U.S. Public Pensions Gained as Lower Rates Drove Stocks Higher

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. state and city pensions earned a median 6.1% return on their investments during the second half of 2019 as central bank interest-rate cuts, continued economic growth and the easing of trade tensions with China boosted stocks, according to the Wilshire Trust Universe Comparison Service.

The gains, which came during the first half of the fiscal year for most states, put them on track to meet their investment targets for the year. Such plans typically count on annual gains of about 7.25% to ensure they can cover all the benefits promised to retirees, leaving them dependent on increased government contributions if returns continually fall short.

“Equities surged in the fourth quarter of 2019 across geographies thanks to improvements in investor sentiment, continued central bank support and economic data that exceeded expectations,” Jason Schwarz, the president of Wilshire Analytics and Wilshire Funds Management, said in a news release on Tuesday. “Investor sentiment also benefited from a ‘phase one’ trade deal between the U.S. and China that removed some uncertainty.”

U.S. public pensions are heavily dependent on stock market performance and larger-than-expected gains can help reduce the debt that governments owe to such plans. The median retirement system allocated almost 50% of assets to U.S. stocks and 11.3% to international equities in the fourth quarter, according to Wilshire. Pensions with more than $5 billion assets are less exposed to stock markets because they allocate a median 20% of assets to “alternative investments” like private equity funds that are hard to trade.

Both U.S. and international stocks rose about 9% in the last quarter of the calendar year, according to Wilshire.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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