Category Archives: Pensions

The use of locally-imposed selective taxes to fund public pension liabilities

Many eyes are on Kentucky policymakers as they grapple with finding a solution to their $40 billion state-reported unfunded public pension liability. As talks of a potential pension bill surface, various proposals have been made by legislators, but very few have gained traction. One such proposal stands out from the rest. A proposal that has since been shut down suggested imposing selective taxes on tobacco, prescription opiates, and outsourced labor to generate revenue to direct towards paying down the state’s pension debt. Despite its short-lived tenure, this selective tax proposal reflects a recent trend in pension funding reform; a trend that policymakers should be wary of. Implementing new taxes on select goods or services may seem like a good idea as it could, in theory, potentially raise additional revenues, but experience at the local level suggests otherwise.

In chapter 12 of a new Mercatus book on sin taxes, NYU professor Thad Calabrese examines the practice of locally-imposed selective taxes that are used to fund public pension liabilities and doesn’t find much evidence to support their continued usage.

Selective taxes are sales taxes that target specific goods and are also known as ‘sin taxes’ because of their popular usage in taxing less healthy goods such as cigarettes, junk food, or alcohol. In the examples that Calabrese examines, selective taxes are used to target insurance premiums as revenue sources for pensions.

Only a select few states have begun this practice – including Illinois, Pennsylvania, as well as municipalities in West Virginia and Missouri – but it may become more popular if courts begin to restrict the way in which current pension benefits can be modified. Once benefits are taken off the table as an avenue for reform, like in Illinois, policymakers will feel more pressure to find new revenue sources.

The proposal in Kentucky may seem appealing to policymakers, especially because of its potential to raise $600 million a year, but this estimate overlooks the unintended effects that such new taxes could facilitate. Thankfully, the proposal did not go through, but I think some time should be spent looking at what similar proposals have looked like at the local level, so that other states do not get tempted pick up where Kentucky left off.

Calabrese draws on the experiences in Pennsylvania and Illinois to examine how these taxes have operated, how the decoupling of setting and financing employee benefits tends to lead to these taxes, and how the use of these taxes is associated with significantly underfunded pension systems. Below I highlight Pennsylvania’s experience and caution against further usage of this mechanism for pension funding.

How it works (or doesn’t)

In 1895, Pennsylvania implemented a 2 percent tax on out-of-state fire and casualty insurance companies’ premiums on in-state property and then earmarked this for distribution to local governments to pay for pensions. Act 205 of 1984 replaced the original act in which the state of Pennsylvania allocated pension aid based on where the insured property was located and instead the new allocation was based on the number of public employees in a locality.

Calabrese explains how the funds were distributed:

“Each public employee was considered a ‘unit,’ and uniformed employees (such as police and fire) each represented two units. The pool of insurance tax revenue collected by the state was then divided by the sum of municipal units to arrive at a unit value. This distribution could subsidize local governments’ pension expenditures up to 100 percent of the annual cost. In 1985, this tax generated $62.3 million in revenues; as a result, each unit value was worth $1,146 – meaning that local governments received $1,146 for pension funding for each public employee and an additional $1,146 for pension funding for each uniformed public employee. Importantly, 75 percent of municipalities received enough funding from this revenue in 1985 to fully offset their pension costs.”

The new mechanism raised more funds, but it also unexpectedly raised costs. If a municipality had to contribute less than the $1,146 annually for a regular employee or $2,292 for a uniformed employee, for example, the municipality was essentially incentivized to increase benefits to public employees up to this limit, because local public employees would receive increased benefits at no direct budgetary cost to the municipality.

“…the tax likely increased insurance costs for residents and businesses (and then only a small fraction of the cost), but not directly for the government employer. Further, this system privileged benefits relative to other compensation, because these payments (borne at least statutorily by out-of-state companies) could only be used for financing pensions and not other forms of compensation.”

A tax originally implemented to fund pension costs statewide resulted in a system that encouraged more generous benefits.

Despite increased subsidies from the state, only 38 percent of municipalities received sufficient allocated funds from the pool to fully offset the costs of pensions. This was because annual pension contributions were growing at a faster rate than the rate at which the subsidy from the state insurance tax was growing.

