States increase risk by seeking higher returns on pensions
States and companies have started investing very differently when it comes to the billions of dollars they are safeguarding for workers’ retirement.
Companies are quietly and gradually moving their pension funds out of stocks. They want to reduce their investment risk and are buying more long-term bonds.
But states and other bodies of government are seeking higher returns for their pension funds, to make up for ground lost in the last couple of years and to pay all the benefits promised to present and future retirees. Higher returns come with more risk.
“In effect, they’re going to Las Vegas,” said Frederick E. Rowe, a Dallas investor and the former chairman of the Texas Pension Review Board, which oversees public plans in that state. “Double up to catch up.”
Though they generally say that their strategies are aimed at diversification and are not riskier, public pension funds are trying a wide range of investments: commodity futures, junk bonds, foreign stocks, deeply discounted mortgage-backed securities and margin investing. And some states that previously shunned hedge funds are trying them now.
The Texas teachers’ pension fund recently paid Chicago to receive a stream of payments from the money going into the city’s parking meters in the coming years. The deal gave Chicago an upfront payment that it could use to help balance its budget. Alas, Chicago did not have enough money to contribute to its own pension fund, which has been stung by real estate deals that fizzled when the city lost out in the bidding for the 2016 Olympics.
A spokeswoman for the Texas teachers’ fund said plan administrators believed that such alternative investments were the likeliest way to earn 8 percent average annual returns over time.
Pension funds rarely trumpet their intentions, partly to keep other big investors from trading against them. But some big corporations are unloading the stocks that have dominated pension portfolios for decades. General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, J.C. Penney, Boeing, Federal Express and Ashland are among those that have been shifting significant amounts of pension money out of stocks.
Other companies say they plan to follow suit, though more slowly. A poll of pension funds conducted by Pyramis Global Advisors last November found that more than half of corporate funds were reducing the portion they invested in U.S. equities.
Laggards tend to be companies with big shortfalls in their pension funds. Those moving the fastest are often mature companies with large pension funds, and who fear a big bear market could decimate the funds and the companies’ own finances.
“The larger the pension plan, the lower-risk strategy you would like to employ,” said Andrew T. Ward, the chief investment officer of Boeing, which shifted a big block of pension money out of stocks in 2007. That helped cushion Boeing’s pension fund against the big losses of 2008.