A year after suffering record investment losses, many of the country’s largest public pension plans are reporting double-digit percentage gains for the budget year that ended June 30.
Although the improved returns in fiscal 2010 did not wipe out the damage that funds suffered in the previous two years, the figures confirm how the financial industry has been stabilized and liquidity has increased since the Wall Street crisis battered state pension plans.
A review by Stateline of 20 public employee pension plans in Ohio and 18 other states shows preliminary returns ranging from 10.8 percent, for the Nevada Public Employee Retirement System, to 18.7 percent, for the South Dakota Retirement System. By comparison, the Ohio State Teachers Retirement System had a 13.5 percent return in fiscal 2010, a big reversal from a 21.7 percent decline in 2009.
Meanwhile, Wilshire Associates, a California-based investment adviser, reports a 13.1 percent median return among public plans with more than $1 billion in assets for fiscal 2010, compared with an 18.8 percent loss in fiscal 2009. Most state public pension systems assume an annual yield of about 8 percent.
Public pension system managers say they are encouraged by the increases in the market value of their funds. But they are hardly sanguine; nationally, the unemployment rate is still high at 9.6 percent, home sales are declining and economic growth overall has slowed. The stock market has struggled this summer, and many state funds are seeing modest losses for the past few months.
“Long-term return numbers are still achievable but the intermediate future may be difficult,” said Craig Slaughter, executive director of the West Virginia Public Employees Retirement System, which earned 16 percent on its investments in fiscal 2010. “The economy still needs a few years to recover from the global recession.”
West Virginia’s experience puts the fiscal 2010 gains in perspective. Losses in its retirement system holdings in fiscal 2008 and 2009 required the legislature to contribute $211 million to shore up the system. The funding ratio, or the proportion of assets to liabilities, of West Virginia’s state employee retirement fund is 65.9 percent, while its teacher retirement fund is 41.3 percent. Most experts prefer an 80 percent ratio.
Public employee retirement benefits are financed from contributions from employees and state agencies and returns on investment holdings.
Major public plans in at least 21 other states were below the 80 percent benchmark at the end of 2008, according to an analysis by the Pew Center on the States, the parent organization of Stateline.org. The report concluded that the underfunding of public pension plans began before the recession, but was worsened by the downturn