Wednesday, August 25, 2010

TRS Responds to "Death Spiral" Comments

In response to my last comment on whether pensions are the next AIG, Dave Urbanek, Public Information Officer at the Teachers’ Retirement System of the State of Illinois (TRS), sent me this message:

Please remove your post of Tyler Durden’s inaccurate analysis of the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System. It is not excellent. It is wrong.

TRS is not in a death spiral. We’ll still be operating and paying pensions for years to come.

We could potentially sell $3 billion in assets if the Illinois General Assembly does not come up with its annual contribution to TRS. The state owes us $2.35 billion. Two other state pension systems are also selling assets until the state makes its payments to them. That is the only reason we are selling assets.

We are not selling assets because we are on the risky side of any investments, as Mr. Durden claims. Here are the facts: We could potentially sell $3 billion in assets. Last year our investment income totaled $4.6 billion – a 13 percent return. We did not lose money. We have $33 billion in total assets. We will pay $4.1 billion in pensions and benefits during the current fiscal year. Do the math. We are not in a death spiral.

What Mr. Durden doesn’t say – and won’t because it ruins his story – is that TRS sold $1.3 billion in assets last year for the same reason: The General Assembly hadn’t yet come up with its annual contribution. The state ultimately sold bonds and made the payment, and we not only got our money back from the assets we sold but did not have to sell any further assets.

Repeating Mr. Durden’s incorrect rants on your blog is highly irresponsible.

I thank Mr. Urbanek for his response and I am glad TRS is not in a "death spiral". I never claimed they were, just that they're forced to liquidate stocks at the worst possible time and are taking riskier bets to cover their shortfall. In particular, did TRS sell billions of derivatives (mostly CDS) to bet on a rising market/ collapsing spreads (aka the AIG trade) and are they still betting on a drop in Treasuries (rise in yields)?

What remains to be seen is how TRS and other mature public pension plans suffering from ever widening deficits will respond to long-term structural issues plaguing the pension industry. Tough choices lie ahead, and there are no simple solutions to the pension crisis.

I will update this comment if further information is provided by TRS. You can also click here to get more information on TRS's investments and click here to access their publications, including their latest comprehensive annual report.

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