traditional pension plans in the US: trouble ahead

the basics

Corporate pension plans of one type or another have been around in the US since the late nineteenth century.  In their simplest form, they offer specified payments in retirement to company workers who meet criteria spelled out in advance.  Since 1974, these plans have been subject to federal regulation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) which sets out standards companies must comply with.

Although pension plans are an obligation of the firm, companies don’t ordinarily keep on hand in the plan today enough money to meet all future obligations.  Instead, they (or outside actuarial firms they hire) make intricate calculations of what future payments are likely to be and when they are likely to occur.  Then, using the investment returns that on average they believe their investment managers can achieve, they figure out how much must be in the plan right now to fund expected obligations.

open secrets, sort of

–We know professional analysts have a hard time forecasting what will happen even one year ahead.  What does this say about forecasts that claim to look decades into the future?

–Most traditional pension plans have less in the till today than actuarial calculations say they need.

–The return assumptions used are typically, let’s say, heroic.

public sector workers

The uncertainty inherent in what I’ve just written is why most publicly traded US companies have long since switched from traditional pension plans, where the corporation has responsibility for the risk of miscalculation, to 401ks, where the employee bears it.

There still are significant numbers of traditional pension plans, however.  They’re in the public sector.

dealing with underfunding

To my mind, a substantial reason for the popularity of hedge funds over the past fifteen years or so has been their claim of superior performance as far as the eye can see.  The director of an underfunded pension plan knows that his story is not going to end well as things stand now.  He has two choices:  ask his boss, the governor/legislature, for instance, to fix the problem by allocating (a ton of) more money to the plan; or he can find managers who can consistently exceed the returns the actuaries assume and gradually close the funding gap that way.  Not wanting to be the bearers of bad news, directors have by and large chosen door #2.

the actuarial assumptions

Adding to the woes of pension plan directors, the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), a leader in the public pension plan sphere, has begun to call into question the assumption that it can churn out average annual gains of +7.5%.

The surprise here, if any, is that CalPERS has finally decided to deal with this chronic problem.

More tomorrow.

 

 

 

why do pension plans choose hedge fund and private equity managers?

private equity

Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy has created a new wave of interest in the mechanics of private equity.

The debate has so far primarily been about whether what private equity does–take control of companies that are not making much money, reorganize them and sell them on–is socially useful.  The answer is generally “Yes.”

A secondary question is whether investors in private equity funds, primarily pension plans and university endowments, are getting a good deal. The answer here is generally “No.”  In a recently conducted study for the Financial Times, for example, professors at Yale (whose endowment has been a bastion of such “alternative” investments) and Maastricht University conclude that the vast majority of profits go to the organizers and promoters of private equity schemes, not to the investors who bear almost all the risks.

hedge funds

The same is true of hedge funds, which incidentally are putting the finishing touches on a decade of underperformance versus an S&P 500 index portfolio.  And that conclusion is based on the data the funds themselves voluntarily report.  There’s lots of evidence that some hedge funds routinely overstate their: investment performance, assets under management, and the size and qualifications of their professional staffs.

these are illiquid investments

…oh, and in addition to less-than-stellar profits, these vehicles can be highly illiquid.  In the Great Recession, investors in hedge funds learned to their dismay that the contracts they signed (which they apparently hadn’t read) allowed their managers to refuse requests for redemptions–even for years.  Recently, stories have also been circulating about failed private equity projects that refuse to liquidate, presumably because that would put an end to the management fees the organizers are collecting.

but they’re in high demand

That such a P.T. Barnum-esque situation should have developed with exotic investment vehicles isn’t that strange.  What is, however, is that despite a long period of lackluster performance, institutional investors want to put more of their money into hedge funds and private equity, not less.

Why is this?

correlation

The standard answer that institutions will give is that these “alternative” investments aren’t correlated with the movements of stocks and bonds.  Therefore, they’re a diversification.   That lowers the risk of the overall institutional portfolio.

This, of course, is not true.

Generally speaking, the fact that the returns on two assets aren’t correlated doesn’t mean that the risks of one partially offset those of the other.  It just means that you’re exposed to two different sets of risks.  The fact that in bad weather you speed in a racing car and pilot a small plane doesn’t mean you’re safer than if you just did one of the two.

Also, in the case of alternative investments, there’s no public market and holders have no independently verified information about their returns.  So they have no way of determining if risks are correlated or not.

political pressure

A second, less talked-about reason is that hedge and private equity funds hire powerful, politically connected, salesmen who wield influence over the pension plan managers.  There have been scandals about payments to such sales agents in California and New York.

damned if they don’t

To my mind, the main reason institutional investors are attracted to alternative investments is simple arithmetic.  Traditional pension plans don’t have all the money on hand today that will be needed to pay their future obligations to present and potential retirees.  They assume that they can invest the funds they do have to earn a specified return, usually around 7%, so that today’s assets can grow enough to meet future obligations.  If they can’t do this, the plan is underfunded and the employer has to eventually kick in enough to make up the difference.

Is 7% a reasonable annual rate of return in today’s world?  Not if you’re limited to publicly traded stocks and bonds.

Let’s say that you have a 50/50 mix of the two asset categories.

–Stocks can probably have a nominal return of 8% a year (inflation +6%).  History says that in the aggregate the managers you hire will deliver somewhat less than that.

–The 30-year Treasury is yielding about 3%; the 10-year yields about 2%; the return on cash is practically zero.  Interest rates are now at emergency-low levels.  This means chances of a capital gain from holding bonds are slim; chances of a capital loss on your bonds as the economy recovers and rates rise are high.  Let’s be super-optimistic and say you can collect a 3% coupon and make no losses.

With a 50/50 mix of stocks and bonds, then, a pension plan can achieve a return of about 5% annually.  That’s nowhere near enough to meet the 7% goal.  Even if the plan went to an allocation of 100% stocks,  it might not achieve a 7% return.  And doing so would give up all protection against the possibility that another year like 2008 rolls around–as one sooner or later will.

How does the executive in charge of the pension plan deal with this problem?

Does he go to his boss and say he needs an extra $10 billion or so to fund the plan–taking the risk that the boss will shoot the messenger?   …or does he take the chance that, against the testimony of experience, alternative investments will deliver what they promise–big enough returns to get to the 7% goal?

The latter is certainly the path of least resistance.  And this fact also probably makes the political pressure from the hedge fund/private equity salesman that much harder to resist.