To highlight a city with severely distressed pension plans, Philadelphia continued to struggle even following the implementation of the state insurance tax. The police pension plan, nonuniformed plan, and firefighter pension plan were all only 49, 47, and 45 percent funded, respectively. In 2009, the City Council passed a temporary 1 percentage point increase in their sales tax and when the temporary rate was renewed in 2014, any revenue in excess of $120 million was dedicated to the city’s pension plans. Additionally, the state permitted the city to pass a $2 per pack cigarette tax to fund a planned budget deficit for the school system; likely because its income tax capacity was largely exhausted.

Philadelphia’s new taxes technically generated new revenues, but they did little to improve the funding of the city’s pension plans.

The selective taxes implemented to fund pension liabilities in Pennsylvania were effectively a Band-Aid that was two small for the state’s pension funding problem, which in turn required the addition of more, insufficient pension Band-Aids. It merely created a public financing system that encouraged pension benefit growth which led to the passage of additional laws requiring certain pension funding levels. And when these funding levels were not met, even more laws were passed that provided temporary pension funding relief, which further grew liabilities for distressed municipalities.

Act 44 became law in 1993 and provided plan sponsors pension funding relief, but primarily by allowing sponsors to alter actuarial assumptions and thereby reduce required pension contributions. Another law delayed funding by manipulating how the required contribution was calculated, rather than providing any permanent fix.

Moving forward

Selective taxes for the purpose of funding pensions are still a relatively rare practice, but as pension liabilities grow and the landscape of reform options changes, it may become increasingly attractive to policymakers. As Calabrese has demonstrated in his book chapter, however, we should be wary of this avenue as it may only encourage the growth of pension liabilities without addressing the problem in any meaningful way. Reforming the structure of the pension plan or the level of benefits provided to current or future employees would provide the most long-term solution.

A solution with the long-term in mind and that doesn’t involve touching current beneficiaries includes moving future workers to defined contribution plans; plans that are better suited to keeping costs contained. The ballooning costs aren’t stemming solely from overly generous plan benefits, but more seriously are the result of their poor management and incentives for funding, only exacerbated by poor accounting practices. The problem is certainly complicated and moving towards the use of defined contribution plans wouldn’t eliminate all issues, but it would at least set governments on a more sustainable path.

At the very least, policymakers interested in long-term solutions should be cautioned against using selective taxes to fund pensions.

A public sector retirement plan for Millennials

According to the Center for Retirement Research, about 52 percent of households are “at risk of not having enough to maintain their living standards in retirement” and that the retirement landscape is making “the outlook for retiring Baby Boomers and Generation Xers far less sanguine than for current retirees.” This growing problem for younger generations is highlighted by the Economic Policy Institute’s finding that almost half of households headed by someone between the ages of 32 and 61 have nothing saved for retirement. A confluence of factors has led to a predicament for millennials as they try to prepare for retirement in a drastically changing job market.

The millennial generation has grown to be an integral part of the workforce, and private sector companies are increasing their efforts to understand what they value most a job. A Deloitte survey reveals that a good work/life balance, opportunities to progress/be leaders, flexibility, and a sense of meaning emerge as the most important factors when evaluating job opportunities. What’s more, millennials are not likely to stick around for a job that doesn’t meet this criteria. The same survey found that if given the choice during the next year, one in four millennials would quit his or her current employer to join a new organization or to do something different.

This flightiness appears to be a characteristic of many young people and to be happening in tandem with, if not contributing to, an increasingly transient job market. This phenomenon, corroborated by other surveys, demonstrates that more and more millennial workers are changing jobs at a higher rate than previous generations. It is not as common to stick with your first or second job until retirement, as it once was for Baby Boomers. The “loyalty challenge” facing companies, paired with changes in technology and culture, has in turn been transforming the landscape of retirement options.

As workers become more transient, companies are forced to provide more portable retirement plan options. During the past two decades, the private sector has done just that by transitioning from offering primarily defined benefit retirement plans to offering more defined contribution plans. This change is to be expected in part because of the flexibility it provides for beneficiaries. Defined contribution plans allow for workers to take their benefits more easily with them from job to job.

The public sector has not quite caught up to this trend. Public sector plans have had much more difficulty staying solvent and much of this is because of the prevalence of defined benefit plans. Mercatus scholars, along with many economists, have long criticized the poor incentive structure of these plans. If these aren’t reason enough for policymakers to offer defined contribution plans in their place, then maybe their changing workforces will.

Much of the debate over growing pension liabilities has focused on whether public sector compensation costs are fair either in comparison to other states or to the private sector. But much less has been said about what is fair across generations.

