Capital markets had a tough time in 2022, but public pension funds managed to increase their funded status, according to a report from the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems
The funded ratio at public pension funds increased to 77.8% last year, compared with 74.7% in 2021, per a survey of almost 200 funds conducted by NCPERS, the largest trade association for public funds in the U.S. and Canada, in partnership with Cobalt Community Research.
The vast majority of survey respondents, 92%, represent defined benefit plans, 8% defined contribution plans, 10% combination plans and 5% cash balance plans. The total exceeds 100% because of multiple responses, according to NCPERS.
Public pension programs scored an average one-year return of around 11.4%. By contrast, the S&P 500 was down around 19% and the Bloomberg US Agg, which tracks bonds, was off 13% in 2022. Heavy concentration in real estate and private equity were the key to the funds’ outperformance, the report says.
The study’s findings highlight public pensions’ “resiliency in the face of volatile markets, rising interest rates, and disruption in the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Hank Kim, NCPERS executive director and general counsel, in a statement. “It’s clear that public pensions remain dedicated to maximizing returns while managing risks in order to efficiently deliver retirement benefits to public servants all over the country.”
Higher contribution income helped. Investment returns were the largest component of the gains, accounting for slightly more than two-thirds of them, but the stronger average member and employer contributions also played a role. Each rose by one percentage point, to 9% and 24%, respectively.
This report describes a “scorecard”, a standardized summary of pension valuation results (shown on next page), as well as three new metrics, of varying degrees of novelty, to appear on it:
The Scaled Liability is a measurement of pension liabilities against the size of the economy that supports these liabilities. The UAL Stabilization Payment (USP) is an objectively defined cash flow policy standard comparable to the funding ratio, an objectively defined balance sheet policy standard. Risk-Weighting Assets is a proposed method to assess the value of a plan’s assets, taking into account its capacity to endure the downside risk it has taken on through its allocation of investments.
The National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems recently released a report entitled “Measuring Public Pension Health: New Metrics, New Approaches” that introduces new mechanisms to account and judge the sustainability of pension plans.
To create these, the report’s author, Tom Sgouros, fellow and co-chair at The Policy Lab at Brown University, formed and hosted the Pension Accounting Working Group, a group made up of actuaries and public pension experts. The group assembled to measure the health of plans, and create new metrics to generate greater insights into a pension’s sustainability, so that trustees and policymakers could make better and more informed decisions.
The working group came up with three new metrics. The first is “scaled liability,” a measurement of pension liabilities against the size of the underlying supporting economy. The second is “unfunded actuarial liability (UAL) stabilization payment,” an objectively defined cash-flow policy standard comparable to the funding ratio. And last is “risk-weighting asset values,” a method to assess the value of a plan’s assets that accounts for a plan’s capacity to endure the downside risk it has taken through the allocation of its assets.
The scaled liability measurement uses economic strength as a proxy for tax capacity. This measurement helps decisionmakers get a read on a plan’s sustainability by providing a comparison between a pension plan and the economic strength of its sponsor. The Federal Reserve includes a comparison of net pension liability with measures of GDP and state revenues in the “Enhanced Financial Accounts” component of its “Financial Accounts of the United States” report.
Pension systems said earnings on investments accounted for 68% of overall pension revenues in their most recent fiscal year. Employer contributions made up 23% of revenues, and employee contributions totaled 8%.
The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated efforts by public pension systems to expand their communications capabilities. In all, 78% offered live web conferences to members during 2021, up from 54% a year earlier.
Pension funds that participated in the survey in 2020 and 2021 reported that their funded levels rose to 72.3%, from 71.7%. Overall, pension funds reported a funded level of 74.7% for 2021. While funded levels are not as important to pensions’ sustainability as steady contributions are, the trend is positive.
The inflation assumption for the funds’ most recent fiscal year remained steady at 2.7%. These assumptions were in place in the midst of an acceleration in the rate of inflation, which reached 7% at the end of 2021, from 1.4% a year earlier, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Public pension funds derived 71% of their revenue from their investment earnings last year, up from 69% in both 2019 and 2018, according to an annual study from the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems (NCPERS).
Employer and employee contributions made up the rest of the revenue, accounting for 20% and 9%, respectively. The share of revenue from employer contributions declined from 22% in 2019, while the share of revenue from employee contributions remained unchanged.
The study was based on responses from 138 state and local pension systems that have approximately 12.8 million active and retired members, and assets of more than $1.5 trillion in actuarial and market value. Among the responses, 51% were from statewide pension systems, while 49% were from local pension systems.