Lowering rate of return on fund investments will help, but some experts argue full actuarial payments — not called for in Christie budget address — remain critical

New actuarial calculations for New Jersey’s beleaguered public-employee pension system show an unfunded liability of near $50 billion, a staggering number for a retirement plan that’s been set up to cover roughly 780,000 current and retired government workers.

But many financial experts believe the pension system’s funding problem is potentially much worse, because the state has for decades been using optimistic assumptions when it comes to projecting annual investment returns.

The $72 billion pension system’s assumed rate of return, or discount rate, for the past few years has been 7.9 percent, which is higher than the average returns of just over 7 percent that the pension system has realized over the past 20 years. Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who has stressed pension reform during his two terms in office, announced last week that the rate will be lowered to a more realistic 7.65 percent.

While the difference seems subtle, pension experts say the downward adjustment is good for the retirement system’s overall long-term health because it will generate a more realistic assessment of the unfunded liability, and that in turn will require the state to make more robust annual contributions in the ongoing effort to maintain the fund’s solvency.

Christie’s efforts — the reduction is just the latest to occur during his tenure — also line up with calls for more realistic accounting that have come from Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), the Legislature’s leading Democrat on issues related to pension funding and employee benefits