Pension funds are investment pools that pay for workers' retirements. Funds are paid for by either employees, employers, or both. Corporations and all levels of government provide pensions.
- Companies reduce pension fund risk by relying on fixed income strategies.
- The real returns for pension funds are often lower than projections.
- Corporations try to balance pension costs with staying competitive.
There are two types of pension funds. The first, the defined benefit pension fund, is what most people think of when they say "pensions." The retiree receives the same guaranteed amount. The second, the defined contribution plan, is the familiar 401(k) plan. The payout depends on how well the fund does.
Defined Benefit Fund
A defined benefit fund pays a fixed income to the beneficiary, regardless of how well the fund does. The employee pays a fixed amount into the fund. The fund managers invest these contributions conservatively. They must beat inflation without losing the principal. The fund manager must earn enough of a return on the investment to pay for the benefits.
The employer must pay for any shortfall. It's like an annuity provided by an insurance company. In this case, the employer functions as the insurance company and sustains all the risk if the market drops. That risk is why many companies have stopped offering these plans.
U.S. pension funds are either single-employer or multi-employer.
The multi-employer plans allow small companies to band together to create diversified pensions. Employees benefit from being able to change companies without losing their pension benefits. There are 10 million current and retired workers in multi-employer plans. Many of them will probably run out of funds.
The benefits of these plans are guaranteed by the federal government's Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. The PBGC guarantees the pension incomes for 35 million workers. The Single-Employer program successfully covers 28 million participants. The Multiemployer program faces insolvency by 2025. That's because 130 multiemployer plans will run out of money by 2040.
Defined Contribution Plan
In a defined contribution plan, the employee's benefits depend on how well the fund does. The most common of these are 401(k)s. The employer doesn't have to pay out defined benefits if the fund drops in value. All the risk is transferred to the employee. The shift in risk is the most important difference between the defined benefit and the defined contribution plan.
In the 1980s, corporations found that it was more advantageous for them to switch to defined contribution plans. As a result, fewer and fewer employees are covered by these guaranteed payouts. Government plans, including Social Security, stayed with defined benefit plans. But many of their payouts aren't enough to cover a decent standard of living.
Pension funds were decimated by the 2008 financial crisis.
Since then, many managers increased their holding of bonds to lower risk. By 2018, many of the largest funds held a greater percentage of fixed income than they did of stocks and other riskier assets.
This demand has dried up liquidity for the most popular bonds, making them harder to buy. It's one of the forces that's kept interest rates low, even after the Federal Reserve ended quantitative easing.
Many municipalities are facing severe pension shortfalls.
For example, four of Chicago's pension funds are short about $30 billion needed to pay its future retirees. That's more than five times Chicago's annual budget. As a result, Moody's downgraded the city's credit rating to Baa2, just above junk status. That's increased the city's costs. Now it must offer higher interest rates on its municipal bonds to reward investors for the added risk.
List of Top 10 Largest Public Pension Funds
Here are the top 10 largest public pension funds ranked by total assets.
|Social Security Trust Fund||U.S.||$2.9 trillion||U.S. Special Treasurys|
|Government Pension Investment Fund||Japan||$1.5 trillion||55% Japan bonds|
|Military Retirement Fund||U.S.||$813 billion||Diversified|
|Federal Employees' Retirement System||U.S.||$687 billion||Diversified|
|National Pension Service||S. Korea||$609billion||Korean assets|
|Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board||U.S.||$572 billion|
|Zenkyoren||Japan||$523 billion||Agricultural coops|
|Stichting Pensioenfonds ABP||Netherlands||$476 billion||Government workers|
|Canada Pension Plan||Canada||$386 billion|
|Calpers||U.S.||$370 billion||State workers|
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Where do pension funds invest their money?
Pension funds invest in a mix of stocks, bonds, real estate, and more. Each fund makes its own investment decisions, but the average public pension fund allocates roughly 47% of its funds to stocks and 24% to fixed-income investments like bonds.
Who manages pension funds?
Pensions have fund managers, just like an ETF, mutual fund, or 401(k) plan. Fund managers can buy or sell assets as they see fit to make sound investment decisions and boost returns from investments.
Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. "Press Release, May 31, 2018."
U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. "About PBGC."
Milliman. "2019 Corporate Pension Funding Study," Figure 4.
Pensions and Investments. "Top Hedge Funds at Full Capacity Keeps $548 Billion APG Away."
National Association of State Retirement Administrators. "Investment."
Securities and Exchange Commission. "Evaluating Pension Fund Investments Through the Lends of Good Corporate Governance."