Most plans recovered their losses between 2011 and 2014, three to six years after the market bottom. Despite the recession and subsequent loss of value, plans continued to pay out over a trillion dollars in benefits to subscribers during the period.
Todd Tauzer, vice president at Segal, says that since 2008, the models and risk assessment strategies of public plans have evolved greatly. Tauzer says, “funding status alone does not indicate health of a public pension, after all, one cannot see the underlying assumptions used. A plan’s funding status can be measured in many different ways, and the ways we measure can change over time.”
“Plans today are on a much stronger measurement of liability than they were 15 years ago,” according to Tauzer. Adjustments to the assumption of the models in mortality, the assumed rate of return, general population counts, and the assumed rate of inflation are a few of the assumptions modified which give greater clarity into pension health post-GFC.
This report finds that state and local government retirement systems on the whole successfully navigated the 2007 to 2009 Global Financial Crisis. Moreover, public retirement systems across the nation have adapted in the years since the recession by taking actions to ensure continued long-term resiliency.
Examining the Experiences of Public Pension Plans Since the Great Recession is authored by Tyler Bond, NIRS Research Manager, Dan Doonan, NIRS Executive Director, Todd Tauzer, Segal Vice President and Actuary, and Ronald Temple, Lazard Managing Director and Co-Head of Multi-Asset and Head of U.S. Equity.
The report finds:
The majority of public pension plans recovered their pre- recession asset levels within six years, while continuing to pay over a trillion dollars in benefits. In recent years, public plans have reported record-high asset levels.
Discount rates, or the assumed rate of return on investments, have broadly decreased from eight to seven percent for the median public pension plan, based on actuarial and financial forecasts of future market returns.
Generational mortality tables, possible today with more advanced financial modeling software, have been broadly adopted by nearly all large public plans and future longevity improvements are now incorporated into standard financial projections.
Many public plans have shortened amortization periods, or the period of time required to pay off an unfunded actuarial accrued liability, to align with evolving actuarial best practices. Tightening amortization periods, akin to paying off a mortgage more quickly, has had the effect of increasing short- term costs. In the long run, plans and stakeholders will benefit.
The intense focus on public plan investment programs since the Great Recession misses the more important structural changes that generally have had a larger impact on plan finances and the resources necessary for retirement security.
Plans have adjusted strategic asset allocations in response to market conditions. With less exposure to public equities and fixed income, plans increased exposure to real estate, private equity, and hedge funds.
Professionally managed public defined benefit plans rebalance investments during volatile times and avoid the behavioral drag observed in retail investment.
Author(s): Dan Doonan, Ron Temple, Todd Tauzer, Tyler Bond
The Pension Practice Council’s Jan. 25 webinar, “Funding Public Pension Plans—Theory and Practice,” highlighted the Academy’s issue brief The 80% Pension Funding Myth; explored prudent funding practices; and examined considerations being made in the management of “surplus” for state and local public employee pension plans.
Presenters were Academy Pension Vice President Sherry Chan; Paul Angelo, a member of the Public Plans Committee; and Academy member David Lamoureux. Public Plans Committee Chairperson Todd Tauzer moderated.
Using the issue brief as a starting point, Tauzer laid the groundwork of the discussion in going over the basics of pension funding and a funded ratio. Funded ratios move in economic cycles and can be affected by assumption changes, and are also subject to varying asset valuations and liability measurements, he said.
Plan projections go beyond a point in time measurement and can illustrate plan trajectory, which is a more robust indicator of plan health over time. Nevertheless, funded ratios continue to be used ubiquitously. Tauzer highlighted additional considerations to bring context, like financial health and investment strategy of plan sponsor, history of benefit changes, and adherence to funding policy.