Bill Gross’s Admonishment Supported By Illinois Pension Fund

Gross: Bonds Aren't an Asset, They're a Liability
  • Calpers earning below 1% may mean higher costs, benefit cuts
  • Return targets of 7% to 8% difficult in era of low Fed rates

Illinois’s largest public pension agrees with Bill Gross’s admonishment that it’s time to face up to the reality of lower returns and reduce assumptions about what funds can make off stocks and bonds.

Fund managers that have been counting on returns of 7 percent to 8 percent may need to adjust that to around 4 percent, Gross, who runs the $1.5 billion Janus Global Unconstrained Bond Fund, said during an Aug. 5 interview on Bloomberg TV. Public pensions, including the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest in the U.S., are reporting gains of less than 1 percent for the fiscal year ended June 30.

Illinois’s largest state pension, the $43.8 billion Teachers’ Retirement System, plans to take another look at how much it assumes it will make in the coming year as part of an asset allocation study, said Richard Ingram, executive director. Currently it assumes 7.5 percent, lowered from 8 percent in June 2014. Plans for the study were in place before Gross made his remarks.

“Anybody that doesn’t consider revisiting what their assumed rate of return is would be ignoring reality,” Ingram, whose pension is 41.5 percent funded, said in a phone interview. The fund has yet to report its June 30 return.

Lowering how much pensions assume they can earn from investment of assets could put many in the difficult position of having to cut benefits or ask for increased contributions from workers and state and local governments that sponsor them or risk seeing the amount of assets needed to pay future benefits shrink. The $3.55 trillion of assets now held by public pensions is about two-thirds the amount needed to pay retirees, according to Federal Reserve data.

Since the financial crisis, the interest rates earned on bonds have remained low as stock prices have brought strong returns some years and more modest returns in other years. Calpers earned 0.6 percent in the fiscal year ended June 30, with an average gain of 5.1 percent over 10 years.

Illinois is struggling with $111 billion of pension debt, and more than half of that, or about $62 billion, is for the Teachers’ Retirement System. The partisan gridlock that spurred the longest budget impasse in state history only exacerbated the problem. Governor Bruce Rauner and lawmakers have made no progress in finding a fix for the rising liabilities that helped sink Illinois’s credit rating to the lowest of all 50 states.

Lagging Returns

Others also have reported meager returns recently, including a 0.19 percent gain for New York state’s $178.1 billion retirement system and a 1.5 percent increase in New York City’s five pension funds with $163 billion of assets, the smallest gain since 2012.

Government-retirement systems have lagged return targets after U.S. stocks declined last year and bond yields hold near record lows, leaving little to be made from fixed-income investments. Large plans have an average of 46 percent of their money in equities, with 23 percent in bonds and 31 percent in other assets such as private equity, Moody’s Investors Service said in a July 26 report, citing its review of fund disclosures.

“If investment returns suffer, you have to look at reality until we return to a more normal investment environment,” said Chris Mier, a municipal strategist with Loop Capital Markets in Chicago. “Some pensions don’t like changing those assumptions because then their liabilities increase.”

Pensions’ push into stocks and other high-risk investments have exacerbated pressures on the funds because of the “significant volatility and risk of market value loss” at a time when governments have little ability to boost contributions if returns fall short, Moody’s said in its report.

Dialing Back

Public pensions over 30-year-or-so horizons traditionally could hit targets for returns of 7 percent to 8 percent. But that was in an era before the Fed began holding down interest rates to stimulate the economy and returns in the stock market were not high enough to offset lower fixed-income investments.

Public pensions have been reducing assumed rates of returns, cutting from a median of 8 percent six years ago to 7.5 percent currently, said Keith Brainard, who tracks pensions for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. Now “more than a handful” are below 7 percent, he said.

“We’ve seen a pronounced decline in return assumptions,” said Brainard.

Public pensions have been hurt by the Fed’s zero-rate policy that Gross says has led to “erosion at the margins of business models” such as the ones used for funding public pensions, which depend on assumptions about returns over time horizons of 30 years or more.

“Pensions have to adjust,” said Gross. “They have to have more contributions and they have to reduce benefit payments.”

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