Pension Funds Plunge Into Riskier Bets—Just as Markets Are Struggling

Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/pension-funds-plunge-into-riskier-betsjust-as-markets-are-struggling-11656274270

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More than 100 state, city, county and other governments borrowed for their pension funds last year, twice the highest number that did so in any prior year, according to a Municipal Market Analytics analysis of Bloomberg data. Nearly $13 billion of these pension obligation bonds were sold last year, which is more than in the prior five years combined.

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas, the U.S.’s fifth-largest public pension fund, began leveraging its investment portfolio in 2019. Next month, the largest U.S. public-worker fund, the roughly $440 billion California Public Employees’ Retirement System, known as Calpers, will add leverage for the first time in its 90-year history.

While most pension funds still avoid investing borrowed money, the use of leverage is spreading faster than ever. Just four years ago, none of the five largest pension funds used leverage.

Investing with borrowed money can juice returns when markets are rising, but make losses more severe in a down market. This year’s steep slump in financial markets will test the funds’ strategy.

It’s too soon to tell how the magnified bets are playing out in the current market, as funds won’t report second-quarter returns until later in the summer. In the first quarter, public pension funds as a whole returned a median minus 4%, according to data from the Wilshire Trust Universe Comparison Service released last month. A portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds—not what funds use—returned minus 5.55% in the quarter, Wilshire said.

Author(s): Dion Rabouin, Heather Gillers

Publication Date: 26 Jun 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

Pensions’ Bad Year Poised to Get Worse

Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/pensions-bad-year-poised-to-get-worse-11652175002

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State and local government retirement funds started the year with their worst quarterly returns since the beginning of the pandemic. Things have only gone downhill since.

Losses across both stock and bond markets delivered a double blow to the funds that manage more than $4.5 trillion in retirement savings for America’s teachers, firefighters and other public workers. These retirement plans returned a median minus 4.01% in the first quarter, according to data from the Wilshire Trust Universe Comparison Service. Recent losses have further eroded their holdings.

“It’s a tough period,” said Jay Bowen, manager of the Tampa Firefighters and Police Officers Pension Fund. “Nobody is immune.”

The declines in stocks and bonds are inflicting pain on household and institutional investors in 2022. The S&P 500 has returned minus 13.5% year to date through Friday, while the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate bond index — largely U.S. Treasurys, highly rated corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities — returned minus 10.5%.

Author(s): Heather Gillers

Publication Date: 10 May 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

Pensions’ Bad Year Poised to Get Worse

Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/pensions-bad-year-poised-to-get-worse-11652175002

Excerpt:

Losses across both stock and bond markets delivered a double blow to the funds that manage more than $4.5 trillion in retirement savings for America’s teachers, firefighters and other public workers. These retirement plans returned a median minus 4.01% in the first quarter, according to data from the Wilshire Trust Universe Comparison Service. Recent losses have further eroded their holdings.

“It’s a tough period,” said Jay Bowen, manager of the Tampa Firefighters and Police Officers Pension Fund. “Nobody is immune.”

The declines in stocks and bonds are inflicting pain on household and institutional investors in 2022. The S&P 500 has returned minus 13.5% year to date through Friday, while the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate bond index — largely U.S. Treasurys, highly rated corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities — returned minus 10.5%.

Pension funds maintain huge portfolios of stocks, bonds and other assets, wielding significant power on Wall Street, where their purchases and sales can shift prices and investment managers vie for their business. Their losses can raise costs for governments and workers, squeeze municipal budgets and drive up taxes.

Author(s): Heather Gillers

Publication Date: 10 May 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

New York City Wants to Amp Up Risk in Workers’ Pensions

Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/new-york-city-wants-to-amp-up-risk-in-workers-pensions-11650976985

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New York City’s comptroller is the latest public official trying to change laws aimed at limiting risk in pension investments, as U.S. state and local pension funds try to plug shortfalls in a low-return environment.

Comptroller Brad Lander, who oversees about $260 billion in retirement money for city police, firefighters, teachers and other public workers, is asking New York lawmakers for more flexibility to invest in private markets, high-yield debt and foreign stocks. The state comptroller’s office, which supervises another $280 billion in retirement assets, views the idea favorably, with a representative saying such flexibility “is key in times of market volatility.”

