Pension Asset Allocation – It’s All Wet!

AP Photo/Mike Groll, File

I continue to be amazed by the asset allocation decisions of Pension America. The laser-like focus on the return on asset (ROA) assumption has placed pension plans on the asset allocation roller-coaster to hell! The picture above, which is the Star Jet roller-coaster at Seaside Heights, NJ following Superstorm Sandy, reminds me of the process. Plans ride the good markets up and then down repeating the process with every changing cycle until they get crushed and end up all wet. We need to finally get off this ride before all of Pension America collapses.

We are currently living through potentially the worst quarter of US equity market performance since 1987’s fourth quarter. I was working on Wall Street at that time – this feels worse! As the chart above highlights, we have had 29 10% or worse corrections since 1968. Three of those corrections were 48% or worse with two of them coming in just the last 2 decades. Remember that when markets fall 50%, they need to rebound by 100% just to get back to even. Regrettably, these market events have brought Pension America to its knees and driven many private sector pensions to the sidelines. The American worker has suffered as a result.

Are we finally going to see pension plans get back to the basics? Will we once again focus our attention on the promises that were made to the participants as the primary objective in managing a pension plan? Markets only trade at fair value accidentally, as they move from over-valued to under-valued. Let’s get away from trying to “guess” where we are in the market cycle and once again establish an asset allocation strategy that has two purposes. The first asset bucket is used to secure the promised benefits through a cash flow driven investing (CDI) approach to match the plan’s Retired Lives liabilities. The remaining assets can now be focused on the pension system’s long-term future liabilities that have been given the benefit of a longer-time frame in which to meet that future liability growth rate. Neither of these asset buckets has the ROA as its objective. Why should you?

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