A new survey by Greenwich Research Associates shows a significant upswing in the number of corporate pension funds making equity investments in commercial real estate. Several states have recently begun pilot programs to channel public employe pension money into residential housing, the researchers said.

More than half of the largest employe benefit funds, with assets in excess of $500 million, reported that they had made real estate investments. This represents a 19 percent increase in the past four years, with the largest part of that growth, 15 percent, registered between 1979-80.

In the total sample of 1,074 firms, 22 percent were involved in real estate, a 12 percent increase since 1976, when the research firm made its first survey. As a sign of a continuing trend, the researchers cited a finding that the number of funds intending to invest in real estate equities has more than doubled in the past two years, particularly among medium-sized employe benefit plans. Of those surveyed, 28 percent plan to start investing within the next two years.

The research firm did not mention the amount of money pension funds have put in real estate equities, but it is believed to be relatively modest, or less than 5 percent of assets. All pension funds collectively have more than half a trillion dollars in assets. Moreover, the bulk of the investments are in the form of participations in pooled equities set up by large insurance companies and banks.

The reason for this surge lies in high rates, said to James C. Nugent, a vice president of Coldwell Banker Management Corp. Traditional lenders such as banks have been stymied by interest rates, so sellers are turning to cash-rich, tax-exempt pension funds. Another source of funds, foreign capital, has been retarded by a stronger dollar.

"Builders and developers . . . will be looking for joint ventures with all cash-oriented investors," Nugent told Pensions & Investment Age magazine.

Massachusetts, Oregon and Texas have recently committed money from public employe pension funds to the mortgage market.

Massachusetts and Texas have each pledged $20 million from these funds to buy mortgage pass-through certificates, backed by pools of home mortgages. The pools are formed by MGIC Investment Corp., which buys them from banks and insures the certificates. As such, they carry an AA rating, making them permissible investments for pension funds. The purpose of these investments is to keep pension monies for mortgages in the home state, rather than allowing them to be invested elsewhere.

The Wall Street Journal noted that Oregon has committed $100 million in public employe pension funds to buy commercial property for the state. It plans to buy property and then rent it at moderate rates for factories and essential industries.