Analysis: Rising returns give U.S. public pension funds chance to reform

Thu Aug 22, 2013 8:07am EDT
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By Tim Reid

(Reuters) - Many U.S. public pension funds are benefiting from double-digit annual returns in fiscal 2013 that are giving them breathing space to try to implement reforms and fix gaping deficits.

A raft of pension reforms since the financial crisis by many U.S. state and local governments have not repaired their pension debt, a factor in the bankruptcies of Detroit, Michigan, and the California cities of Stockton and San Bernardino.

A 20 percent gain on the U.S. stock market in the twelve months to June is, however, alleviating acute funding gaps in many areas.

"It is a marathon, not a sprint," said Keith Brainard, at the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. "I do not think any one-year returns are likely to affect the thinking about pension reforms but we have seen very strong returns since the low point of the equity market in 2009 and it is encouraging," he said.

Recent reforms by many U.S. cities and states have seen retirement benefits for new hires cut, and their contributions into pension plans raised. It will be several years before these reforms start to have an effect on gaps in pension funding.

As well as stock market gains, pension funds are being helped by relatively low exposure to the struggling bond market.

In the last decade bonds held by public pension funds fell from around one third to around one fourth of assets as yields declined.

According to Wilshire Associate U.S. public pension funds have about 25 percent of assets invested in bonds, compared to an average of 37 percent for corporate funds.   Continued...

A senior citizen looks out to a lake in Sun City, Arizona, January 4, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson