Zen and the Art of Pension Plan Maintenance

Well, I don’t know. Could privately run pension plans get away with this type of planning, or would they be running smack dab into breach of fiduciary duty lawsuits? I doubt a fiduciary could get away with pie in the sky projections intended to support current pension math, and I wouldn’t want to be the fiduciary who, like one of the people quoted in the article, accepted a consultant’s report justifying the math without having "looked under the hood of the analysis.” That’s a good quote to have waived in your face at a deposition or, worse yet, on the stand in a courtroom. On the other hand, the comments of one public pension fund executive could be used as the starting point for a seminar on good governance or what I call defensive plan building:

"It doesn't matter what your assumptions are," said Laurie Hacking, executive director of the Teachers Retirement Association of Minnesota, which supports sticking with its 8.5% target return assumption. "It is what that market delivers that matters and how you react to that."

Ms. Hacking said Minnesota reacted to big investment losses after the financial crisis by cutting back on pension benefits and increasing contributions to the fund from employees and school districts. Those moves had a greater impact on the funding level of the teachers' system, now a relatively healthy 78%, than lowering return assumptions, she said.

Comparing the two examples creates sort of a koan for fiduciaries of any plan: be the latter, not the former.