The California Public Employees’ Retirement System is poised to top a record $260 billion in assets, the market value it held before the global financial crisis wiped out more than a third of its wealth, by sticking with a strategy of buy-and-hold.
The largest U.S. public pension, with half of its money in publicly traded equities, was worth $253.2 billion on Jan. 17, or about 97 percent of the pre-recession high set in October 2007. The fund returned 13 percent in 2012, about the same gain as the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index achieved.
“A lot of the improvements in portfolio returns is simply reflective of the return of the market,” Chief Investment Officer Joe Dear said in an interview. “But there is still an important lesson there, which is that when the crisis was full on, we didn’t drastically reduce our equity exposure.”
Calpers isn’t alone in nearing previous high marks. The 100 largest public pensions in the U.S. had $2.9 trillion in assets in the fourth quarter of 2007, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That dropped to $2 trillion in 2009 and rebounded to almost $2.8 trillion as of Sept. 30.
The median funded status of state pensions, meaning how much money a system has in order to pay its obligations, fell to 72 percent in 2011 from 83 percent in 2007, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Even with its gains, the Sacramento-based pension is still short $87 billion, or about 26 percent, of meeting its long-term commitments, and has had to ask the state and struggling cities to contribute more. One municipality, San Bernardino, sought bankruptcy protection, saying it can’t afford to pay $13 million it owes to Calpers.
“It’s certainly good news that the asset base has grown and recovered,” said Bradley Belt, senior managing director of the Milken Institute and former executive director of the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. “The bad news is that while you’ve gotten back to where you were on the asset side -- through a combination of good market returns and new contributions -- liabilities never took a holiday. Liabilities are now a whole heck of a lot larger than they were.”
Calpers’s value was already in decline when Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. went bankrupt in September 2008, leading to a panic that wiped out more than $6 trillion in U.S. stock-market value in about six months. By 2009, Calpers’s value had plummeted to $164.7 billion.
Since then, the pension fund has benefited from the stock market’s recovery after the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index touched a 12-year low in March 2009. The benchmark gauge of U.S. equities climbed more than 13 percent last year and has more than doubled since its low.