Pa. pension fund lowers assumed investment returns

     Pennsylvania Treasurer Joe Torsella is urging urging the state pension funds' boards of directors to cut  outside investment managers to save money on fees in the face of a roughly $70 billion unfunded liability. (AP file photo)

    Pennsylvania Treasurer Joe Torsella is urging urging the state pension funds' boards of directors to cut outside investment managers to save money on fees in the face of a roughly $70 billion unfunded liability. (AP file photo)

    The past week has been an active one for Pennsylvania’s pension funds.

    It started with Gov. Tom Wolf and Treasurer Joe Torsella urging the funds’ boards of directors to cut outside investment managers to save money on fees in the face of a roughly $70 billion unfunded liability.

    And it ended with the State Employee’s Retirement System announcing a revision of estimated returns on those investments — a move that adds more money to that unfunded liability.

    When pension funds calculate their debt, an important metric is the amount of money they expect to make off investments.

    The rate of return for SERS had been calculated at 7.5 percent, despite the fact that earnings usually fall far below that. So now, the fund has revised downward to a 7.25 percent return. A spokeswoman explained the move as being prompted by “challenges as a result of economic uncertainties and volatility.”

    The lower rate adds about a billion dollars to SERS’ total current debt.

    The other large pension fund, PSERS, made the same change last year, adding roughly $2 billion to its own debt.

    These billion-dollar debt hikes may sound like a lot, but Treasury Department spokesman Mike Connolly noted that it’s a semantics change more than anything.

    “That doesn’t change what they’re actually going to get,” he said. “Nobody can tell the future. They’re just being, in our view, more realistic about it.”

    As for the governor and treasurer urging changes to lower fees? SERS, for one, has since approved gradually moving $2.1 billion to index funds, which are generally cheaper to manage.

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