PERS investments perk up at last


CARSON CITY -- Happy days apparently are here again for participants in Nevada's Public Employees Retirement System as its investments have soared in value by $6 billion since March.

Ken Lambert, the PERS investment officer, said the system's investments now are worth $21.4 billion, up nearly 40 percent since they hit a bottom of $15.4 billion on March 6.

Those investments still have not reached their peak value of $23.7 billion in October 2007, the month when the Dow Jones industrials hit their record high of more than 14,000.

"We are up 40 percent from our bottom," Lambert said. "We are bullish over the long term about the market and the economy in general."

Lambert said Friday he cannot speculate whether the increase in assets will induce the Legislature to restore the retirement benefit cuts it made in June.

"I personally haven't heard any discussions along those lines," Lambert said.

Due in part to the decline in investment income, and concern that state and local governments would have to spend more to save the retirement system, Republican and Democratic legislators passed a bill designed to preserve the solvency of PERS.

The changes were expected to save the system $142 million in coming years.

In particular, police and firefighters now must work 30 years, like other public employees, before they can receive full retirement benefits.

Previously they had to work 25 years.

The changes, however, will affect only employees hired after Jan. 1, 2010.

State Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, initially had demanded that no public employee should receive benefits before age 62, but his request was rejected.

Lambert isn't guessing whether the stock market will continue to rise over the next 12 months. The Dow closed at 9,972 Friday after climbing above 10,000 last week for the first time this year.

"We made $100 million Thursday and lost the same amount Friday," said Lambert, who noted that the daily ups and downs are not unusual.

But he predicted a growing market over the next three to five years, even advising people to buy while many stocks still are priced low.

The increase in the value of PERS investments is important, because 105,000 state and local government employees in Nevada depend on it for their retirement increase. They include police and firefighters, along with city and county employees.

About 40,000 former employees already are receiving benefits.

Both the employee and the government agency for which they work pay into the retirement system. Generally each pays 10.75 percent of the employee's pay.

Police and firefighters pay 18.5 percent, along with a similar share by their employers.

Lambert said PERS money is invested by 19 different firms. Forty percent of the investments are in American stocks and 15 percent in foreign stocks.

About 35 percent of the PERS assets are in bonds. Lambert said they proved a benefit in the last fiscal year, since bonds generated a 5.9 percent return, while U.S. stocks fell by 26.2 percent.

Foreign stocks have done well in recent months, because they tend to increase in value as the value of the U.S. dollar diminishes.

Lambert said the bullish stock market is not a sign that the American economy has recovered, but an anticipation that recovery is coming.

He said now is the time when corporations report their quarterly earnings and so far 85 percent have reported earnings that exceeded their expectations.

"U.S. stocks are a leading indicator of expectations about the economy," Lambert said. "The market is now showing expectations that things are getting better. Now the economy must catch up with the market expectations. We need to see a recovery in the economy itself."

PERS counts on growth of 8 percent a year in its investments in order to pay benefits to retirees.

In the last five years, annual growth has averaged just 2 percent, largely because of the stock market collapse that began in 2007.

But over the past 25 years, its annual return has averaged 9 percent.

In contrast to PERS, the state treasurer is forbidden from making investments in the stock market.

Most of the treasurer's investments are for short-term periods, since the money is needed to pay the bills of the state. Some investments are only for overnight.

Mark Winebarger, the chief deputy treasurer, said state investments earned an average 2.34 percent return for the last fiscal year.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

HOW PERS' ASSETS HAVE FLUCTUATED

Date Value
June 30, 2004 $15.9 billion
June 30, 2005 $17.7 billion
June 30, 2006 $19.5 billion
June 30, 2007 $22.6 billion
Oct. 31, 2007 $23.7 billion - HIGH
June 30, 2008 $22.1 billion
March 6, 2009 $15.4 billion - LOW
June 30, 2009 $18.8 billion
Oct. 23, 2009 $21.4 billion - FRIDAY


SOURCE: Public Employees Retirement System of Nevada
 

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