Tag Archives: Centennial

A Century of Security and Stability

A century after its creation, the New York State and Local Retirement System (NYSLRS) is widely recognized as one of the best-managed and best-funded public pension systems in the nation. Comptroller DiNapoli recently announced that the New York State Common Retirement Fund (Fund), which holds and invests the assets of NYSLRS, had an estimated value of $254.8 billion as of March 31, 2021 – a record high for the Fund. The security and stability of NYSLRS and the Fund are due, in large part, to the stewardship of Comptroller DiNapoli, as well as a long line of State Comptrollers that came before him. The System has also been bolstered by some key events along the way.

NYSLRS History - key events contributing to the security and stability of the Retirement System and the Fund

In the Beginning

NYSLRS’ security and stability were built in at the start. In 1918, the State Legislature created the Commission on Pensions and charged it with recommending a pension system for State workers.

After surveying pension plans in New York and other states, the Pension Commission recognized the need to calculate the cost of the pension plan through actuarial calculations, which take into account such things as employees’ salaries and how long they are expected to be retired. They also saw the need to make provisions to cover those costs through contributions and other income. They recommended a plan supported by the contributions of employers (New York State and, eventually, local governments) and employees. The improved actuarial calculations the System uses today helps to ensure that member contributions and employer annual contributions are sufficient to keep the System adequately funded.

The Pension Commission also recommended a service retirement benefit be made available to workers who reached a certain age, based on average earnings and years of service. Though they didn’t use the term, their pension plan was very similar to the defined-benefit plan NYSLRS members have now.

Unlike the 401k-style defined-contribution plans common in the private sector today, a defined-benefit plan provides a guaranteed, lifetime benefit. With a defined-benefit plan, you don’t have to worry about your money running out during retirement, and your employer has an excellent tool for recruiting and retaining workers.

Constitutional Protection

In 1938, New York voters approved several amendments to the State Constitution, including Article 5, Section 7, which guarantees that a public pension benefit cannot be “diminished or impaired.” This constitutional language protects the interests of the Fund and its members and beneficiaries, ensuring that the money the Fund holds will be there to pay the pensions for all current and future retirees. The courts have upheld this constitutional provision to protect the Fund several times over the years.

For NYSLRS members and retirees, that means the retirement benefits you were promised when you started your public service career cannot be reduced or taken away.

Sound Investments

Sound investments are crucial to the health of the Fund, but in some cases changes in the law were needed to give Fund managers the flexibility to make the best investments. In 1961, the Fund was allowed to invest in the stock market, opening up the door for growth opportunities. Roughly half of the Fund’s assets are currently invested in stocks.

In 2005, the Legislature expanded the types of investments the Fund could make, allowing the Fund to increase investments in real estate, international stocks and other sectors that had been providing high returns.

Today, under Comptroller DiNapoli’s leadership, the Fund’s investment returns cover the majority of the cost of retirement benefits. After suffering a drop in value at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the Fund had its best year in history, with estimated investment returns of 33.55 percent for fiscal year 2021.

NYSLRS is well-positioned to face the challenges of the future and provide retirement security for more than 1.1 million members, retirees and beneficiaries.

The Common Retirement Fund: 100 Years of Strength and Security

In 1921, NYSLRS’ pension fund held several million dollars and provided benefits to just a few dozen State employees. Today, the Common Retirement Fund (Fund) provides more than a billion dollars per month to hundreds of thousands of retirees and beneficiaries.

The System’s founders showed foresight in establishing the framework for a sustainable retirement system capable of providing long-term pension security for its members and retirees. Today, one hundred years later, we are considered one of the strongest public pension funds in the country, thanks in large part to the stewardship of Comptroller DiNapoli, trustee of the Common Retirement Fund and administrator of NYSLRS for the past 14 years.

Comptroller DiNapoli’s diligent efforts to maintain the financial well-being of the Fund, the fact that NYSLRS’ participating employers contribute their share into the Fund, and New York’s constitutional requirement that lifetime pension benefits be guaranteed to all NYSLRS retirees — all these elements combine to ensure that NYSLRS retirees will enjoy secure benefits for generations to come.

Common Retirement Fund - A Snapshot of Growth

Investments

The Common Retirement Fund has been widely recognized as one the best-funded and best-managed public pension fund’s in the nation. (In June 2020, the Pew Charitable Trusts ranked NYSLRS as the second-best-funded public retirement system in the nation, based on 2018 data.) The cornerstone of the Fund’s reputation is its sound investment policies. At the direction of Comptroller DiNapoli, Fund managers use a long-term investment strategy designed to take advantage of growth opportunities during good economic times, while helping the Fund weather economic downturns.

