Caisse de dépôt: Help needed

Quebec's Caisse de dépôt seeks a new CEO, but should non-Quebecers apply?

The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec is looking for a CEO. The last one didn’t turn out so well. After Henri-Paul Rousseau resigned last May, the Caisse, which manages Quebec public pension and insurance fund assets, turned to his No. 2, the affable Richard Guay. When markets tumbled last fall, Guay went on stress leave, and never returned. The Caisse, with $155 billion under management as of Dec. 31, 2007, is expected to lose tens of billions for 2008, posting its worst performance ever.

If you look at past Caisse CEOs, you’d think the job required not just financial savvy, but also political astuteness and a lineage traceable back to the pure laine settlers. Chairman Pierre Brunet insists this isn’t so: if the right candidate “is bilingual, it doesn’t mean he has to be a Quebecer,” he says. “But,” Brunet adds, “he has to understand the Quebec environment.” The reality is that the Caisse is still beholden to its legacy as a creation of the Quiet Revolution. (The search that yielded Guay required “a thorough knowledge of the socioeconomic and political issues of Quebec.”) Its mandate remains a puzzle: to seek “optimal [returns]…while at the same time contributing to Quebec’s economic development.” No wonder some Quebec politicians still treat the Caisse as their plaything. The province appoints all directors and has been reported to be preparing to overhaul the board with a raft of new appointments.

The Caisse is a player with global heft, so the next CEO should be the best investment manager the board can find globally — whether he or she speaks French, understands the Quebec environment, or can even find Quebec City on a map. Why limit the talent pool, when the only language that should matter is whatever the numbers speak?