Earlier this month the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) announced that it had generated a 15.7% return on its investment portfolio over the previous year, bringing its total assets to $66.1 billion. It’s always good news when the pension fund for 600,000 state and local employees and retirees goes up, not down. That’s money that state and local governments won’t have to extract from taxpayers.
But pension-fund investing is a game for the long haul, and Jeff Schapiro raises interesting questions in his column in the Times-Dispatch today. Did a decision after the 2007 stock market crash to shift some assets away from stocks and bonds into “alternative” investments like hedge funds leave more than $6 billion on the table?
Schapiro quotes Ed Burton, a former VRS chairman, who criticized the investment strategy, which had the effect of moving from a portfolio of 70% stocks/30% bonds to a more complex scheme equivalent to 65% stocks/35% bonds. As a consequence, the VRS benefited less from the Obama-era bull market in stocks than it could have. It also paid millions of dollars in higher fees charged by hedge fund managers.
While the VRS had a strong year last year, over the past three years its returns have averaged a more modest 8.6%.
Investment strategy can can be argued back and forth forever without ever resolving anything. Maybe the VRS board made the right decision, maybe it didn’t. But there’s a bigger issue that Virginians need to be thinking about. Markets go up and markets go down. For the past few years, aided by an expansionist Federal Reserve Board policy, markets have gone up. Perhaps stocks and bonds will depart from 300 years of history and never go down again. But a prudent man wouldn’t bet on it.
The VRS assumes that it can generate annualized investment returns of 7% for years to come. That assumption is actually more conservative than the investment returns assumed by many states, so the VRS board deserves credit for that. But the Commonwealth of Virginia’s assertion that the VRS will be “fully funded” by the 2018-2020 biennial budget is exceedingly fragile. For starters, the state’s definition of “fully funded” is 80% or more of what the actuaries say is needed to meet pension obligations, as Erik Johnston, director of government affairs at the Virginia Association of Counties, pointed out Monday at the annual conference of the Virginia Chapter of the American Planning Association.
I wonder if the bank would be happy with 80% of my mortgage payment?
The other question is what happens when the Federal Reserve Board reverses years of monetary stimulus, as it has indicated it will do. Everyone agrees that interest rates will go up. But nobody knows how much. That will depend in part upon the strength of the economy — stronger growth will drive up demand for credit and push interest rates higher.
When interest rates go up, the market value of bonds go down. The 30-year bull market in bonds will come to an end. A bear market in bonds also puts pressure on stock multiples (price-earnings ratios), which move inversely with interest rates. It is hard to see how any money manager can replicate the performance of the past few years. All it takes is a few years of sub-7% returns and the VRS goal of “fulling funding” the pension slips farther and farther into the horizon.
Hey, everything may work out just hunky dory. The VRS may be totally vindicated. But there is considerable risk that it will not. Nobody knows the future but we do know one thing: Each percentage point that the VRS falls short of its ROI goals for a $66 billion portfolio translates into a $660 million obligation for state and local government.There are currently no comments highlighted.