$1.2 Trillion Asset Manager: Forget Volatility, The Real Financial Timebomb Is Public Pensions

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As we have reported over and over and over (and over, and over), public pensions are in deep, deep trouble. 

In addition critical funding shortfalls (U.S. public pensions had just 71.8% of assets required to meet obligations as of June 2016), many of the country’s largest pensions have completely unrealistic target rates-of-return of 7% on average.

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And while interest rates and therefore the cost of leverage has been at historic lows, and markets at historic highs (until they underwent a brief Vol-fib cardiac arrest last week), the question is what happens when the music stops, liquidity dries up, and economic contraction besets (or catch up to) the markets? 

David Hunt, CEO of $1.2 trillion asset manager PGIM, is asking this exact question.

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If you were going to look for what’s the possible real crack in the financial architecture for the next crisis, rather than looking in the rearview mirror, pension funds would be on our list,” Hunt said in a Friday interview with Bloomberg, discussing what municipalities and states will do when local tax revenues decline and unemployment worsens. So we’re worried about those pension obligations.”

PGIM, owned by New Jersey-based Prudential Financial, advises 147 of the 300 largest pension funds around the world. Hunt joined Prudential in 2011 after leaving McKinsey & Co., where he doubled assets under management, renamed the business PGIM, and bought a Deutsche Bank AG unit to expand in India.

In other words, he knows the business like the back of his hand.

Hunt said that corporate retirement funds typically outperform their public counterparts. To that end, one of the most difficult aspects of managing money for public plans, says Hunt, is the fact that lawmakers are promising unrealistic goals to retirees. As such, he has advised public-pension clients to stop seeking the highest returns, and “start doing what the corporate folks have long been doing, which is to find ways to minimize the deficit and to take risk gradually off the table.”

Of course, that will never happen, and instead pensions will soon be begging Credit Suisse to recreate the XIV just so they can go long.

The PGIM CEO also sees a shift in equities markets as fewer firms pursue IPO funding – instead opting for private equity. as Bloomberg notes, the number of publicly traded U.S. companies shrank from over 8,000 in 1996 to around 4,300 in 2016, according to Ernst & Young.

“More than any other period in our history we’re going to have companies that are owned by private equity rather than the public equity markets,” Hunt said. “The dynamism and growth of the economy is now more and more being captured privately and by institutions rather than actually available for you to own in your 401(k) account or for other public markets.”

One could almost say that as central banks nationalize the markets, leading to idiotic valuations, it is a handful of private capital holders who end up with all the gains. As for everyone else… well, you have all those “fully-funded”, non-timebomby pensions to look forward to.