Most pension reform efforts at the state level target changes in benefits for younger employees while preserving the benefits of older workers. Although this is largely the result of legal and political constraints, such changes have the potential to force younger generations of public-sector workers to shoulder a disproportionate share of the cost of reforms, as their retirement benefits become more uncertain, thus violating a crucial criterion of “intergenerational equity” for pension reform.

Pension experts Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh reveal in a 2008 study that the intergenerational transfer of pension debt could be quite large. They predict a 50 percent chance of underfunding across the states amounting to more than $750 billion, even before adjusting for risk. In other words, if left alone, the pension bills of today are going to be handed to the generations of tomorrow.

A new Mercatus paper uncovers how similar intergenerational equity issues have developed in the state of Oregon. The author, legal scholar Scott Shepard, writes:

“…the system radically favors (generally older) workers who started before 1996 and 2003, respectively – not just in expected ways, like seniority pay bumps, but in deeply structural ways; earlier-hired employees simply get a significantly better pay-and-benefit package for every minute of their climb up the seniority ladder.”

Oregon’s pension system, along with many other states’ plans, started out offering extremely generous benefits, but as this has grown increasingly unsustainable, the state is being forced to deal with reality and reign in benefits for newer workers.

The unfair retirement landscape that this creates is largely the result of many past poor policy decisions and although this difference in benefits between age groups is far from intentional, how Oregon – and other states in similar positions – responds can be. Changing demographic trends may lend reason for public pension officials to consider moving towards defined contribution plan structures, or at least providing the option.

Shepard strongly urges Oregon to make this shift. He describes a number of benefits; from the perspective of the state, taxpayers, and future generations:

“First, payments must be made when due, rather than being shifted off to future generations. This may seem painful to present taxpayers, but the long-term effect is to ensure a more honest government, in that politicians cannot make promises that their (unrepresented) descendants end up paying for generations later, long after the promisors have reaped the political benefits of making unfunded promises, only to have retired from the scene when payment comes due. This inability to promise now and pay later has a corollary benefit of thwarting the impulse to make extravagant pension promises, as the payments come due immediately, rather than being foisted off on future generations.”

Offering defined contribution plans for workers can provide a more sustainable option that would prevent this equity issue from worsening.

In addition to the accountability and savings that offering a defined contribution option provides, like we have seen demonstrated in Utah and Michigan, this also has the potential to lead to higher worker satisfaction.

With millennials looking to save money for retirement through more portable means, policymakers will want to offer benefits packages that match these preferences. Private sector workers and some public – including Federal and public university – workers lie at the forefront of those benefiting from the defined contribution trend. Most state public plans, however, still fall behind, which has continuing implications for public plan solvency and intergenerational equity.

Solving the Public Pension Crisis

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a public policy conference that brought together many scholars who study public pensions to share what they have learned from their research. The crisis – growing unfunded pension liabilities and resulting fiscal distress for states and municipalities – laid as the foundation of the day. Hosted by GMU’s Law & Economics Center, the conference featured several panel discussions framed around different aspects of how to both diagnose the cause of this growing problem and hopefully find solutions to address the problem.

Professor Robert Inman of the University of Pennsylvania presented a helpful categorization of the different avenues to address the public pension crisis. He explained that as a reformer, you can either put stock in (1) courts, (2) markets, or (3) politics to solve the public policy problem. The next question is, which avenue is most effective at making pensions solvent while also keeping promises to beneficiaries?

First, take the courts. In municipal bankruptcy cases like that of Central Falls, Rhode Island; Stockton, California; and Detroit, Michigan, courts have ruled that reductions in benefits of current public workers and retirees are legally allowed. Until these rulings, however, it was thought to be almost impossible do such a thing. These cities employed reforms ranging from cutting payments to reducing current benefit formulas. By contrast, the state supreme court of Illinois has ruled similar cuts unconstitutional. It will be interesting to see how these conflicting legal precedents will affect future cases and what it will mean for the benefits of public workers.

However this legal discussion unfolds, it will certainly affect the courts as an avenue for solving the pension crisis. Strict rulings prevent states from cutting pension benefits of current workers, but they also require states to keep their promises, especially when it is politically hardest – during times of fiscal stress.

Times of fiscal stress are often prompted by a combination of factors. Growing unfunded liabilities, not enough cash in reserves, and poorly structured tax systems can all come together to really put policymakers in a tough spot and often leaves a large bill for taxpayers. A struggling economy on top of all of this can really exacerbate the situation. The main difference between the first three things and a struggling economy is that the latter is largely out of a policymaker’s control.

