State Public Pension Funds’ Investment Practices and Performance: 2016 Data Update

Source: Pew Charitable Trusts, Issue Brief, September 26, 2018

Substantial investment in complex and risky assets exposes funds to market volatility and high fees.

From the overview:
State and local public retirement systems held $3.8 trillion in assets in 2016, the most recent year for which comprehensive data are available. With the retirement security of 19 million current and former state and local employees at stake, sound and transparent investment strategies are essential.

In a bid to boost investment returns and diversify portfolios, plans in recent decades have shifted away from low-risk, fixed-income vehicles in favor of stocks and alternatives such as private equity, hedge funds, real estate, and commodities. In 2016, half of plan assets were invested in equities, a quarter in alternative investments, and another quarter in bonds and cash.

Investment performance over the last five to six years has, for the most part, tracked plan target rates, with average returns of about 7 percent. However, during the same time frame the fiscal position of public funds has not improved, and in most cases has declined. And while equities and alternatives can provide higher financial returns, they also leave funds vulnerable to market volatility and the risk of shortfalls. Furthermore, as our population ages and the number of retirees grows, cash outflows increase, adding more pressure to pension fund balance sheets.

Because earnings on these investments are expected to pay for about 50 to 60 percent of promised retirement benefits for public workers and retirees, careful attention to reporting and transparency has become increasingly important. In particular, understanding the impact of market volatility on public plans and their sponsoring governments’ budgets is critical for policymakers and stakeholders. Mandatory stress test reporting and full disclosure of asset allocation, performance, and fee details are therefore essential to determining whether public pension plans have the ability to pay promised retirement benefits…..