Last month the Dow Jones Industrial Average surpassed 23,000 for the first time ever and closed at a record high. In the ninth year of an economic expansion following the devastating effects of the Great Recession, the financial markets have been strong and consistently breaking new records. Public pension funds have benefitted from this rebound in the financial markets. For the most recent fiscal year, many major public pension funds have earned double digit investment returns. This has improved their funded status and proves that, given enough time, pension plans can meet their investment return targets.
The Great Recession was devastating not just for public pension funds, but for other institutional and individual investors. In the years since the financial crisis, public pension funds have been slowly and steadily recouping their losses from 2008 and 2009. Unfortunately, the economic recovery from the recession has been uneven and years of strong returns have been followed by years of low returns. Anti-pension ideologues have seized on these years of low returns and argued that public pension plans are unable to achieve their investment goals. They irrationally argue for dramatically slashing the assumed rate of return on investments, even though such a move would unnecessarily increase costs for both workers and taxpayers.
In the past year, however, most public pension funds in the United States have reported double digit investment returns. Particularly noteworthy is Oklahoma. Across the board, Oklahoma’s public pension plans have achieved returns ranging from over 11 percent to more than 15 percent. This has improved the aggregate funded status of all the plans in the state. The funded ratio is currently at 78.6 percent and unfunded liabilities are at their lowest level since 2003. The Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System reduced its unfunded liabilities by more than $1 billion in the past fiscal year. As was reported earlier this year, the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System has earned a 9.35 percent return since its inception, surpassing its target of 7.97 percent.
Oklahoma is not an outlier. The Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana earned a 15.93 percent return for the most recent fiscal year. The fund surpassed its investment benchmarks for 1 year, 3 year, 5 year, and 10 year returns. For all U.S. public pension funds, they returned a median 3.5 percent in the first quarter of the new fiscal year. This is the eighth consecutive quarter of positive returns for public pensions, the longest streak since 2014.
It’s important to remember that public pension funds are investing for the long term. One year of strong returns is great news, but what truly matters is ten, twenty, and thirty year returns. By the same logic, there is no reason to panic over one year of weak investment returns. Public pension plans must remain focused on their long-term goals.