Despite this, many policymakers rely on the market to get them out of tough times. From the policymaker’s perspective “relying on the market” to solve the pension crisis usually means something different than what it means for an economist. This phrase for the policymaker usually entails reaping the benefits of more taxes generated from an economic boom or relying on high investment returns to improve the performance of pension funds.

Not only are the timing of economic booms fairly unpredictable, but they also don’t guarantee to solve all of your problems when they do occur. The growing city of Austin, Texas, for example, is facing budgetary pressures and only has enough money to pay for about two-thirds of the benefits workers have already earned, demonstrating that even good economic times don’t exempt you from pension problems.

The good news is that what we learn from market interactions can be transferred to the political sphere in order to increase our understanding. One lesson we learn from markets is that individuals respond to incentives and that the institutional structure in which they act influences how this occurs. The importance of incentives and rules doesn’t change when going from markets to politics, but the way they manifest does.

At the Law and Economics conference, Anthony Randazzo of the Reason Foundation explained how there is a tangled web of factors causing inappropriate pension funding behavior. These factors create misaligned incentives between fiduciaries and taxpayers. One way this has manifested is that the pension funding policy process has been captured by elected officials who are more concerned with near-term budget allocation than long-term solvency.

My colleague Eileen Norcross and her co-author Sheila Weinberg expanded more on the type of behavior that Randazzo spoke of. In their paper titled “A Judge in their Own Cause: GASB 67/68 and the continued mis-measurement of public sector liabilities” they review how policymakers are incentivized by state and local accounting guidelines to underreport the true value of their pension liabilities. Two new accounting rules were implemented in fiscal year 2015 in an attempt to improve this, but as Norcross and Weinberg’s findings suggest, they have not had their intended effects.

For example, there is evidence that one of the rules, GASB 67, is creating incentives for pension actuaries to project robust funding levels far into the future in order to avoid calculating and reporting large unfunded liabilities in the present.

They sum up the effects of both rules in their conclusion:

“Though these measures are justified in providing flexibility and practicality for governments, they only contribute to an artificial picture of state’s true fiscal results and thus affect important decisions on how states use resources.”

Their analysis demonstrates just how important it is to study the incentives present in both the measurement of and the governance of public pension funds. Luckily, there is also work being done that attempts to understand exactly what type of rules can improve incentives facing policymakers.

Another paper, presented by Professor Odd Stalebrink of Penn State, touched upon this by examining how governance structures affect the investment performance of public pension funds. He found that pension systems are more likely to meet their performance targets if they are governed by an institutional structure that (1) extends plan autonomy, (2) places emphasis on transparency, and (3) limits inefficient investment practices. In states that exhibit more corruption, however, Stalebrink noted that plans might actually be better off with less autonomy, while still focusing on transparency and improving efficiency.

The discussion of these papers along with many others at the conference underscored that pension problem in the states multifaceted one. The question of what avenue to employ reform efforts through does not have a simple answer. Growing unfunded pension liabilities are a result of many factors across market, political, and legal spheres. It only makes sense that effective solutions will revolve around an understanding of all three areas.

Proceedings of the conference will be published in a special symposium issue of Scalia Law School’s Journal of Law, Economics & Policy.

Fixing decades of fiscal distress in Scranton, PA

In new Mercatus research, Adam Millsap and I and unpack the causes for almost a quarter of a century of fiscal distress in Scranton, Pennsylvania and offer some recommendations for how the city might go forward.

Since 1992, Scranton has been designated as a distressed municipality under Act 47, a law intended to help financially struggling towns and cities implement reforms. Scranton is now on its fifth Recovery plan, and while there are signs that the city is making improvements, it still has to contend with a legacy of structural, fiscal and economic problems.

We begin by putting Scranton in historical context. The city, located in northeastern Pennsylvania was once a thriving industrial hub, manufacturing coal, iron and providing T-rails for railroad tracks. By 1930, Scranton’s population peaked and the city’s economy began to change. Gas and oil replaced coal. The spread of the automobile and trucking diminished demand for railroad transport. By the 1960s Scranton was a smaller service-based economy with a declining population. Perhaps most relevant to its current fiscal situation is that the number of government workers increased as both the city’s population and tax base declined between 1969 and 1980.

