Pension Funds, Types, Top 10

Why Your Pension Fund May Gone When You Need It

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Pension funds are investment pools that pay for employee retirement commitments. Funds are paid for by either employees, employers, or both. Corporations and all levels of government provide pensions. The fund managers invest these contributions conservatively. They must avoid losing the principal but still beat inflation.


There are two types of pension funds. The first is the Defined Benefit fund. It's obligated to pay a fixed income to the beneficiary, regardless of how well the fund does. The employee pays a fixed amount to the fund. The fund manager must receive enough of a return on the investment to pay for the benefits. The employer must pay for any shortfall.

Employers assume the funds will return 7%-8% annually. That's their historical average. Actual returns are only 6%-7%. As a result, most employers aren't contributing enough for future payouts.

The Defined Benefit pension fund is what most people think of when they say "pensions." You receive the same guaranteed amount. 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.

U.S. pension funds are either single-employer or multi-employer. The muti-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.

Benefits of these plans are guaranteed by the federal government's Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. The PBGC guarantees the pension incomes for 44.1 million workers in over 30,000 pension plans. 

The second type is a Defined Contribution fund. 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 2014, many of the largest funds held a greater percentage of fixed income than they did of stocks and other riskier assets. That year, the 50 largest defined benefit plans in the S&P 500 held $947.7 billion in total assets. Of that, 41% were in bonds and only 37% were in stocks.

In most demand are long-term bonds, including the 10-year Treasury note. That's because managers want to redeem the bonds when the bulk of their employees retire in 10, 20, and 30 years. As a result, companies sold $604.9 billion of high-grade bonds with maturities of 10 years or more, double the annual average sold since 1995. Pension funds account for nearly half of all new 40-year and 50-year corporate bonds bought. 

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. It's also one of the five conditions that could lead to a bond market collapse.

Many municipalities are facing several pension shortfalls. For example, four of Chicago's pension funds are short about $20 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 Pension Funds

Name Where Assets Invests In Issues
Social Security Trust Fund U.S. $2.7 trillion U.S. Special Treasuries Funds current federal operations.
Government Investment Pension Fund Japan $1.26 trillion 55% Japan bonds 2.8% return. Will switch $200 billion to stocks.
Government Pension Fund Norway $849 billion Diversified World's largest sovereign wealth fund. 5.2% return.
ABP Netherlands $425 billion Diversified 3.9% return in Q1 2014.
National Pension Service S. Korea $406 billion Korean assets Assets are 1/3 of country's GDP. Must diversify.
Federal Retirement Thrift Washington DC $326 billion   Has 70% of assets needed to fund obligations.
CalPERS California $300 billion 50% global stocks 7.3% return.
Local Govt. Officials Japan $201 billion    
Central Provident Fund Singapore $188 billion Government bonds  
Canada Pension Canada $184 billion    

(Source: Bloomberg, P&I Towers Watson)

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Article Sources

  1. The Economist. "Many Unhappy Returns," Accessed Jan. 9, 2020.

  2. The Washington Post. "Trouble in Candy Land," Accessed Jan. 9, 2020.

  3. The Wall Street Journal. "Corporate Pension Funds Pile Into Bonds," Accessed Jan. 9, 2020.

  4. The Wall Street Journal. "Chicago Has Deep Dish of Debt Woes," Accessed Jan. 9, 2020.