Public Pension Return Assumptions Haven’t Budged: Survey

Average actuarial assumed rates of return remained stagnant at 7.5% last year despite two-fifths of pensions lowering expectations.

Public pensions still targeted a 7.5% average rate of return in 2016, according to a survey by the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems (NCPERS).

The average did not change from 2015, despite a majority of funds reporting that they are at least considering revising their return assumptions.

In the survey, which polled 159 state, local, and provincial government pension funds between September and November of last year, NCPERS found that nearly 40% had decreased their actuarial assumed rate of return in 2016.

A further 30% said they were considering making downward revisions in the future.

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Of the pensions that did lower their return targets between 2015 and 2016, the reduction was an average of 0.26%.

Although annual returns in 2016 were just 1.7%, according to NCPERS, long-term returns were closer to current targets: Returns over 3-, 5-, and 20-years hovered around 8%, while 10-year returns were 6.2% on average.

However, in the last year managers and asset owners alike have raised concerns that returns will be harder to come by going forward.

Allocators surveyed by CIO between May and June 2016 said their “best guess” of actual performance was 6.15%, below average official return assumptions of 7.35%.

In December, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) announced that it would lower its long-term expected return from 7.5% to 7% over the next three years.

“This was a very difficult decision to make, but it is an important step to ensure the long-term sustainability of the fund,” CalPERS Board of Administration President Rob Feckner said in a statement at the time.

The Florida State Board of Administration also slightly lowered its return assumption last year, from 7.65% to 7.6%.

Related: Don’t Count on Hitting Your Return Target: Research Affiliates; The Allocator’s Dilemma