CalSTRS: Financial Risk of Climate Change “Very Real” For Institutional Investors

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CalSTRS has been one of the most active (and vocal) pension funds in the world this year when it comes to exploring the financial risk of climate change.

The fund announced last month it was joining forces with Mercer and a handful of other pension funds to study the market impact of climate change.

Now, CalSTRS has commented on a new report showing the “profound lack of preparedness” for climate change among the nation’s insurance companies.

The pension fund calls for institutional investors to be “more mindful of market exposures to environmental risks.”

From a CalSTRS release:

The Insurer Climate Risk Disclosure Survey Report & Scorecard: 2014 Findings & Recommendations was released today by Ceres, a nonprofit sustainability organization mobilizing business and investor leadership on climate change and other sustainability challenges, ranks property & casualty, health, and life & annuity insurers that represent about 87 percent of the total U.S. insurance market. Ceres found strong leadership on the issue in fewer than a dozen companies nationwide.

“Environmental, social and governance risks and issues such as climate change are very real for CalSTRS. This new report enables large institutional investors to be more mindful of market exposure to environmental risks through our insurance investments,” said CalSTRS Chief Executive Officer Jack Ehnes. “More importantly, the report gives us better perspective on how well, or not, insurance companies are responding to climate change risk.”

The report states, “… insurers are on the veritable ‘front line’ of climate change risks, and there is compelling evidence that those risks are growing. Rising sea levels and more pronounced extreme weather events will mean increasingly damaging storm surges and flooding. Hurricane Sandy alone resulted in over $29 billion in insured losses.”

“Meaningful change in the recognition of climate risk to the investment portfolio will come from an alignment of interests, and who better to take leadership this effort than the insurance industry,” added Ehnes. “The foundation of the insurance model is based on risk analysis, so ignoring the risk of climate changes seems most imprudent. Clearly, more action on the part of the insurance sector is needed.”

Last month, CalSTRS announced plans to double down on its clean energy investments.

Alicia Munnell: Should Insurers Handle Public Pension Payouts?

US Capitol dome

Last month, Pension360 covered the Urban Institute’s ringing endorsement of a Congressional bill that would let local governments turn over the assets of their pension plans to insurance companies, who would then make payments to retirees.

Senator Orrin Hatch proposed the bill, called the SAFE Retirement Plan.

On Wednesday, another major pension player threw their opinion in the ring: Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

She begins by outlining why the Urban Institute likes the plan, and why the Pension Rights Center doesn’t:

The folks at the Urban Institute think that this plan is terrific. They gave it an “A” under all seven of their criteria: 1) rewarding younger workers; 2) promoting a dynamic workforce; encouraging work at older ages; 4) retirement income for short-term employees; 5) retirement income for long-term employees; 6) making required contributions; and 7) the funded ratio.

Essentially it does not allow sponsors to underfund plans (items 6 & 7) and provides a more equitable distribution of benefits across participants’ age demographics. That is, young and short-term workers get more benefits and older workers have less incentive to retire than under a traditional defined benefit plan. With their criteria, the Urban Institute researchers would always give a higher grade to any type of cash balance or defined contribution plan than to the current defined-benefit plan.

The Pension Rights Center lumps the Hatch proposal with other de-risking activities, such as General Motors transferring its retiree liability to Prudential. In the private sector, such a transfer means the loss of protection by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), and reliance on the strength of the insurance company to provide the benefits. Such a loss does not occur in the case of state and local plans, because these plans are not covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 and therefore benefits are not protected by the PBGC.

Munnell then delves into her own opinion:

First, I am not quite sure how it would work. In the private sector, a company can spin off only fully funded plans. But few public sector plans are fully funded. Is the suggestion to close down the current public sector defined benefit plan and send all future contributions to the insurance company? In many states that path would be quite difficult given that employers cannot reduce future benefits for current employees. So I am not clear how a SAFE Retirement Plan would actually be adopted.

Second, I am very concerned about costs. One issue is that investments would be limited to those acceptable for underwriting annuities, a requirement that means essentially an all-bond portfolio. Trying to produce an acceptable level of retirement income without any equity investments requires a very high level of contributions. My other concern on the cost side is fees; insurance companies need a significant payment to take on all the risks associated with providing annuities.

In short, the SAFE Retirement Plan doesn’t seem like either a feasible or efficient way to provide retirement income. Fortunately, the plan is optional. So, I’m moving on to other topics!

