds and utilities to invest in show biz. But in the U.S.? Rarely.

Now things are changing. The biggest pension fund in the U.S. is getting more interested in the entertainment industry. The California Public Employees Retirement Systems, better known as Calpers, has in recent months invested $250 million in a cable TV joint venture with Comcast, and now is all but committed to investing close to $450 million in DreamWorks SKG.

Calpers manages about $78 billion in pension money, so even a tiny deal for the institution could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Hollywood. And while Calpers ducks the issue when pressed, at least one investment banker agrees the recent moves are a sign of increased interest in the industry.

Wall Streeters say Calpers’ deal with Comcast is a particularly significant shift. Many institutional investors have traditionally been wary of the cable industry, dominated as it is by highly leveraged operators. For many investors that wariness has increased in recent months as cablers have started looking to raise the billions of dollars in new capital to pay for their expansion into telephony.

Calpers has cast aside any caution in a long-term commitment to expanding in cable. Its joint venture with Comcast, while initiated as part of Comcast’s purchase of the Maclean Hunter cable systems, is designed to invest in other deals as well. Comcast execs say Calpers was very keen at the time the deal was put together to make clear it didn’t want the investment to be a one-off deal.

The investment got Wall Street’s attention also because it was a private deal, rather than a purchase of public equity. “There is no liquidity to that investment,” one analyst says. If the cable businesses go sour, Calpers won’t be able to sell its stake on the stock market as if it were public shares. For that reason, one analyst says, “It was an incredibly significant and bullish statement about the cable industry.”

The same goes for any DreamWorks stake. While DreamWorks principals Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen could eventually take the company public, any investment initially would be private.

Calpers cautions that its private equity investments will be limited and that most of its money will continue to be put into public markets. A spokesman also downplays suggestions that it is targeting entertainment.

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