The largest U.S. defined benefit plans increased aggregate investment in actively managed U.S. equity strategies by 16.2% to $405.1 billion in the year ended Sept. 30, data from Pensions & Investments' annual survey of U.S. retirement plans show.
The rise in assets in active U.S. equity strategies by defined benefit plans among the largest 200 retirement plans is the first since 2014, analysis of P&I's survey data found.
Investment in actively managed U.S. bonds by P&I's universe of U.S. defined benefit plans rose 12.9% to $757 billion during the 12-month period.
In contrast, assets invested in passively managed U.S. equities by large U.S. defined benefit plans were relatively flat, up just 0.8% to $605.2 billion in the year ended Sept. 30 vs. the prior year, while assets invested in indexed bond strategies dropped nearly 6% to $130 billion compared to a year earlier.
The active-passive breakdown in the year ended Sept. 30 is a reversal from the same date a year earlier when assets managed in passively managed U.S. equity were up 13.8% and active U.S. equity assets in aggregate were down 9.6%.
The bump in actively managed U.S. equity shifted the balance in aggregate for defined benefit plans among the top 200 U.S. retirement plans to 40.1% active and 59.9% passive, as of Sept. 30, from 36.7% and 63.3% a year earlier.
Looking at the narrower universe of the 79 defined benefit plans that reported their active/passive split for both survey periods, the breakdown was 40.4% active vs. 59.6% passive in the year ended Sept. 30, and 36.4% active and 63.6% passive for the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2017.
Industry observers said it's difficult to interpret the increase in actively managed U.S. equities in P&I's data, given the reasons for changes among plans surveyed vary widely.
For example, there isn't a clear trend among the 79 plans, with 42 increasing their investment in actively managed U.S. equity and 30 reducing their allocation.
The changes in active U.S. equity investment within this group ranged from a 200% plus increase to dropping active equity strategies entirely.
The $376.9 billion California Public Employees' Retirement System, Sacramento, for example, made the most dramatic change with a 215.5% increase in actively managed U.S. equities to $70.6 billion. That increase includes $13.2 billion of actively managed global equity assets that were reclassified as active U.S. equity, according to a note on the survey the fund submitted.
CalPERS reduced its allocation to passive U.S. equities by 27.1% to $45.1 billion.
John "Mike" Osborn, a Cal- PERS' spokesman, declined to comment after a request for more information.
Similarly, 46 plan sponsors in the survey increased their weighting to indexed U.S. equity while 27 decreased investment in these strategies. The percentage change for this group was between 318.7% to a complete withdrawal.
But sources agreed one of the likely drivers behind the move to active management is the condition of global markets.
"If you look back over the last five years, there were big swings to passive management as investors tired of their active managers not producing alpha in the long-running bull market," said John J. Delaney, portfolio manager, who is based in the Philadelphia office of Willis Towers Watson PLC.
Mr. Delaney said the ending of quantitative easing and the specter of rising volatility is pushing investors to reconsider active equity on the premise that managers will find more opportunities to generate alpha.
The $153.1 billion Teacher Retirement System of Texas, Austin, for example, increased its allocation to actively managed U.S. equities by 46.3% to $22.2 billion and reduced the allocation to indexed U.S. equities by 70.1% to $3.5 billion in the year ended Sept. 30.
The reduction in passive equities, which are managed internally at Texas Teachers, was used to fund "lower-risk investments during this (late) stage of the market cycle, including opportunistic credit," said Dale West, senior managing director of the fund's external public markets group, in an email.
The fund also significantly increased the allocation to actively managed, quantitative, factor-based equity portfolios: TRS investment staff managed a total of $15.5 billion internally in U.S. and international equity factor-based portfolios as of Sept. 30, up from $7.4 billion a year earlier.
P&I's data likely reflect a move by many U.S. plan sponsors into quantitatively managed factor-based portfolios, said Steven J. Foresti, chief investment officer, Wilshire Consulting, Santa Monica, Calif.
"Over the past five years, there's been a lot of money going into quasi-active and quasi-passive factor-based strategies," Mr. Foresti said, noting Wilshire's consulting practice created a bucket for factor-based approaches that rests between active and passive equity.
"I think what you are probably seeing in the P&I data is plan sponsors trying to fit factor-based strategies into the binary categories of active and passive equity but not uniformly."
P&I's survey asks pension funds to list assets invested in factor-based strategies, but only 10 plans listed assets totaling $38.4 billion in the most recent survey.
Texas Teachers, for example, accounts for its substantial factor-based equity portfolio in its active equity category and did not respond to the factor-based question on P&I's survey.