It’s something that NCPERS has been reporting for several years now, in the results of its annual survey of public pension plans. And as you might expect, it’s been an uphill struggle to get the good news out when political figures high and low have been employing media-grabbing rhetoric to demonize public pensions as the root of state and local economic ills since the Great Recession blindsided all of us in 2008.
Three new studies are proving our point: while, like all institutional investors, public pension plans were hit hard by the Great Recession, they have experienced a robust recovery due to increasing market returns and operational reforms.
These research findings should be made required reading for anyone and everyone in public office:
An analysis by the California-based, global investment consulting firm Wilshire Associates shows that last year’s surge in U.S. equities helped U.S. public pensions achieve median gains of 16.1 percent in 2013 – marking the fourth time in five years that public funds earned double-digit returns.
Smaller pension plans, which invest a greater share of their assets in U.S. stocks, beat plans with assets of more than $5 billion, Wilshire found. State and local government funds with less than $1 billion in assets realized a median return of 16.45 percent, while mega plans saw returns of 15.76 percent.
And Census Bureau data show that the rising tide of investment returns lifted the assets of the 100 biggest U.S. public pension funds to $3.06 trillion in 2013’s third quarter – their highest level since 1968.
A study by the leading global professional services company Towers Watson offers similarly optimistic findings – both for retirement assets here in the U.S. and around the world.
According to the firm’s Global Pension Assets Study, pension assets in the world’s top 13 pension markets grew by 9.5 percent to hit a record high of $32 trillion in 2013, fueled in large part by the global economic recovery. Those markets are Australia, Canada, Brazil, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Netherlands, South Africa, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S. – and they account for more than 85 percent of global pension assets.
The study found that U.S. institutional pension assets reached an all-time high of $19.9 trillion, up 12 percent from 2012.
Concluded Carl Hess, global head of investment at Towers Watson: “During 2013 equities enjoyed their best calendar year of risk-adjusted return since the financial crisis and as a result pension funds in most markets are in the best shape they have been for many years.”
Finally, the Federal Reserve’s “Financial Accounts of the US: Flow of Funds, Balance Sheets, and Integrated Macroeconomic Accounts 4th Q 2013” reports that at the end of 2013, public pensions had $3.8841 trillion AUM with liabilities of $1.0973 trillion. If you take a look at the report, the general trend you’ll notice is that since 2009 public pension assets are increasing and liabilities are decreasing. According to the Federal Reserve, public plan assets have grown from $2.8281 trillion at end of 2009 to $3.8841 trillion at the end of 2013 all the while public plan liabilities have gone down from $1.3489 trillion in 2010 to $1.0973 as of end of 2013. The discount rate that the Federal Reserve is using to calculate the liability is the conservative AAA corporate bond rate, which is substantially lower than the discount rate used by public pensions.
The bottom line: While DB public pensions are still under political attack, plan funding continues to improve – and as funding improves, liability risk decreases. The findings of the research and analysis above demonstrate once again how successful and economically beneficial DB plans can be – when we are all invested in them.
Clearly, four years of robust investment returns should convince skeptics that public pension plans are experiencing a robust recovery and that DB plans are successful. One has to wonder how high the evidence will have to mount to convince critics in public office to stop playing what has become a very dangerous political game – with public employees’ retirement security and public plans’ significant contributions to economic stability and growth at stake.