Missouri pension plans are solid despite asset losses

The bad news: Pension funds for Missouri's teachers, state workers, university faculty members and local government employees have seen a dramatic drop in the value of their assets in the current recession. Together, the pension funds lost more than $11 billion in value last year, most of that ($7.8 billion) in the state's largest pension fund, the Public School Teachers Retirement System.

The good news: Despite their losses, Missouri's pension funds fared better than most. They did better than comparable funds in other states, and they did better than stock-market benchmarks in general.

And there a more reassuring news for current and former state employees: Their pension benefits aren't likely to be hurt by the recession. That's because most of the Missouri funds are defined-benefit plans, which means benefits are guaranteed even if a fund's assets go down.

These days, "billion" is an amount that's hard to grasp, especially as trillion-dollar government spending plans are being debated in earnest. Here's one way to grasp how much a billion is: A million seconds is almost 12 days. A billion seconds is nearly 32 years.

And, for those keeping count, a trillion seconds would be in the neighborhood of 32,000 years.

As far as Missouri's pension plans go, an $11 billion drop in asset value is significant, but the funds have been conservatively managed with an eye on making sure the various funds will be able to keep their commitments to retirees. An end to the recession and an upswing in the economy would likely mean most of these funds would regain much of their lost asset value.

This is a case where the good news appears to outweigh the bad news, and Missouri's government employees are the beneficiaries.