My plan was up 10% in 2014 – Was that Good?

We frequently receive updates in our email in-boxes about various pension funds and their returns in 2014, and not surprisingly the numbers vary quite a bit.  According to Wilshire’s TUCS comparisons, the average public pension plan was up 6.76% in 2014. However, we’ve seen some funds reporting returns closer to 10%.  It seems to us that a plan did better the more traditional the plan’s asset allocation, meaning more equities and fixed income, and less in alternatives, particularly hedge funds.

In most cases the announcement of a total return was hailed as good or bad depending on how it did relative to the plan’s return on asset assumption (ROA).  However, is that really the true objective? If a plan generated a 10% return and its ROA was 8% (49% of public plans have 8% as their ROA) it was reported as a great year.  However, what did the plan’s liabilities do in 2014? Since most sponsors and consultants assume that liabilities grow at the ROA, they would likely assess that 2014 was good on both the return and liability front.  Unfortunately, they would be wrong.

With the precipitous decline in US interest rates continuing through much of 2014, the average defined benefit plan had its liabilities grow more than 15% in 2014.  Given this fact, I’d say that any return that didn’t exceed liability growth was a poor year, with the average public pension (6.8%) doing quite poorly versus liability growth.

Can you imagine if you were playing a football game without a scoreboard? Let’s assume you are in the fourth quarter and you’ve scored 27 points.  How do you play your offense or defense? Do you get more conservative or aggressive? You don’t know, do you? Exactly! Well, this is how Pension America is playing the game.

A significant majority of DB plans only get a look at their liabilities every 1-2 years, and the results are usually presented with a 3-6 month lag.  It is quite difficult to have a responsive asset allocation when you don’t know whether or not you are winning the pension game versus your liabilities, just as it is impossible to play football if you don’t know how your opponent is performing.

At KCS we place liabilities and the management of plan assets versus those liabilities at the forefront of our approach to managing DB plans. Pension America has seen a significant demise in the use of DB plans, and we would suggest it has to do with how they’ve been managed. Focusing exclusively on the asset side of the equation with little or no regard to the plan’s  liabilities has created an asset allocation that is completely mismatched versus liabilities.  It is time to adopt a new approach before the remaining 23,000+ DB plans are all gone!

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