Pension funds, like household investors, are facing a relatively bleak environment for stocks and bonds, the bread and butter of a traditional retirement portfolio. In the face of historic inflation and Federal Reserve efforts to contain it, these funds are finding they can no longer rely on bonds to rise when equities fall and vice versa. In the first quarter, the S&P 500 returned minus 4.6% while the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate bond index returned minus 5.93%.

“Those two things taken together is what’s scary: the prospect of both going down at the same time,” said Steve Foresti, chief investment officer at Wilshire Associates, which advises large public pension funds. Retirement portfolio managers, he said, are asking “in that environment, do I have anything that actually goes up?”

Author(s): Heather Gillers

Publication Date: 26 April 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

Investors Sour on Muni Funds

Link:https://www.wsj.com/articles/investors-sour-on-muni-funds-11643568253

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Investors pulled $1.4 billion from municipal-bond funds in the week ended last Wednesday, the biggest weekly outflow since the early days of the pandemic, according to Refinitiv Lipper.

Municipal-bond yields, which rise as prices fall, climbed last week after the Federal Reserve signaled it would begin steadily raising interest rates in mid-March, reducing the appeal of outstanding debt. Yields on the highest-rated state and local bonds jumped to 1.55% Monday from 1.34% last Tuesday, according to Refinitiv MMD.

Returns on the S&P Municipal Bond Index have fallen to minus 2.33% this year through Jan. 28, counting price changes and interest payments, the lowest year-to-date returns in at least 16 years.

Author(s): Heather Gillers

Publication Date: 31 Jan 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

Two Top Pennsylvania Pension Fund Officials to Retire Amid Federal Probe

Link:https://www.wsj.com/articles/pennsylvania-pension-cio-jim-grossman-to-resign-amid-federal-probe-11637243641

Excerpt:

Two top officials at Pennsylvania’s largest pension fund are retiring amid a federal investigation and calls by some board members for their ouster.

The board of Pennsylvania’s $64 billion Public School Employees’ Retirement System voted Thursday to approve resolutions accepting the retirement of Glen Grell, the executive director, and Jim Grossman, the chief investment officer. Board members approved plans for both men to stay on in temporary advisory positions and authorized the board chair to begin a search for their replacements.

The fund has been racked by turmoil since board members learned in March that a report of investment returns was too high. The accurate figure was low enough to trigger an increase in payments from employees that the plan serves. Investigations conducted by the fund haven’t found wrongdoing on the part of investment staff.

The board said in April that it had hired law firms to investigate the miscalculation and to respond to a federal grand jury subpoena requesting documents. The pension declined to comment on what information the grand jury is seeking.

Author(s): Heather Gillers

Publication Date: 18 Nov 2021

Publication Site: Wall Street Journal

Newly Flush With Cash, Retirement Funds Struggle to Find Appealing Investments

Link:https://www.wsj.com/articles/newly-flush-with-cash-retirement-funds-struggle-to-find-appealing-investments-11636293602?mod=e2tw

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California transferred an extra $2.31 billion to its teachers’ and public workers’ pension funds after stock gains and the economic recovery bolstered income tax collections, according to budget documents. Connecticut Treasurer Shawn Wooden is transferring an additional $1.62 billion to that state’s teachers’ and workers’ pension funds in accordance with a mandate that excess revenue be used to pay down debt.

This year New Jersey is making the full pension payment recommended by its actuaries for the first time since 1996, plus an extra half-billion dollars, funneling a total of $6.9 billion to the state’s deeply underfunded retirement plan, the New Jersey treasurer’s office said.

Asked how the money would be used, a spokeswoman for the state’s division of investment said it “will continue to move forward toward the previously established allocation targets.” The $101 billion fund’s private equity, private credit, real estate and real assets portfolios each contained between $1 billion and $3 billion less than the goal amount as of Aug. 31, records show.

