Thursday, July 28, 2016

WSJ: Public employee pension returns falling

Public employee pensions nationwide face more challenges as their investment returns fall.  The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week:

Long-term returns for U.S. public pensions are expected to drop to the lowest levels ever recorded, portending deeper pain for states and cities as a $1 trillion funding gap widens.

Twenty-year annualized returns for public pensions in the U.S. are poised to decline to 7.47% once fiscal 2016 results are released in coming weeks, according to an estimate from Wilshire Trust Universe Comparison Service, which tracks pension investment returns.

That would be the lowest-ever annual mark recorded by Wilshire, which began tracking the statistic 16 years ago. In 2001, near the height of the dot-com boom, pensions’ 20-year median return was 12.3%, according to Wilshire.

The dip is intensifying a national debate over whether states and cities can continue to afford pension obligations, as the soaring costs are squeezing budgets across the U.S.

“Many states and local governments may be facing difficult choices if investment returns remain low,” said Keith Brainard, research director at the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. “The money has to come from somewhere.”

Connecticut now allocates 10% of its budget to pay down unfunded pension liabilities that more than doubled in size over the past decade. Chicago’s $20 billion pension-funding hole prompted its credit rating to tumble to junk, a rare low mark for an economically diverse city.

A reminder of how long-term fortunes have turned came last week as two pension bellwethers reported their worst results since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

Weak annual gains for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and California State Teachers’ Retirement System dropped their 20-year returns below 7.5% investment targets, to 7.03% and 7.1%, respectively. The two funds, known as Calpers and Calstrs, are the largest public pensions in the U.S. by assets and oversee a combined $484 billion for 2.6 million public workers and retirees.

The drop in 20-year annualized returns is significant because officials who oversee retirements for police officers, firefighters, teachers and government workers have long said one bad year or two isn’t as important as the long-term average, and they would earn enough money over decades to pay for retiree obligations.

Those long-term returns have dropped below expectations due in large part to two recessions over the past 15 years and a sustained period of low interest rates. Pension funds invest heavily in fixed-income securities, so the loss of a few percentage points of bond yield hinders their ability to post steady returns. (KF: PERS is more heavily invested in stocks.)

Funding shortcomings often mean taxpayers or workers are asked to chip in more to account for rising liabilities. Every one-percentage-point drop in investment returns represents an increase of 12% in liabilities, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.....

Pennsylvania is making the full required contribution for the first time in 15 years for the fiscal year that started July 1, the spokeswoman said.

Pennsylvania state leaders are debating whether to pass pension changes that would cycle certain workers into cheaper 401(k)-style plans. Poor returns will trigger a “greater sense of urgency” and “escalates the conversation” around stepping away from the traditional pension, said Pat Browne, a Republican state senator who is involved with proposed changes to the state pension system.

Many states and cities tried to narrow funding gaps following the last financial crisis by passing a series of changes to benefits. But even as those moves were made, a sustained period of low interest rates pulled down returns just as a wave of new retirees started to collect pension checks.

If funding continues to slide, pension critics have more ammunition to argue for more aggressive benefit cuts, said Daniel DiSalvo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that supports 401(k)-style options for public pensions.

“The basic question the public will have is: ‘Didn’t we already reform these systems and shore them up in the wake of the recession?’ ” Mr. DiSalvo said. “But here we are back at square one.”

In California, the incoming head of the largest U.S. public pension isn’t ruling out changes. Marcie Frost, who starts as Calpers’ chief executive in October, said on a July 14 call with reporters that she is an advocate for traditional pension benefits but couldn’t say “whether the full [defined-benefit] plan is…the right plan” for California.

“We always have to think about what options might be out there,” Ms. Frost said. A spokesman for Calpers said Ms. Frost has yet to have meaningful discussions with the retirement system’s board or senior leaders about priorities and initiatives.

