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California Pension Systems: Ranking their Funding Assumptions

Roeder Financial       February 2013

This is the fourth periodic survey (click here to see survey results in a new window) which ranks the funding assumptions used by California's public pension systems from "most conservative" to "most optimistic." In the related spreadsheet, the "most conservative" system is ranked as #1 and "most optimistic" system is ranked as #37.

Often, there is no absolute "right" or "wrong" in setting assumptions. There can be a number of valid reasons that an assumption package for Entity A differs from Entity B. Entity A might have a larger equity allocation than Entity B. Entity C might wish to have more conservative assumptions to be able to fund an ad hoc COLA in most years. The nation's largest state plan, CalPERS, may be able to have certain size-related investment efficiencies unavailable to smaller sponsors.

Due to the ongoing financial strain facing most entities, due, in so small part, to skyrocketing pension contributions during the last decade, there continues to be a great temptation for both plan sponsors and labor to minimize pension contribution increases - which have tended to rise by 10-25% of payroll over the last decade. If there is a request by the plan sponsor to change certain actuarial assumptions, this survey may have value in terms of clarifying what "the herd" is doing. Also, employee groups are struggling with the specter of hiring freezes, pay freezes and furloughs. Unions certainly want well funded plans but if it comes at the expense of current employment, unions usually opt for the approach causing the least short-term pain.

Even though active employees benefit in their retirement years by having well funded systems, making assumptions more conservative also has a "cost" for actives. Excepting Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, all plans in the survey are contributory. Lower assumed investment assumptions often directly or indirectly translate into higher employee contributions. In recessions, it is not unusual for plan sponsors to tell Retirement Boards that a lack of pension contribution relief will result in additional layoffs. Defining some of the characteristics of "most conservative" versus "most optimistic" is useful.

Most Conservative Most Optimistic
Lower Assumed Investment Return Higher Assumed Investment Return
Higher Assumed Pay Increases Lower Assumed Pay Increases
Shorter Amortization periods Longer Amortization Periods
Explicit Expense Load No Explicit Expense Load
Entry Age Normal Funding Projected Unit Credit Funding
Level Dollar Amortization Level Percent of Pay Amortization

Using comparative funded ratios, to determine how well funded a plan is, can be misleading:

  • Actuarial assumptions will often not be comparable.
  • A relatively high funded ratio could be largely attributable to Pension Obligation Bonds (POB). In looking at the financial viability of a plan, it is essential to look at more than just than the computed actuarial rates if there is also POB debt service.

The number of surveyed systems has been reduced from 40 to 37 as we now have excluded three small, closed systems previously included.

The most significant development in the 2013 survey is the continuation of the lowering of both assumed investment returns and inflation assumptions. 21 of California's 37 independent systems lowered their assumed investment return since the last survey in October 2011. Two-thirds of the entities are now using an assumed investment return in the 7.5%-7.75% range. Only four use the "former standard" of 8%. In our initial 2009 survey, 60% of the entities used an investment assumption of at least 8%. If Fed Chairman Bernanke is to be believed in his most recent Congressional testimony, the USA will continue an expansive money supply policy which will keep interest rates at historical lows and make many alternatives to the equity market remain relatively less attractive.

It is important to note that the survey's assumed actuarial rates of return are almost always net of all expenses incurred. The City & County of San Francisco System, the Alameda - Contra Costa Transit District and the CalPERS Judges II System are among the only Systems which have an explicit load for administrative expenses as part of its computed contribution.

For the first time, there is unanimity in the funding method: all 37 entities now use Entry Age Funding as four entities switched to EAN since our last survey.

Several points should be noted on the amortization of unfunded liabilities. "Open" or "rolling" methods will use the same number of years in a future valuation as is been used in the current valuation. "Layered" means that there is a new amortization base established each year which is funded on a "closed" or "declining" basis. If one believes that a best practice is for an individual's benefit to be fully funded at their anticipated retirement date, sound practice is to have the amortization period be closely correlated with the average future working lifetime of the active member group (typically between 11 and 15 years). 30-year amortization passes a significant part of the cost, attributed to current participants, to a future generation of taxpayers. Over half the surveyed entities, 21, have amortization periods of 20+ years for all or significant elements of their unfunded liability - not a best practice. All amortization approaches noted in this survey should be assumed to be level percent of payroll unless otherwise indicated. Level-percent-of-payroll amortization will produce a lower current year contribution than level dollar amortization over the same period.

Last summer, the GASB issued Statements #67 and #68 relating to financial disclosure and reporting for governmental pension plans. Statement #67 replaces Statement #25 and becomes effective for fiscal years ending after June 30, 2014. Statement #68 goes into effect one year later. The biggest change will result in making unfunded liabilities a balance sheet item. Since governmental entities have well over a trillion dollars in unfunded liabilities, some balance sheets are going to look grimmer - especially in situations of dire underfunding such as the State of Illinois system. Still, most institutional investors have long been aware of escalating unfunded liabilities which have been disclosed in footnotes to financial statements. Thus, assuming GASB's coming change will spook the investment community or spur governmental entities to start making greater pension contributions is premature.

Cynics of the political process will note that the most conservatively funded plan is again the state Legislative system - with the Tier 2 Judges system not far behind.

The source for survey data has largely been from the most recent actuarial valuation report on system web sites. Plan administrators and selected actuaries were sent a draft report to give them the opportunity to make any corrections and updates. The final version will be on Thanks to the many who helped update the survey. If you have any questions, Rick Roeder can be reached at (619) 300 - 8500 or via

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