Author(s): Heather Gillers

Publication Date: 7 Nov 2021

Publication Site: Wall Street Journal

What Pension Funds’ Riskier Strategies Mean for Future Retirees

Link:https://www.wsj.com/podcasts/google-news-update/what-pension-funds-riskier-strategies-mean-for-future-retirees/439e4dbc-86f1-4431-8ada-14345feb42fd

Excerpt:

Heather Gillers : So alternative investments are typically not assets that can be traded on the public market like stocks and bonds, where you know the price, you can buy them and sell them any time. They’re fairly liquid, very liquid. Alternative assets. On the other hand, are private market assets, they’re typically illiquid. So examples would be like private equity where you’re investing in private companies, not in publicly traded stocks, or infrastructure like roads and bridges, or real estate, apartment buildings, hedge funds was a long time popular alternative asset that’s lost some of its favor with public pensions. Private credit is one that’s gaining steam. That’s private loans to companies. Not bonds that are traded on the public markets, but private loans.

J.R. Whalen : So from an investment perspective, how are these alternatives different from traditional things like stocks and bonds?

Heather Gillers : So stocks and bonds are traded on public markets. You can pretty much always find a buyer. You can always find out how much it costs. And most importantly, like you can pretty much cash out any time. Whereas an alternative investment, you’re probably planning to hold it for 5 or 10 years at the minimum. And if you do have to sell it in an emergency, you could end up getting a lot less than you hoped.

Author(s): Heather Gillers, J.R. Whalen

Publication Date: 20 Oct 2021

Publication Site: WSJ podcasts

An Ohio Pension Manager Risks Running Out of Retirement Money. His Answer: Take More Risks.

Link:https://www.wsj.com/articles/an-ohio-pension-manager-risks-running-out-of-retirement-money-his-answer-take-more-risks-11634356831

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Mr. Majeed is the investment chief for an $18 billion Ohio school pension that provides retirement benefits to more than 80,000 retired librarians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other former employees. The problem is that this fund pays out more in pension checks every year than its current workers and employers contribute. That gap helps explain why it is billions short of what it needs to cover its future retirement promises.

“The bucket is leaking,” he said.

The solution for Mr. Majeed — as well as other pension managers across the country — is to take on more investment risk. His fund and many other retirement systems are loading up on illiquid assets such as private equity, private loans to companies and real estate.

So-called “alternative” investments now comprise 24% of public pension fund portfolios, according to the most recent data from the Boston College Center for Retirement Research. That is up from 8% in 2001. During that time, the amount invested in more traditional stocks and bonds dropped to 71% from 89%. At Mr. Majeed’s fund, alternatives were 32% of his portfolio at the end of July, compared with 13% in fiscal 2001.

Author(s): Heather Gillers

Publication Date: 16 Oct 2021

Publication Site: WSJ

Main Street Pensions Take Wall Street Gamble by Investing Borrowed Money

Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/main-street-pensions-take-wall-street-gamble-by-investing-borrowed-money-11630774800

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Many U.S. towns and cities are years behind on their pension obligations. Now some are effectively planning to borrow money and put it into stocks and other investments in a bid to catch up.

State and local governments have borrowed about $10 billion for pension funding this year through the end of August, more than in any of the previous 15 full calendar years, according to an analysis of Bloomberg data by Municipal Market Analytics. The number of individual municipalities borrowing for pensions soared to 72 from a 15-year average of 25.

Among those considering what is known as pension obligation borrowing is Norwich, a city in southeastern Connecticut with a population of 40,000. Its yearly payment toward its old pension debts has climbed to $11 million in 2022—four times the annual retirement contribution for current workers and 8% of the city’s budget. The city will vote in November on whether to sell $145 million in 25-year bonds to cover the pensions of retired police officers, firefighters, city workers and school employees.

….

In 2009, Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research examined pension obligation bonds issued since 1986 and found that most of the borrowers had lost money because their pension-fund investments returned less than the amount of interest they were paying. A 2014 update found those losses had reversed and returns were exceeding borrowing costs by 1.5 percentage points.

Author(s): Heather Gillers

Publication Date: 4 September 2021

Publication Site: Wall Street Journal