The world’s biggest sources of money are hell-bent on not wasting it.

The New York Times this morning has an inside look at an effort by big pension and government funds to pave their own way, making direct investments, sometimes with each other, and cutting out the proverbial middle man. That middle man in this case is the powerful hedge fund and private equity managers who reap big fees and generous slice of profits.

The power pendulum that swung toward the pensions in the aftermath of the financial crisis hasn’t quite swung back to the tycoons quite yet, it seems. The Times documents a recent meeting in Canada where pensions and sovereign funds both talked about ways to work together and actually did at least one deal.

The transaction was small — a $300 million investment in an energy company, the Times said — but notable for its very existence. The Institutional Investors Roundtable “is part of a much broader push by the world’s biggest pension and sovereign wealth funds to reduce their reliance on the Wall Street firms that used to manage almost all their money.”

And again, it is the Canadians leading the way. The latest meeting, with 27 funds in attendance, was hosted by the Alberta Investment Management Corporation, the $70 billion fund led by Leo de Bever. His countrymen on the other side of the country in Ontario, were among the pioneers of direct investing more than 20 years ago. The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan stands as a model for the hybrid approach of keeping the bulk of your investing decisions in house.

American pensions, still the single source of money for private equity funds, have struggled to replicate the model because they can’t attract the same talent by offering state employee salaries. Of late Wisconsin has approved a measure that would allow its pension to offer more competitive pay packages.

To be clear, none of this puts the big private equity shops in any sort of real existential danger; a few direct deals, even a fair number of direct deals, won’t make a meaningful dent at a time when Carlyle and Apollo are raising in excess of $10 billion for their latest funds.

But it is an indicator that big pensions aren’t backing off their belief that they’re paying other people too much for things they might be able to do themselves. The work of the Institutional Investors Roundtable follows work by the Institutional Limited Partners Association (ILPA). That group of pensions and endowments put together a set of investing guidelines in the wake of the financial crisis that pushed private equity managers to cut or more equitably share their fees, or at least justify them.

While the Times quotes the head of the Private Equity Growth Capital Council noting that “proven private equity firms deliver superior returns,” the story also cites a study by Harvard’s Josh Lerner and Victoria Ivashina that shows PE-like investments made by seven large funds did better than those made through third parties. No one seems ready to ditch private equity altogether — far from it — but there is a growing sense that investors have become more discerning.

The debate will go on, and the big money is holding on to that pendulum as long as it can.

-Jason Kelly