The stakes are high as the CalPERS board debates whether to significantly decrease the nation's largest public pension fund's assumed rate of return, a move that could hamstring the budgets of contributing municipalities as well as prompt other public funds across the country to follow suit.
But if the retirement system doesn't act, pushing to achieve an unrealistically high return could threaten the viability of the $299.5 billion fund itself, its top investment officer and consultants say.
“Being aggressive, having a reasonable amount of volatility and (being) wrong could lead to an unrecoverable loss,” Andrew Junkin, president of Wilshire Consulting, the system's general investment consultant, told the board at a November meeting. CalPERS' current portfolio is pegged to a 7.5% return and a 13% volatility rate.
The chief investment officer of the California Public Employees' Retirement System and its investment consultants now say that assumed annualized rate of return is unlikely to be achieved over the next decade, given updated capital market assumptions that show a slow-growing economy and continued low interest rates.
Still, cities, towns and school districts that are part of the Sacramento-based system say they can't afford increased contributions they would be forced to pay to provide pension benefits if the return rate is lowered.
A decision could come in February.
Unlike other public plans that have leaned toward modest rate of return reductions, a key CalPERS committee is expected to be presented with a plan in December that's considerably more aggressive.
That was set in motion Nov. 15 at a committee meeting when Mr. Junkin and CalPERS CIO Theodore Eliopoulos said 6% is a more realistic return over the next decade.
At that meeting, it also was disclosed that CalPERS investment staff was reducing the fund's allocation to equities in an effort to reduce risk.
Only a year earlier, CalPERS investment staff and consultants had agreed that CalPERS was on the right track with its 7.5% figure. So confident were they that they urged the board to approve a risk mitigation plan that did lower the rate of return, but over a 20-year period, and only when returns were in excess of the 7.5% assumption.
Two years of subpar results — a 0.6% return for the fiscal year ended June 30 and a 2.4% return in fiscal 2015 — reduced views of what CalPERS can earn over the next decade. Mr. Junkin said at the November meeting that Wilshire was predicting an annual return of 6.21% for the next decade, down from its estimates of 7.1% a year earlier.
Indeed, Mr. Junkin and Mr. Eliopoulos said the system's very survival could be at stake if board members don't lower the rate of return. “Being conservative leads to higher contributions, but you still have a sustainable benefit to CalPERS members,” Mr. Junkin said.
The opinions were seconded by the system's other major consultant, Pension Consulting Alliance, which also lowered its return forecast.