Goldberg eyes shift in pension fund return expectation

Photo Courtesy: MGNonline

BOSTON (SHNS) – In 2014, the state’s more than $60 billion pension fund had an 8.2 percent rate of return, outperforming its anticipated investment return, officials said Tuesday. With some instability in the global economy, Treasurer Deborah Goldberg suggested the fund might lower its expectation.

“People are trying to work their way down to 7.5, and I felt we should start looking at 7 and 3 quarters,” Goldberg told members of the Pension Reserves Investment Management (PRIM) board’s investment committee on Tuesday.

The fund that pays public employees’ pensions faces uncertainty around the globe and low oil prices that have not yet resulted in a boost in consumer spending, according to Constance Everson, managing director of Capital Markets Outlook Group and member of the investment committee.

“It paid off all year to invest defensively,” Everson told the committee, saying, “Defensive meant invest in bonds as if the economy was deteriorating.”

Everson said lower oil prices could be detrimental to railroads that ship fuel and other sectors, and she said cheaper prices at the pump have yet to result in more spending by consumers.

“Consumer spending is not demonstrating a great revival and it’s been seven months. Oil prices peaked in June and we’re waiting,” Everson said.

A majority of the Pension Reserves Investment Trust (PRIT) fund is invested in equity, or ownership interests such as stocks that carry significant risks compared to other investments, such as fixed income.

As of the end of November, PRIT had 43 percent of its assets allocated in global equity and another 11 percent in private equity, tying the fund to economic growth.

Goldberg said the state’s pension fund managers have new tools to monitor market movements that were unavailable to the fund before and during the market crash of 2008.

“PRIM has done a very good job at that, but it’s also focused on growth and whenever you’re focused on growth you have to have a certain element of risk,” Goldberg told the News Service. Goldberg, whose family founded Stop & Shop, told the committee she “constantly” looks at consumer spending, and she said Christmas spending was “off.”

In calendar year 2014 PRIT had an 8.2 percent return and in fiscal year 2014 the fund had a 17.6 percent return, both of which beat investing benchmarks, according to PRIM.

Two years ago, state officials reduced the anticipated rate of return from 8.25 to 8 percent, according to the treasurer. Goldberg is considering scaling that down further.

“I thought that we should be looking at something a little more conservative,” Goldberg told the News Service. She said, “You don’t create an anticipated rate of return based upon a profitable year.”

On Tuesday, the committee also voted to recommend a change in PRIT’s core fixed-income strategy, opting for a mix that puts less money towards components of U.S. Treasury notes and bonds. The strategy the committee supported would put 70 percent of core fixed-income into 20-plus-year Separate Trading of Registered Interest and Principal Securities, and the rest into Barclay’s Aggregate portfolios.

A staff analysis of the various options before the committee said the option the committee selected would have 25 percent less volatility than the “current 100% target allocation to STRIPS.”

STRIPS are the pension fund’s “hedge against equities,” Goldberg told the News Service. She said, “We’ve had enormous, I mean enormous success in that risk correlation of long-term STRIPS to equities. Typically, that can’t stay forever and so we’ve reduced it slightly.”

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