April 6, 2012

Caisse: the people's conglomerate

Peter Black, Canadian Dispatch

---- — It's been many years since I've been to Miami, so I don't recall the Mary Brickell Village area, which apparently is now one of the most popular destinations for shopping, dining and drinking in the bustling city's downtown.

Maybe someday when I retire I'll be able to check it out — with some very small and discreet financial help from the patrons of the above type of establishments in a mall complex called The Shops at Mary Bickell Village.

For, lo and behold, as a taxpayer and citizen of Quebec, I am a part owner of those establishments. The proof is on the The Shops' website: "The Shops at Mary Brickell Village is owned and operated by Ivanhoe Cambridge, one of Canada's leading property owners, managers, developers and investors."

They could go on to say Ivanhoe Cambridge is also the real-estate arm of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Quebec, the body that manages the payroll contributions of citizens of Quebec (that's me!) plus those of a host of other unions and other government-related investment funds.

All in all, the Caisse boasts assets of nearly $160 billion, making it the second largest pension fund in Canada, just behind the Canada Pension Plan, the fund that collects and invests contributions from employed citizens outside Quebec.

The creation of Quebec's own pension fund in 1965 was one of the many tangible acts of modernization and nationalization that came with what is called the "Quiet Revolution" in the province. Then-premier Jean Lesage said at the time the Caisse would be "an instrument of growth, the most powerful economic lever ever seen in the province."

The symbolic headquarters of the Caisse is in the historic Price Building in Quebec City, an Art Deco replica of the Empire State Building in New York City, built by one of the province's once powerful English-speaking industrial families. To underscore the Quebec government's corporate power, the premier of Quebec's residence, when he's in the provincial capital, is in the penthouse of the 18-story tower.

One wonders what Lesage would think of what's become of the nest egg his government created for Quebecers 47 years ago. While critics question why a pension fund needs to be such an aggressively acquisitive entity, having a piece of some 4,000 companies in Quebec, Canada, the United States and around the world, there's no denying the Caisse has become a very "powerful economic lever."

There was a reminder of the scope and sweep of the Caisse last week with the announcement by the historic Fairmont Chateau Frontenac hotel of a $66 million renovation project. The 119-year-old castle and most identifiable feature of the Quebec City skyline was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway to attract and accommodate passengers along its nation-spanning track.

The very deep pockets of Ivanhoe Cambridge allow such a huge investment in one the world's prized lodgings, helping it compete in Quebec City's ferocious tourism market.

Besides the Chateau, major Canadian Pacific legacy hotels in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Victoria and Vancouver are in the Caisse portfolio through Ivanhoe Cambridge. Guests at these hotels are also helping to boost my pension plan. As are the Fairmont hotels in Washington, D.C., and Seattle and the Hilton in Atlanta.

Heck, I could even retire at one of the Caisse-owned retirement compounds in Arizona, California or Oregon. I don't figure there's a discount for Quebec residents, though.

It hasn't been all smooth sailing for the Caisse. Management took a lot of heat for exposing the fund to a massive hit in the global economic crisis beginning in 2007. Critics noted that some risky paper investments the Caisse made cost it some $40 billion and undermined confidence in the people's pension fund.

The Caisse changed some of its investment policies as a result and its portfolio has gradually recovered from the loss.

I'm hoping that by the time I'm ready to cash in on what the Caisse has done with my pension — paid out in modest fixed rates, not dividends, alas — I might be able to afford to stay a night at one of my hotels.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at