Research: Regulatory Incentives Drive Public Pensions To Take More Risks Than Private Peers

U.S. public pension funds take a more aggressive approach to risk than their private — or foreign — peers.

Why? A recent paper examined the regulatory incentives that make U.S. public pensions different than their counterparts in the private sector and in other countries.

From the Economist:

As a recent paper* by Aleksandar Andonov, Rob Bauer and Martijn Cremers shows, that different approach is driven by a regulatory incentive—the rules that determine how pension funds calculate how much they must put aside to meet the cost of paying retirement benefits. Usually, the bulk of a pension fund’s liabilities occur well into the future, as workers retire. So that future cost has to be discounted at some rate to work out how much needs to be put aside today.

Private-sector pension funds in America and elsewhere (and Canadian public funds) regard a pension promise as a kind of debt. So they use corporate-bond yields to discount future liabilities. As bond yields have fallen, so the cost of paying pensions has risen sharply. At the end of 2007, American corporate pension funds had a small surplus; by the end of last year, they had a $404 billion deficit.

American public pension funds are allowed (under rules from the Government Accounting Standards Board) to discount their liabilities by the expected return on their assets. The higher the expected return, the higher the discount rate. That means, in turn, that liabilities are lower and the amount of money which the employer has to put aside today is smaller.

Investing in riskier assets is thus an attractive option for a public-sector employer, which can tap only two sources of funding. It can ask its workers to contribute more, but since they are well-unionised that can lead to friction (after all, higher pension contributions amount to a pay cut). Or the employer can take the money from the public purse—either by cutting other services or by raising taxes. Neither option is politically popular.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the academics found that American public pension funds choose a riskier approach.

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