WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The assets held by state and local government pension funds rose to $2.93 trillion in 2010, a 35 percent increase from their lowest point during the financial crisis, two national associations said on Thursday.
"Rising capital markets, strong long-term investment returns, and actions by many states to preserve or restore the affordability and sustainability of their pension plans have all played a role," said the National Association of State Retirement Administrators and National Council on Teacher Retirement in a special brief on the funds' improving health.
Public pensions rely on two major sources for funding -- employee and employer contributions and investment returns. Although the government contributions have recently been the center of political debates in many states, investment assets play a key role in keeping promises made to public employees by providing more than half the funds' revenues.
The groups found that state and local pension trusts have regained much of the asset value they lost during the 2008 market downturn.
Over the last 25 years, the median public pension fund has had an annualized investment return of 8.8 percent, the groups found. Over the last year, it had a return of 13.1 percent.
Typically, when returns are low, governments make larger contributions to the pension funds. But, amid some of the worst budget crises in recent memory, state and local governments cut deposits just as the stock market plunged.
Currently pension funds are unable to pay for future retirees' benefits, with estimates of the shortages ranging from $700 billion to $3 trillion.
The groups warned many current calculations of funds' gaps include data from the market decline, but not the recovery.
"Reports that overlook these gains in state and local government pension trust assets since mid-2009 can be misleading," they said.
Next week, the Pew Center on the States will update its report from last year that estimated a $1 trillion shortfall in pension funding, but relied on data from before the financial crisis.
Editing by James Dalgleish