Pennsylvania Pension Chairman Defends Hedge Funds; Says “Strategy Is Working”


Pennsylvania’s top auditor has publicly wondered whether Pennsylvania’s State Employees Retirement System (SERS) should be investing in hedge funds.

SERS has released formal statements defending their investment strategy, which currently allocates 6.2 percent of assets toward hedge funds.

But today, we got the pension fund’s most in-depth defense yet of the asset class.

Glenn E. Becker, chairman of the SERS Board, wrote a letter to the editor of the Patriot News which was published today in the paper. The letter, in full, reads:

I feel it is important to correct the record and explain how our hedge fund exposure has been working for the state’s taxpayers.

Industry experts generally agree that while hedge funds are not for every pension system, the unique needs of each system must shape their individual asset allocation and strategic investment plans. Therefore, the actions taken by one system may not be appropriate for all systems. Investors need to consider many factors including their assets, liabilities, funding history, cash flow needs, and risk profile.

Our current plan was designed to structure a well-diversified portfolio to meet the needs of a system that is currently underfunded, steadily maturing (has more retirees than active members) and, in the near term, will receive employer contributions below the actuarially required rate.

Those unique characteristics mean we need liquidity, low cash flow volatility, and capital protection. We must plan to pay approximately $250 million in benefits every month for the next 80-plus years. We continuously monitor fund performance, the markets and cash flows for any needed plan adjustments. At this time, our plan uses hedge funds as an integral component of a well-diversified portfolio that is expected to provide risk-adjusted returns over all types of markets.

To date, the strategy has been working. As of June 30, 2014, our diversifying assets portfolio, or hedge funds, made up approximately 6.2 percent of the total $28 billion fund, or approximately $1.7 billion. In 2013, that portfolio earned 11.2 percent or $197 million, after deducting fees of $14.8 million, while dampening the volatility of the fund. That performance helped the total fund earn 13.6 percent net of fees in 2013, adding more than $1.6 billion to the fund.

Certainly, caution is warranted when examining one short period given SERS’ long-term liabilities. Over the long term, as of December 31, 2013, the total fund returned an annualized, net of fees return of 7.4 percent over 10 years, 8.4 percent over 20 years and 9.7 percent over 30 years.

Over the past 10 years, more than 75 percent of the funds’ assets have come from investments. In terms of making up for the past underfunding, that is money that doesn’t have to come from the taxpayers.