February 18, 2013

S.C. pension fund rebounds in 2nd half of 2012

South Carolina’s pension fund investments rebounded in the second half of last year, pushing earnings above 12 percent for 2012 after fees.

South Carolina’s pension fund investments rebounded in the second half of last year, pushing earnings above 12 percent for 2012 after fees.

The fund is on its way to a successful 2013 and meeting long-term expectations, said Hershel Harper, chief investment officer for the state Retirement System Investment Commission.

“We may finish even better than expected,” he said about 2012-13.

The state assumes a 7.5 percent annual return when calculating what it needs to keep the system solvent for decades to come for the more than 225,000 public workers statewide promised a pension.

The fund’s annualized return for the three-year span ending Dec. 31 was 8.3 percent, according to numbers the commission released Monday, which updated estimates provided last month as part of its 2011-12 year-end report.

The portfolio’s worth was $26.6 billion at year’s end, or $400 million more than in summer 2011, despite earnings that added $3 billion in 2012.

Payouts partly explain why it’s not worth more. The system has been transferring out $2 billion yearly for the roughly 130,000 retirees drawing pensions, while taking in $1 billion from workers, according to the commission.

The calendar year earnings of 12.39 percent for 2012 also are a sharp contrast to those at the close of last fiscal year. Investments earned just 0.4 percent after fees for the four quarters ending June 30, due to a rough last half of 2011.

However, Harper said, considering the market volatility of that period – with key reasons including the downgrading of the U.S. credit rating and the debt crisis in Europe – “to be down only 4 percent is not bad.”

“This is a good illustration of why it’s important to look at these things over a longer period of time as a way to assess performance,” said commission spokesman Danny Varat.

The commission, created in 2005, has not previously released a calendar-year update.

The 2011-12 fiscal year was the third consecutive year that investments ended in the positive, following big losses amid the Great Recession.

The state’s assumed rate of return had been 8 percent until November 2011, when the Budget and Control Board reduced it to 7.5 percent, saying that was more realistic. That’s the rate legislators used to write the pension reform law designed to reduce long-term liability and keep payments flowing for decades.

That law, signed last June, should reduce that $1 billion difference between what’s coming in and going out.

It required employees to contribute more of their income toward their retirement benefits – an additional 1.5 percentage points over three years, to 8 percent. The law kept employer contributions – the part funded by taxpayers – at 10.6 percent.

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