Thursday, December 15, 2016

CalPERS' Warning to U.S. Public Pensions

From Pension Pulse:
Heather Gillers of the Wall Street Journal reports, America’s Largest Pension Fund: A 7.5% Annual Return Is No Longer Realistic:
Top officers of the largest U.S. pension fund want to lower their investment targets, a move that would trigger more pain for cash-strapped cities across California and set an increasingly cautious tone for those who manage retirement assets around the country.

Chief Investment Officer Ted Eliopoulos and two other executives with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System plan to propose next Tuesday that their board abandon a long-held goal of 7.5% annually, according to system spokesman Brad Pacheco. Reductions to 7.25% and 7% have been studied, according to new documents posted Tuesday.

The last time the California system lowered its investment expectation was in 2012, when the rate was dropped to 7.5% from 7.75%.

The new recommendation comes just 13 months after the fund known by its acronym Calpers agreed to a plan that would slowly scale back its target by as much as a quarter percentage point annually—and only in years of positive investment performance. Now Mr. Eliopoulos and other officials are concerned that plan may not be fast enough because of a mounting cash crunch and declining estimates of future earnings.

“There’s no doubt Calpers needs to start aligning its rate of return expectations with reality,” California Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement provided to the Journal.

The accounting maneuver would have real-life consequences for taxpayers and cities. It would likely trigger a painful increase in yearly pension bills for the towns, counties and school districts that participate in California’s state pension plan. Any loss in expected investment earnings must be made up with significantly higher annual contributions from public employers as well as the state.

“Lowering the rate of return sooner is undoubtedly going to make it more difficult for cities that are teetering on the edge financially,” said Bruce Channing, chair of the city managers’ pensions committee for the California League of Cities.

Nearly three quarters of school districts said in a survey conducted by Calpers that the impact of dropping the rate would be “high” or “extremely high.”

A drop in Calpers’s rate of return assumptions could also put pressure on other funds to be more aggressive about their reductions and concede that investment gains alone won’t be enough to fund hundreds of billions in liabilities. Because of its size, Calpers typically acts as a bellwether for the rest of the pension world. It manages nearly $300 billion in assets for 1.8 million members.

Pensions have long been criticized for using unrealistic investment assumptions, which proved costly during the last financial crisis. More than two-thirds of state retirement systems have trimmed their assumptions since 2008, according to an analysis of plans by the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.

The Illinois Teachers Retirement System in August dropped its target rate to 7% from 7.5% in August, the third drop in four years, and the fund’s executive director has said the rate will likely be reduced further next year. The $184 billion New York State and Local Retirement System lowered its assumed rate from 7.5% to 7% in 2015.
Amit Sinha of The Thought Factory blog also wrote an opinion piece for MarketWatch, What Calpers decides about its investment-returns forecast matters for pension plans (and taxpayers) across the U.S.:
The investment team at Calpers has been signaling that the current assumption of 7.5% long-term investment returns may be too high, and it would probably peg it around 6% instead....

Most recent:
"CalPERS Staff Nudges Board To Consider Lower Return Rates"
"CalPERS Admits to Guilt in Misleading Beneficiaries and Taxpayers About Its Returns by Changing Report After Being Called Out"
The Looming Disaster At The World's Largest Public Pension Fund
"Watchdog: Another Tough Year for CalPERS as Retirement Fund Loses Billions"

We have so many posts on CalPERS that the easiest way to find them is a Google search of the blog: calpers