An unrelenting increase in spending and weak revenues prompted the city to seek Act 47 designation kicking off two decades of attempts to reign in spending and change the city’s economic fortunes.

Our paper documents the various recovery plans and the reasons the measures they recommended either proved temporary, ineffective, or simply “didn’t stick.” A major obstacle to cost controls in the city are the hurdle of collective bargaining agreements with city police and firefighters, protected under Act 111, that proved to be more binding than Act 47 recovery plans.

The end result is that Scranton is facing rapidly rising employee costs for compensation, health care and pension benefits in addition to a $20 million back-pay award. These bills have led the city to pursue short-term fiscal relief in the form of debt issuance, sale-leaseback agreements and reduced pension contributions. The city’s tax structure has been described as antiquated relying mainly on Act 511 local taxes (business privilege and mercantile business tax, Local Services Tax (i.e. commuter tax)), property taxes and miscellaneous revenues and fees.

Tackling these problems requires structural reforms including 1) tax reform that does not penalize workers or businesses for locating in the city, 2) pension reform that includes allowing workers to move to a defined contribution plan and 3) removing any barrier to entrepreneurship that might prevent new businesses from locating in Scranton. In addition we recommend several state-level reforms to laws that have made it harder to Scranton to control its finances namely collective bargaining reform that removes benefits from negotiation; and eliminating “budget-helping” band-aids that mask the true cost of pensions. Such band-aids include state aid for municipal pension and allowing localities to temporarily reduce payments during tough economic times. Each of these has only helped to sustain fiscal illusion – giving the city an incomplete picture of the true cost of pensions.

To date Scranton has made some progress including planned asset monetizations to bring in revenues to cover the city’s bills. Paying down debts and closing deficits is crucial but not enough. For Pennsylvania’s distressed municipalities to thrive again reforms must replace poor fiscal institutions with ones that promote transparency, stability and prudence. This is the main way in which Scranton (and other Pennsylvania cities) can compete for businesses and residents: by offering government services at lower cost and eliminating penalties and barriers to locating, working and living in Scranton.

Loyalton, CA and the cost of faulty actuarial assumptions

The New York Times has an interesting piece on the pension troubles facing the small town of Loyalton, California (population 769). Loyalton has seen little economic activity since its sawmill closed in 2001. In 2010 the city made a decision to exit Calpers saving the city $30,000. The City Council thought that the decision to exit would only apply to new hires and for the next three years ceased paying Calpers. Four of the the pension plan’s participants are retired and one is fully vested.

In response, Calpers sent the town a bill for $1.6 million – the hypothetical termination liability – for exiting the plan. For years Loyalton operated under the assumptions built into Calpers’ system which values the liability based on asset returns of 7.5 percent. This actuarial value concealed reality. Once a plan terminates Calpers presents employers with the real bill: or the risk-adjusted value of its pension promises based on a bond rate of 3.25 percent.

To see how big a difference that makes to the bottom line for cities, Joe Nation, Stanford professor, has built a very helpful tool that compares the actuarial liability of pension plans with the market value for individual governments in California.

The judge in the Stockton bankruptcy case Christopher Klein characterized the termination liability as presenting struggling towns with a “poison pill” for leaving the system. Another way to look at it is that the risks and costs that were hidden by faulty accounting assumptions based on risky discount rates are coming due as Calpers fails to hit its investment target. The annual costs may start to be shifted, and in the case of termination, fully imposed on local employers.

The four retirees of Loyalton are facing the possibility of drastically reduced pensions. In a town with annual revenues of $1.17 million, Calpers’ bill is far beyond the town’s ability to pay. Negotiations between Calpers and Loyalton are likely to continue. Some ideas floated include putting a lien on the town’s assets or revenues.


Pension funding practices and investment risk

A recent paper by Donald J. Boyd and Yimeng Yin of The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at SUNY  investigates how public pension funding practices contribute to big funding gaps and the need for sudden contribution increases. This is a situation public sector plans find themselves in due to three reasons 1) muddling the valuation of debt-like pension liabilities with the plan’s investment strategy (i.e. using discount rates basked on risky asset portfolios to measure pension liabilities) 2) amortization methods and 3) asset smoothing.

To find out the impact of these assumptions the authors build a stochastic simulation model for public sector plans that allows them to look at how different funding policies affect plan funding. They find that the funding polices and practices of most plans reduce the volatility of contributions and increase the risk of severe underfunding. And “even if investment return assumptions (7.5 percent annually) are met every single year and employers make the full actuarially determined contributions” they would only reach 85 percent funding after 30 years.