Ms. Frost’s comments came days before Calpers said that its fiscal 2016 return was 0.6%, the slimmest gain since the 2008-2009 crisis. Calpers has a funding gap of roughly $112 billion, according to the most recent available data. As recently as last year, Calpers Chief Investment Officer Ted Eliopoulos said in an annual letter that the plan was “reassured by our 20-year investment return of 7.76%,” which exceeded the internal target of 7.5%.

Now, “it is a struggle to have a positive return,” Mr. Eliopoulos said in a media call last week.

The decline in 20-year returns wasn’t surprising after two recessions in the last decade, said Christopher Ailman, Calstrs’ chief investment officer. They were like “Pearl Harbor and the great recession happening in a seven-year time period,” he said. (KF note: Uh-huh.  See the rate of returns after the 2008-09 recession. Some of them were in double digits territory.)

“It’s a marathon, so the first 10 years our pace was good and strong,” Mr. Ailman said. “The last 10 was more uphill and the pace was slower.” Rest of article.

Kingfish note: The S&P 500 had a rate of return of 4.29% for the term beginning on July 1, 2015 and ending on July 1, 2016.  That is the term used by PERS. It is not yet known what the rate of return is for PERS for the 2015-2016 term.


Anonymous said...

Bailing out the big banks in 2008 instead of letting them fail has taken our economy
down the same path as Japan's . Struggling pensions are a result of this policy and
the shift to 401k style retirement plans. Be careful about revoking pension promises
because Social Security is next.

13th Check said...

As you probably know, averages and ballpark guesstimates for thousands of plans covering tens of thousands of people are about as worthless as ten-penny nails in a mattress factory.

The sky will not fall, but we are all counting on you and Kangroot to save us if it should.

Anonymous said...

Imagine the havoc BHO can wreak in the next six months with pension plans, student loans for minorities and free apartment rent.

Franklin said...

I hope the falling return comes back

Pappy O'Daniel said...

The S&P 500 is not a good gauge of PERS returns. They are invested in some horrible vehicles. Japan flipped to negative interest rates and PERS has a disproportionate investment in Japan. They are also heavily weighted to Chinese stocks and bonds which have been slammed. PERS also shifted some of their assets to foreign bonds at the absolutely worst time last year, but that may have been captured in last years report, but you can look at their website and see that they are going to have a lower year than last year, barring a gangbusters 4th quarter...and that's not even bringing up the ridiculous management fees.

Anonymous said...

All the negativity regarding PERS over the years. Roller Coaster. Doom and Gloom. Going Bust. Gotta be fixed. Fire those in charge. Feel, the Light Guv and the State Treasurer must be incompetent. Boot those representing employees. The fix is in. Who are the crooks.

Yet it has never failed to pay out as expected.

Kingfish said...

No one has said any of those things. You are flat out lying.

-W said...

I think everyone who just read this post cares. Cares enough to go see two movies: 1 THE BIG SHORT (STEVE CARELL) 2 THE WOLF OF WALLSTREET. It will give you an idea of what kind of characters are out there and who really has your future in their hands. I am in the PERS system for 29 years of servitude at this point. I have a long long time to hope there is something left in 2046. I do believe if we don't start teaching this next generation, who is rejecting god and civility, some ethics, we are going to be in a world of trouble.

Misery Index is something I watch like a hawk. I encourage you too as well. It is a great indicator of actual finance reality and not talk. The prez says everything is hunky dory; Misery Index says otherwise. I also know the real labor statistics that are outside of the Federal Department of Labor point to a nasty picture. 1/4 of the country actually works and pays taxes. 3/4 of country does not work that is a tough picture.

2 cents

Anonymous said...

PERS is a ticking time bomb. Bryant, Gunn and Reeves have their head in the sand. Reeves understand the problem, but puts himself first. Bryant and Gunn have no clue as they are just too dumb.

Anonymous said...

Word is they got a update on how the base of the pyramid is turning back to sand.

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