by James A. Bacon
The Virginia Retirement System earned an estimated 1.5% return on its $68 billion portfolio of investments last year, spurring discussion over whether state and local governments are contributing enough to maintain the long-term financial integrity of the retirement plan for Virginia school teachers and government employees.
For purposes of calculating the system’s financial integrity, VRS officials assume that the return on investment will average 7% annually over the long term — an assumption that is more conservative than many government pension plans. But is it conservative enough? After earning 1.5% the past year and only 4.7% the year before, is the 7% assumption still defensible?
VRS Chief Investment Officer Ronald D. Schmitz assured lawmakers that it is. “Over a 20-year horizon, we’re comfortable with a 7 percent return,” he said at the first meeting of the Virginia Commission on Employee Retirement Security and Pension Reform created at the urging of House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford.
Getting that assumption right is no easy task. Investment returns fluctuate widely from year to year, losing money one year and then making spectacular gains the next. Investment performance varies considerably, depending on the time frame used. According to the VRS 2015 report issued a year ago (the 2016 report is not yet available), annualized investment returns averaged 10.6% over three years, 10.3% over five years, but only 6.7% over ten years.
The question is whether the past twenty or thirty years is a useful yardstick for predicting the next twenty or thirty years. The United States has benefited from a 35-year bond market boom, over which time interest rates have trended consistently lower to the near-zero rate that it has held steady for the past seven years (as seen in the graph above). All other things being equal, lower interest rates push stock and bond prices higher. Consequently, U.S. pension funds have enjoyed 35 years of rising prices for stocks and bonds (with short interludes of falling prices) in their portfolios. But as interest rates approach zero, it is impossible under conventional economic theory for them to drop any lower. Perhaps, as we are seeing in some places around the world, it is possible for central banks to engineer below-zero interest rates, but we have no historical experience by which to judge how economies, bond markets and stock markets will perform under such circumstances.
While no one knows with any certainty where interest rates, bond prices and stock prices are headed — perhaps changes in the global economy have repealed the laws of classical economics, and below-zero interest rates will do no harm — it is safe to say that a reversion of interest rates to historical norms would be disastrous for stock and bond prices, indeed asset prices of all kinds. And it is reasonable to say that there is at least a risk that such a reversion could take place. Whether such a reversion to historical norms takes places or not, is indisputable say that central banks cannot replicate the past 35 years of falling interest rates, and that the primary driving force behind the bull market era of the past 35 years has run out of steam.
It is almost inconceivable that the future 35 years of investment returns will match that of the previous 35 years, one of the great bull market eras of U.S. financial history. Therefore, the VRS (and other all pension funds) are reckless to assume that recent history will be any guide at all to future performance. Stretch out the frame of analysis for 50 years, 100 years, or longer, and the case for equities and bonds may be as favorable as ever. But the VRS cannot look out 100 years. Baby Boomers in the state workforce are retiring in large numbers now: One quarter of the state workforce will be eligible to retire within five years. Virginia will need the money in the next 20 to 30 years.
At least one state official in a position of responsibility, House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, is worried. As the Times-Dispatch quoted him: “I’m thinking that 7 percent might be aggressive at the end of the day.”
Jones is absolutely right. The VRS needs to lower its assumption, and the General Assembly needs to allocate more money to the VRS than in the past. Such an action surely will be painful, given all of Virginia’s other budgetary constraints. But Virginians will be grateful that the legislature acted with foresight when investment returns tank. It won’t get easier to do later what we should be doing now.There are currently no comments highlighted.