The Comptroller seeks the input of a wide range of internal and external advisors, consultants and legal counsel who help to determine the best investment choices and allocation of assets for the Fund. These advisors provide independent advice and oversight of all investment decisions, serve as part of the chain of approval on all investment decisions before they reach the Comptroller for final approval and participate on advisory committees that meet periodically throughout the year.

Fund assets are invested in a diversified portfolio. About 55 percent of the assets are invested in publicly traded stocks. Other investments include bonds, mortgages, real estate and private equity.

The Fund is also strengthened by a forward-looking approach to addressing climate change-related investment risks and capitalizing on the opportunities created by the transition to a low-carbon economy. Comptroller DiNapoli recognizes that climate change poses an enormous threat to the global economy and to the Fund’s investment portfolio. Recently, he announced plans to transition the Fund’s portfolio to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. This process will include a review of investments in energy companies and, where consistent with his fiduciary responsibility to maintain the long-term financial health of the Fund for NYSLRS members, divestment of companies that don’t meet minimum standards. This policy will help ensure that the Fund adapts to a changing global economy and maintains its growth in coming decades.

The Common Retirement Fund’s Impact on New York Businesses

The Common Retirement Fund’s In-State Private Equity Program invests in new and expanding New York companies and makes capital available to qualifying small businesses. As of March 31, 2020, the Fund’s private equity portfolio included investments in over 330 New York businesses with a total value of $1.9 billion. These investments boost the State’s economy while at the same time generating significant returns for the Fund.

Looking Forward

As the Common Retirement Fund’s assets have grown over the years, so have its obligations. As of March 31, 2020, there were 487,407 NYSLRS retirees and beneficiaries, who were paid $13.4 billion in benefits over the previous year. That’s up from 67,689 retirees and beneficiaries, who were paid $194 million in benefits in 1971. Roughly a third of NYSLRS members are expected to retire over the coming decade.

Comptroller DiNapoli’s focus on continuing the Fund’s record of strong growth ensures that the Retirement System will be ready to meet the challenges of the future. The New York State Common Retirement Fund’s estimated overall investment return was 33.55 percent for the State fiscal year that ended March 31, 2021, reflecting the financial markets’ dramatic rebound from lows reached during the COVID-19 pandemic. The return on investments increased the Fund’s value to an estimated $254.8 billion. More than 1.1 million NYSLRS members, retirees and beneficiaries can continue to rely on the Retirement System for their retirement security.

Celebrating 100 Years of NYSLRS

NYSLRS 100

On January 3, 1921, NYSLRS began helping New York’s public employees achieve financial security in retirement. Now – 100 years later – we continue to fulfill that promise.

NYSLRS’ Origins

Governor Alfred Smith
In 1920, Governor Al Smith signed legislation establishing the New York State Employees’ Retirement System.

In 1920, the State Commission on Pensions presented Governor Al Smith a report they’d been working on for two years. The report showed that though there were already pension plans covering 8,300 banking department employees, teachers, State hospital workers, Supreme Court and other certain judiciary employees and prison employees, 10,175 State employees were not covered. To help ensure the financial security of public employees during their retirement years, the Commission recommended that a system be established to pay benefits to State employees – and the Commission wanted a system that would always have enough money on hand to pay benefits.

On May 11, 1920, Governor Smith signed legislation creating the New York State Employees’ Retirement System. By June 30 1921, 43 retirees were drawing pensions. The total amount of their annual pensions was $17,420.16. The first disability pension benefit of $256 per year was also paid.

Still Fulfilling Our Promise After 100 Years

Today, there are more than one million members, retirees and beneficiaries in our system, and NYSLRS is one of the strongest and best funded retirement systems in the country. Last fiscal year, NYSLRS paid out $13.25 billion in retirement and death benefits.

Members of the Employees' Retirement System, 1921
Members of the Employees’ Retirement System gather on the steps of the State Education Department building in Albany, NY in 1921.

Our core mission for the last 100 years has been to provide our retirees with a secure pension through prudent asset management. This has been our promise since 1921 and will continue far into the future.

Sources: Report of the New York State Commission on Pensions, March 30, 1920; Chapter 741 of the Laws of 1920; and Report of the Actuary on the First Valuation of the Assets and Liabilities of the New York State Retirement System as of June 30, 1921.