This morning, I opened one of those e-mails and found this article that looked like it was worth a read. In fact, there was some interesting material in there. And then there was this:
That aphorism also suits one frustration of today's pension plan sponsors. Somehow, they have to attain lofty actuarial return goals of 7% to 8%, but the expected returns they have to draw from, for both equities and fixed income, are stuck at ground level.Hold on a second. Lofty actuarial return goals, you say? This implies somehow that the actuaries set the target and that based on that, plan sponsors and their associated investment committees then struggle to meet that target.
This is backwards. The selection of actuarial assumptions is different for accounting and for funding. In either case, however, the actuary does not just willy-nilly pick a target return on assets assumption. For ERISA funding purposes, the law mandates the selection. For FASB (ASC) purposes, the plan sponsor selects the return on assets assumption with the advice of experts including the actuary and investment adviser for approval by auditors. To the extent that the actuary finds the assumption to fail to meet Actuarial Standards of Practice (ASOPs), the actuary is to disclose such and to provide calculations representing what the amounts would have been had the assumption met the ASOPs.
Those who do not seem to understand this take a different position. The typical process for those sponsors looks like this:
- Look at the expected return on assets assumption.
- Go to the investment adviser and tell them that they need an investment portfolio that will meet or exceed that expected return on assets assumption.
But, the sponsor owns that assumption (if it is for accounting purposes). If it's for government plan funding, usually (state and local laws differ) the sponsoring government has input into the assumption.
If an actuary has some (or all) purview over the return on assets assumption and (s)he is doing his or her job properly, the actuary will look at the investment lineup together with a capital market model and develop a return on assets assumption commensurate with that lineup. It is not the other way around. If plan sponsors do not think that their investment lineup can return 7% to 8%, then they should lower their assumption for expected return on plan assets. Yes, this will increase their financial accounting costs (and their funding costs for governmental plans). Ultimately, the cost of a plan is what it is. The cost of paying $1 per month for the rest of an individual's life is the same, no matter the actuary.
In my personal experience, for years, many plan sponsors pressured their actuaries to use more aggressive actuarial assumptions in an effort to influence P&L and, back in the days when it mattered for funding costs, to keep required contributions down. Some actuaries agreed to do that, some did not.
But, when a plan sponsor, including a state or local government, chooses a high expected return on assets assumption, usually to manage short-term costs, that they are unable to find a suite of investments to generate that expected return is not the actuary's fault. Place blame where it belongs.