Phila. pension fund ends year up 15.6%

Posted: July 26, 2014

Given how little good news is ever reported about Philadelphia's municipal pension fund, Thursday was a red-letter day.

The total fund ended the fiscal year up 15.6 percent, outperforming its benchmarks by 1.96 percent. A more narrow portfolio, managed internally, did well, too, showing an 11.97 percent return, about 3.5 percent higher than similar benchmark funds.

That is, in fairness, a very small step in the right direction.

The city's pension system is severely unfunded, with only about half the money it needs to pay its $5 billion in obligations to current and future retirees.

As a result, the report at the pension board's monthly meeting was well-received, with board members thanking chief investment officer Sumit Handa.

The board's investment strategy has been revamped with the arrival three years ago of Handa and executive director Francis X. Bielli.

Investments were tweaked, Handa said, particularly the pension board's fixed-income portfolio.

The pension fund has outperformed benchmarks for the last three years. Before that, the fund was laggard against those benchmarks, underperforming in the last five- and 10-year periods.

While investment firms handle the bulk of funds, the pension board staff manages a portfolio of about $260 million, or 5.3 percent of the pension fund. Known as the Independence Fund, it is designed as a "tactical" fund, Handa said, to be used to rapidly respond to opportunities the staff might see.

It strives for high returns at low risk. Since it was established in early 2012, it has been an overachiever by those standards. Outperforming its benchmark, it has shown only a third of the risk associated with investing in the S&P 500, while achieving 60 percent of the rate of return.

While all of that is good news for the city, Finance Director Rob Dubow was not about to let it go to anyone's head.

"Since we are a little underfunded," Dubow said to Handa, "if you could do a little better next year, that would be great."


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