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Rally buoys pension officials

Utah Retirement fund gains 11.5% since December

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The stock market's three-month rally has Utah pension officials smiling.

But because the market is a roller coaster that never comes to a complete stop, pension officials refuse to unfasten their seat belts and celebrate just yet.

The Utah Retirement System fund, valued at $11.5 billion in December 2002, has since increased 11.5 percent, or $1.32 billion, according to figures gathered late last week by pension officials.

"We are very encouraged by the numbers. It is nice to have the market rally a bit," said Bob Newman, executive director of the Utah Retirement System.

The increase comes after more than two years of decline. In 2002, the fund dropped more than $1 billion.

The loss doesn't affect the system's ability to meet obligations to an estimated 30,000 state and local government retirees, but it does require the state to pick up the difference. Last year, that difference was $25 million — a hefty chunk of change for a state already cringing from budget cuts.

State Treasurer Ed Alter, a board member and the fund's chairman for nine years, said he greeted the rising stock market with "big smiles."

"(The earlier decline) has really hurt a lot of people. We joke that our 401(k)s have turned into 201(k)s," Alter said.

Before the market's decline in 2001, the state's fund sometimes doubled its goal of an 8 percent increase per year, Newman said.

The state's major holdings include Citigroup, Exxon Mobil, General Electric Co., Microsoft and Pfizer Inc. Stock in those companies has increased anywhere from $2 to $12 a share since the market started rising in mid-March.

"We try not to get too excited about things, but this is definitely good news," Newman said. "Now, we hope the market continues to rally."

E-mail: jparkinson@desnews.com