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Pensions Wrestle with Return Rates (WSJ)

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In light of a volatile stock market and slumping economy, public pension funds are being forced to reassess their annual return assumptions. The rate is typically set at 8 percent, but some lawmakers and pension officials question whether that mark is unrealistic given financial turbulence here and abroad.

According to a survey of large funds by the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, at least 19 state and local pension plans have cut their return targets, while more than 100 others have held rates steady.

Even the giant California Public Employees’ Retirement System (Calpers) could face pressure to reduce its assumptions if the $220-billion fund’s monthly returns prove disappointing when results are released this week. However, Joseph Dear, Calpers chief investment officer, said he believes the fund’s target return number of 7.75 percent is achievable over the long term.

Return assumptions are critical because it determines how much a city or state and its workers must contribute to the system as well as the present value of benefits they owe retired workers in the future. The lower the rate, the greater the obligations appear. Furthermore, to meet high targets, some analysts warn that pension funds might take on more risk.

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