Monday, September 9, 2013
John Mauldin: Unrealistic Expectations
"In the short run, the market is like a voting machine, tallying up which firms are popular and unpopular. But in the long run, the market is like a weighing machine, assessing the substance [intrinsic value] of a company." – Benjamin Graham
Way back in the Paleozoic era (as far as markets are concerned), circa 2003, I wrote in this letter and in
Bull's Eye Investing
that the pension liabilities of state and municipal plans would soon top $2 trillion. This was of course far above the stated actuarial claims at the time, and I was seen as such a pessimist. Everyone
that the market would compound at 9%, so any problems were just a rounding error.
Now it turns out I may have been a tad optimistic. Two well-respected analysts of pension funds have produced reports this summer suggesting that pensions are now underfunded by more than $4 trillion and possibly more than $5 trillion. I would like to tell you that the underfunding is all the bad news, but when you probe deeper into the problems facing pension funds, it just gets worse. The two reports conclude that pension plan sponsors seem determined to keep digging themselves an ever-deeper hole. But to hear the plan sponsors tell it, the situation is readily manageable and the risks are minimal. Except that pesky old reality keeps confounding their expectations.
And that is the crux of the problem. Whether you believe there really is a problem boils down to the assumptions you make about future returns. If you believe the projections trotted out by pension fund management and the bulk of the pension consulting groups, the underfunding is a mere $1 trillion — a large amount to be sure but manageable for most states.
The emphasis here is on
. Some states and municipalities are in far worse shape than others, and to be honest with you, I don't see how some of them can meet their commitments. Others are trying to be responsible and fulfill their pension fund obligations based on the assumptions their "experts" come up with, but the problem is that those assumptions may be overly optimistic. The seemingly small difference of just 1% of GDP growth can make a huge difference in pension liabilities (and thus taxpayer obligations).This week we begin a series focusing on the problems facing US state and local pension funds. This issue has relevance to you not only as a taxpayer but also as an investor, because it goes to the very core of the question, what is the level of reasonable returns we can expect to see from our investments in the future? This is not a problem that is restricted to the US — it's global. Sadly, we don't live in a Lake Wobego n world where all pension funds and investment portfolios are above average. Not everyone can be David Swenson, the famous chief investment officer of Yale University. Truth be told, David Swenson will have a difficult time being David Swenson in the next 20 years.