Recovery still under way for many public pensionsNews added by Benefits Pro on June 9, 2014

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Joined: September 07, 2011

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By Nick Thornton

Many public pension plans are still recovering from the effects of the 2008 economic downturn.

That was the primary finding of a survey of 114 state and 36 local pension plans that found that the average funding status remained unchanged in 2013, despite strong stock market returns.

The Center for State and Local Government Excellence report, issued by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, did include some better news. More sponsors are paying a larger share of their annual contribution requirements, it said. And 6 percent are 100-percent funded or better; 28 percent are at least 80 percent funded.

Pension asset values are generally averaged over a five-year period. Last year’s strong market gains were averaged with the catastrophic losses of 2009, accounting for the stagnation in overall funding levels.

Going forward, new Governmental Accounting Standards Board guidelines will allow funding ratios to be based on current market values, allowing the most recent stock market values to provide better insight into funding levels. This will help funding ratios in years of strong market returns, but could more adversely affect funding levels if markets grow calamitous.

The report made funding projections for 2014-2017 under the old and new GASB standards to assess how the new provisions will affect funding reporting.

The most optimistic projections show funding levels rising to 89.2 percent in 2017, under the new GASB provisions. The most pessimistic projection has funding levels at 78.3 percent in 2017.

New GASB provisions mean plan sponsors are no longer required to report Annual Required Contributions. The financial crisis created larger unfunded liabilities, thereby raising the ARC in 2013 to 17.6 percent of payroll, up from 17.1 percent in 2012, and 12.5 percent in 2008.

The recovery in equity markets has led to sponsors paying a greater share of ARCs. In 2013, they paid an average of 83 percent of their required contribution, up from 81 percent the year before, but still dramatically down from the 93 percent contribution rate in 2008.

Three percent of the plans surveyed are funded below 40 percent, and nearly one in five (18 percent) are funded below 60 percent.

Some the worst funding ratios in 2013 come from the state of Illinois. The Chicago Police fund was at 30.9 percent; Illinois SERS at 34.2 percent; Chicago Municipal Employees at 37 percent; and Illinois Teachers Fund at 40.6 percent.

The Kentucky ERS fund, which supports the retirement of 334,000 and oversees $14.5 billion, was funded at 25.8 percent in 2013.

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