Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

State pension system doubles up on expected returns

Retirement system still faces challenges from underfunding

State pension officials are lauding returns on investments that are nearly double the target for the retirement fund for about 331,000 retired and active state employees and teachers.

The Maryland State Retirement and Pension System reported 14.37 percent return on its investments, bringing the fund balance to $45.4 billion at June 20. The earnings were nearly double the fund’s stated expectation of 7.70 percent.

“Any time you beat the expected rate of return, you’re happy,” said Michael Golden, a spokesman for the state pension system.

The announcement marks the fifth consecutive year the pension fund has posted positive results since June 30, 2009, when it experienced a 20 percent decline.

Some analysts said they were skeptical of the comparison of any one annual result with a target rate for long-term performance.

“Individual year returns fluctuate wildly, as is to be expected,” said Gabriel J. Michael, a senior fellow for the conservative-leaning Maryland Public Policy Institute. “A much more valuable piece of information would be how a long-term average rate of return compares to the target.”

As of March 31, the 10-year average for returns on investment for the fund was slightly under 6.1 percent. As of June 30, the 10-year average is just under 6.5 percent.

“You can carve up the numbers any way you want but when we think of long term, we think of the working life of a typical employee, which is 25 years,” Golden said. “That’s more reflective.”

The most recent 25-year average was 7.82 percent.

The return on investment begins to look better as the state phases in a reduction in the projected rate of return on investments. That rate will drop to 7.55 percent by fiscal 2017.

Maryland’s pension system still remains underfunded.

The current amount of the unfunded liability for the state won’t be updated until later this year when an annual report is released.

The system was about 65.5 percent funded — a nearly $20 billion unfunded liability, according to most recent report covering the year that ended June 30, 2013.

The pension system has undergone a number of changes meant to improve the health of the fund while at the same time helping Gov. Martin J. O’Malley and legislators balance the state budget.

In 2011, O’Malley promised to make $300 million in extra payments to the pension system in return for concessions by state employees’ unions that included reduced retirement benefits and increased employee contributions. The plan was to use the payments that were over and above the state’s required contribution to bring the system to 80 percent funding — which is considered fully funded for actuarial purposes — within 10 years.

Earlier this year, O’Malley reneged on that promise and proposed reducing those extra payments. The governor’s proposals included keeping $100 million of that $300 million and using it to offset expected future structural budget deficits. The General Assembly ultimately approved capping the additional pension payments at $100 million but gradually restoring them to $300 million in fiscal year 2019.

In 2012, the state legislature also approved shifting the costs of pensions for teachers to local governments.