Public Pension Funds Roll Back Return Targets

Categories: National Developments,Pension Rate Stabilization
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The Wall Street Journal  by Timothy W. Martin, Sept 4, 2015

Public pension funds from California to New York are cutting investment-return predictions to their lowest levels since the 1980s, a shift that portends greater hardships for employees and cash-strapped governments as Americans age.

New upheavals in global markets and a sustained period of low interest rates are forcing officials who manage retirements for nearly 20 million U.S. beneficiaries to abandon a long-held belief that stocks, bonds and other holdings would earn 8% each year, as well as expectations that those gains would fund hundreds of billions of dollars in liabilities.

More than two-thirds of state retirement systems have trimmed assumptions since 2008 as the financial crisis and an uneven U.S. recovery knocked many below their long-term goals, according to an analysis of 126 plans provided by the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. The average target of 7.68% is the lowest since at least 1989. The peak was 8.1% in 2001.

WSJ pension projection

On Friday, the New York State Common Retirement Fund, the third-largest public pension by assets, said it plans to drop its assumed returns to 7% from 7.5% after cutting a half-percentage point five years ago. That followed Thursday’s vote by the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association to drop its level to 7.5% from 7.75%.

“Realism,” said Brian McDonnell, managing director for pension consultant Cambridge Associates, is “creeping in.”

Moving expectations below 8% isn’t just an arcane accounting move. It has real-life consequences for systems that use these predictions to calculate the present value of obligations owed to retirees. Even slight cutbacks in return targets often mean budget-strained governments or workers are asked to pay significantly more to account for liabilities that are expected to rise as lifespans increase and more Americans retire. A drop of one percentage point will typically boost pension liabilities by 12%, said Jean-Pierre Aubry, an assistant director at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

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