(Updated with clarification on Feb. 10, 2010.)
The market was recovering, but the assets continued to decline as the nation's 1,000 largest retirement plans continued to struggle with the remnants of recession.
Assets fell $330 billion, or 5.2%, to $6.08 trillion for the 12 months ended Sept. 30, the latest Pensions & Investments annual survey shows. That loss was softer than the 13.1% asset drain in the year-earlier period.
But, the long, painful plunge might be nearing an end.
The latest report excludes the fourth quarter of 2009, in which P&I estimates the top 1,000 plans gained $197 billion in assets. Looking at the 15 months ended Dec. 31, total assets slipped only $135 billion.
Total assets for the top 200 retirement funds dropped $178 billion, or 3.8%, to $4.54 trillion for the survey period. This was less severe than the 15.9% plunge for the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2008.
When including the fourth quarter of 2009, in which the top 200 plan assets gained an estimated $149 billion, the 15-month loss is $29 billion.
Overall, the residue of recession remained. Among the highlights and lowlights:
• Defined benefit plan assets among the top 200 retirement plans skidded 5.8% to $3.48 trillion for the 12 months ended Sept. 30, an improvement over the 16.5% dive during the previous reporting period.
• Defined contribution plans among the top 200 scratched out a 3.4% gain to $1.06 trillion during the latest reporting period — a big change from the 13.7% decline a year earlier.
• Fifty-seven defined benefit plans among the top 200 retirement plans grew, as did 104 DC plans. Of the top 200 respondents, 32 had both DB and DC plans that grew.
• The California Public Employees' Retirement System's long run as the nation's largest retirement fund ended, as CalPERS slipped to second place behind the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board.
• Defined benefit plans continued to shrink, but still accounted for the majority — 76.5% — of the assets held by the top 200 funds.
“The decline in DB plan assets didn't surprise me,” said Steven F. Charlton, director of consulting services at NEPC LLC, Cambridge, Mass. “I was intrigued by the DC results.”
Mr. Charlton suggested the slight gain in DC assets in the top 200 was aided by plan participants continuing to contribute despite market volatility. “We didn't see big declines in participation rates” among clients, he said.
Among DC plans in the top 200, contributions increased to $51.7 billion for the 12 months ended Sept. 30, up 4.9% from the previous survey period.