Munnell runs the Center for Retirement Research and the Public Plans Database.

Can Insurance Companies Save Public Pensions?

Scrabble letters spell out INSURANCE

Last week, Pension360 covered a question asked by the Washington Post’s Wonkblog:

Does it make sense for local governments to turn over the assets of their employee pension plans to insurance companies, who would in turn make monthly payments to retirees?

This week, Mary Pat Campbell (who runs the STUMP blog) has given an in-depth answer to the above question:

Here is the problem: for all of my posts about alternative assets in public pensions (though those are troubling when they are a huge portion of the portfolio), it’s not the financial risks per se, or even the longevity risk, that has been killing public pensions, though those do contribute.

It’s that governments are great at promising, but not so great at putting money by to pay for those promises.


Insurers are willing to write group annuities to back pension promises — they did this with GM and Verizon pensions — but you have to give them all the assets they require to back that business. A “fair price” would be less than what is statutorily required, probably, because statutory requirements tend to be very conservative in valuing the liabilities, in order to protect policyholders/annuitants. This is called surplus strain.

But the thing is, even with the “fair price”, governments would have to pay amounts way beyond what they’re paying now, just to meet the pension promises made for past service, forget about any future service accruals.

The main problem is that not enough money has been put by. The risk is not so much that public pensions across the country have been investing too riskily or anything like that (but overly risky investing can make the bad situation worse.)

Now, not all pensions are underfunded as grossly as New Jersey or Illinois. But you don’t get to a 72% overall funded ratio just from those two states.

While insurers might be able to reduce the worry about longevity risk and financial risk for fully-funded plans, they cannot help politicians trying to lowball pension costs.

Her answer, in other words: “No”.


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Urban Institute Endorses Bill That Would Turn Over Pension Assets To Insurance Companies

United States Capitol Dome

A bill that’s spend the last year gathering dust in Congress has been given new life this week after the Urban Institute gave the bill it’s top grade, saying the proposal “really addresses the retirement security issue”.

The bill, authored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), would let local governments turn over the assets of their pension plans to insurance companies. The insurance companies would then make payments to retirees. More details from Wonkblog:

On Wednesday, Hatch’s proposal, aimed at getting local governments and states off the hook for future pension liabilities, got a big thumbs-up from the non-partisan Urban Institute.

After reviewing the plan, the research organization gave the idea its top grade, saying it eliminates a troublesome financial risk for state and local governments, protects workers who change jobs frequently, and rewards young workers–all while providing a steady stream of income for retirees.

“Unlike any other plan I have seen, it really addresses the retirement security issue, the funding problem, and it provides incentives to allow employers to attract and retain a productive workforce,” said Richard Johnson, director of the Urban Institute’s Retirement Policy Center. “It is hard to balance those three objectives.”

The Hatch bill is similar to a financial maneuver taken by several big corporations, from General Motors and Ford to Heinz and Verizon, which have moved to shed pension liabilities in recent years. For local governments and states, the unfunded liabilities are huge, ranging anywhere from $1.4 trillion to more than $4 trillion, depending on the assumptions plugged in by actuaries.

As it stands, a study of 150 plans by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that the plans have just 72 percent of the assets on hand needed to cover future liabilities, a figure that drops to just under 65 percent if new accounting standards are used.

Insurance companies love the bill. But not everyone thinks it’s a good idea, writes Michael Fletcher:

It has been panned by municipal employee unions and their allies, who worry that payments will not be as generous as current pension schemes, particularly for long-tenured workers. Johnson noted, however, that many pension plans tend to shortchange workers who stay on the job fewer than 20 years, and he said Hatch’s plan would address that, although workers who stayed on the job longer would get smaller payments than their predecessors.

Still, some critics have called it “a solution in search of a problem,” a characterization that has left Hatch incredulous.

“My bill is not a solution in search of a problem, and it is certainly not meant to be an attack on anyone or anything,” Hatch said during a Capitol Hill event Wednesday. “It is meant to offer and alternative path to employers who want to continue delivering lifetime retirement income for their workers in a world where that is becoming increasingly difficult.”

The bill wouldn’t force the hand of state and local funds; governments would have the choice of handing over their assets to insurance companies, but it would be voluntary.


Photo by: “US Capitol dome Jan 2006″ by Diliff. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons