Biggs: Public Pensions Take On Too Much Risk

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Andrew Biggs, former deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration and current Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, penned a column for the Wall Street Journal this week in which he posed the thesis that public pension funds invest in too many risky assets.

To start, he compares the asset allocations of an individual versus that of CalPERS. From the column:

Many individuals follow a rough “100 minus your age” rule to determine how much risk to take with their retirement savings. A 25-year-old might put 75% of his savings in stocks or other risky assets, the remaining 25% in bonds and other safer investments. A 45-year-old would hold 55% in stocks, and a 65-year-old 35%. Individuals take this risk knowing that the end balance of their IRA or 401(k) account will vary with market returns.

Now consider the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (Calpers), the largest U.S. public plan and a trendsetter for others. The typical participant is around age 62, so a “100 minus age” rule would recommend that Calpers hold about 38% risky assets. In reality, Calpers holds about 75% of its portfolio in stocks and other risky assets, such as real estate, private equity and, until recently, hedge funds, despite offering benefits that, unlike IRAs or 401(k)s, it guarantees against market risk. Most other states are little different: Illinois holds 75% in risky assets; the Texas teachers’ plan holds 81%; the New York state and local plan 72%; Pennsylvania 82%; New Mexico 85%.

The column goes on:

Managers of government pension plans counter that they have longer investment horizons and can take greater risks. But most financial economists believe that the risks of stock investments grow, not shrink, with time. Moreover, while governments may exist forever, pensions cannot take forever to pay off their losses: New accounting rules promulgated by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) and taking effect this year will push plans to amortize unfunded liabilities over roughly 15 years. Even without these rules, volatile pension investments translate into volatile contribution requirements that can and have destabilized government budgets.

Yet public-plan managers may see little option other than to double down on risk. In 2013 nearly half of state and local plan sponsors failed to make their full pension contribution. Moving from the 7.5% return currently assumed by Calpers to the roughly 5% yield on a 38%-62% stock-bond portfolio would increase annual contributions by around 50%—an additional $4 billion—making funding even more challenging.

But the fundamental misunderstanding afflicting practically the entire public-pension community is that taking more investment risk does not make a plan less expensive. It merely makes it less expensive today, by reducing contributions on the assumption that high investment returns will make up the difference. Risky investments shift the costs onto future generations who must make up for shortfalls if investments don’t pay off as assumed.

Read the entire column here.

 

Photo by  dktrpepr via Flickr CC License

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