Elizabeth Crisafi Fights Pension Fires

Since joining the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System in January 2009, she’s gotten the $6.7 billion fund in order.


When Elizabeth (Liza) Crisafi took over as CIO of the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System (SDCERS) in January 2009, near the height of the financial crisis, she faced a portfolio in need of major revamping. The fund had dropped from almost $5 billion in January 2008 to $3.7 billion. “A lot of our managers were blowing up,” says the 57-year-old CIO of the now-$6.7 billion fund. “There were a lot of fires to put out.” For starters, she terminated ten underperforming quantitative equity and real estate managers, as well as SDCERS’ market-neutral hedge fund program. Between 2010 and 2015, Crisafi — a big believer in not paying high fees for beta (market) returns— created a new core equity portfolio, increasing passive management to 62 percent from 10 percent for U.S. equities and to 60 percent from zero for non-U.S. equities. She also added emerging-markets equity and debt portfolios and new alternatives, including infrastructure and private equity, and created an opportunity bucket to take advantage of market dislocations like opportunistic real estate and global credit.

According to consulting firm Aon Hewitt, SDCERS broke into the top half of its peer group in December with a 7.2 percent five-year annualized return. Crisafi, who graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1981 with a BA in art history, began her career at local and regional banks on the advice of her father, a longtime professor of political science at her alma mater. In 2001 she relocated from Chicago to San Diego, which led to a fortuitous meeting with then–SDCERS CEO David Wescoe, who hired her in 2008 as deputy CIO.

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