Now consider that it’s unlikely that plans will meet the 7.5 percent annual return each year. If investment returns vary – as they do –  the same plan faces a one-in-six chance of falling below 40 percent funding.

The authors have an interesting chart from a recent presentation highlighting what happens when returns vary each year. In reality, a plan with a portfolio made up of a mix of stocks and bonds is likely to achieve greater than 7.5 percent return in some years and less than 7.5 percent returns in other years). Current plan assumptions project steady and gradually increasing funding ratios and completely flat contribution levels. But in reality, it is all over the map: a roller coaster for funding levels levels and the potential for a huge ramp up in contributions.

Source: Boyd and Yin, 2016 "Standards and Metrics for Public Retirement Systems" The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute at SUNY

source: Boyd and Yin, 2016, “Standards and Metrics for Public Retirement Systems” The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute at SUNY

Local governments reluctant to issue new debt despite low interest rates

The Wall Street Journal reports that despite historically low interest rates municipal governments and voters don’t have the appetite for new debt. Municipal bond issuances have dropped to 20-year lows (1.6 percent) as governments pass on infrastructure improvements. There are a few reasons for that: weak tax revenues, fewer federal dollars, and competing budgetary pressures. As the article notes,

“Many struggling legislatures and city halls are instead focusing on underfunded employee pensions and rising Medicaid costs. Some cash-strapped areas, such as Puerto Rico and the city of Chicago, face high annual debt payments.”

The pressures governments face due to rising employee benefits is likely to continue. The low interest rate environment has already had a negative effect on public pensions. In pursuit of higher yields, investors have taken on more investment risk leaving plans open to market volatility. At the same time investments in bonds have not yielded much. WSJ reporter Timothy Martin writes that public pension returns are, “expected to drop to the lowest levels ever recorded,” with a 20-year annualized return of 7.4 percent for 2016.

The end result of this slide is to put pressure on municipal and state budgets to make up the difference, sometimes with significant tradeoffs.

The key problem for pensions is “baked into the cake,” by use of improper discounting. Linking the present value of guaranteed liabilities to the expected return on risky investments produces a distortion in how benefits are measured and funded. Public sector pensions got away with it during the market boom years. But in this market and bond environment an arcane actuarial assumption over how to select discount rates shows its centrality to the fiscal stability of governments and the pension plans they provide.

Properly funding a defined benefit plan requires solid average returns and some luck

Saving for retirement is something most workers do – either on their own or through an employer – and most are aware that the rate of return on their retirement investment matters. For example, if I save $100 today and it earns 10% per year in interest for the next 20 years I will have $672.75 at the end of 20 years. If the money earns 6% instead I will only have $320.71 at the end of 20 years.

Moreover, if I wanted to have $672 at the end of 20 years and the interest rate was only 6% I would have to save $209.54 today rather than $100. This demonstrates that the higher the interest rate is, the less money I will have to save today in order to have a specific amount of money in the future. This simple truth has important implications for pension funding.

For many years state pension plans assumed average returns of around 8% per year when calculating pension liabilities. Assuming this relatively high rate of return meant that pension plans required less contributions today in order to meet their future goals. But this also came with significant risk – if the average rate of return fell short of 8% then the pensions would not be able to pay out the benefits that were promised. This is demonstrated in the previous example; if a person wanted $672 after 20 years and assumed a 10% rate of return they would have only saved $100. However, if the rate of return turned out to be 6% per year instead of 10%, they would have ended up over $300 short of their goal ($672 – $320 = $352).

It turns out that an expected rate of return of 8% was unachievable and many pension plans are lowering their expected returns. This can generate large pension shortfalls, since a lower rate of return means that more money needed to be saved all along. In many states the budget is tight and it’s not clear where the additional money will come from, but there’s a good chance that taxpayers are going to have make up the difference.

Assuming too high of a return is an obvious problem. But there is a more subtle issue that doesn’t get as much attention yet generates similar results; even if a pension plan gets an 8% return on average, the plan may still fall short of its goal. This is because different returns have different effects on the actual amount of money over time. The chart below provides a simple example, where the goal is to accumulate $100,000 in 10 years.

Based on the $100,000 goal and an 8% yearly return one can calculate that (approximately) $6,400 must be contributed to the plan at the beginning of each year, which is the contribution amount I used. In each scenario in the table the average annual return is 8%, but not every plan returns 8% each year.


Scenario 1 is the most straightforward; the plan actually earns 8% each year and the $100,000 goal is reached by year 10. But while this is the simplest scenario, it’s also the most unrealistic. Anyone who follows the stock market knows that it’s volatile – some years it’s up, some years it’s down. Standard pension accounting, however, assumes scenario 1 will occur even though that’s incredibly unlikely.

In scenario 2, the plan earns 8% in each of the first two years, then loses 15% the third year. After that returns are above average and plan actually exceeds its goal of $100,000 at the end of 10 years. In scenario 3 the plan earns 8% for the first 6 years, then 14%, before losing 15% in year 8. In this scenario, even the exceptional gains in years 9 and 10 are not enough to reach the $100,000 goal. And finally, in scenario 4 the gains fluctuate more often – there are some high return years in the beginning and the loss year is relatively late (year 7). In this scenario the plan ends up over $6,500 short of its $100,000 goal.

There are infinite ways a plan could get an 8% return on average, but these 4 examples demonstrate the different dollar amounts that can result even if the average return goal is met. In two of the scenarios (3 and 4) the plan falls short of its actual dollar goal and is underfunded even though it met its return goal. This exemplifies the inherent risk in any pension plan that promises a specific amount of money in some future period, as defined benefit plans do. As the previous example shows, even if the required contributions are made each year AND the plan’s average return goal is met, there is still a chance the plan will be underfunded.

The risks associated with the variability in returns is another reason why many pension reform advocates recommend defined contribution plans rather than defined benefits plans. Defined contribution plans don’t promise a specific amount of benefits, which means they are not subject to the same underfunding risks as defined benefit plans. Switching from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans needs to be a part of the solution to public sector pension problems. Otherwise there’s a good chance that taxpayers will be required to pick up the tab when plans inevitably miss their funding goals.


Banking on risky investments is no way to guarantee a public pension

Over the past several years I’ve spent a lot of time studying public pension systems. That’s involved diving into the economics and actuarial literature, reading through many individual plan reports, and analyzing the trends in those systems in the context of the principles of financial economics. Why do this? It isn’t just a public finance problem. Twenty million Americans participate in these plans. If research points to systematic structural weaknesses in public sector plans, that under the right conditions, can lead to plan failure, then it is an imperative to point it out and recommend solutions to ensure that retirees receive the pensions they’ve been promised without placing unnecessary burdens on taxpayers or forcing painful budget tradeoffs at the worst possible time: during a recession.

The only way to protect pensions is to accurately assess their true value and funded status and then contribute what is needed to pay out those benefits. Unfortunately, the story of US public sector pension is that they are built on investment risk and accounting illusions.

Pension finance is not without controversy. Misunderstandings can arise in part due to the very different approaches taken by financial economists and traditionally trained actuaries over how to most appropriately value pension liabilities and assets, as well as the nature of investment risk.

However, some of the conflict is due to the implications of the pension literature. Applying the economic approach to valuing pension fund liabilities reveals trillions more in obligations and far bigger funding gaps for states and cities. It shows how public sector plans have exposed themselves to an unwise amount of investment risk effectively linking guaranteed pension payments to market volatility and putting taxpayers on the hook for losses. Some state and local governments have responded to this debate either through small accounting reforms or policy changes meant to shore up pension systems. These reforms are not necessarily sufficient but it’s a tacit recognition that the math really matters.

There are some plans that continue to staunchly defend a “More investment risk = safe and guaranteed pension with no downsides” approach. And at least one system has gone on the offense against any suggestion that increasing investment risk in a government-guaranteed pension system amounts to gambling with employees’ pension benefits.

In May 2014 I authored a paper that made the case for economic accounting and better funding for Alabama’s three state-run pension plans.[1] My study was featured in The Advisor in July 2014, the newsletter the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) provides to its members.[2] One article written by “RSA staff” purports to debunk my paper, but ends up missing the implications of both the literature and my analysis.

The RSA staff’s main complaint revolves around one sentence in which I cite a peer-reviewed 2010 study in the National Tax Journal by Joshua Rauh entitled, “Are State Public Pension Plans Sustainable?[3] Rauh finds that, without policy changes, Alabama might run out of assets to pay benefits by 2023, necessitating the move to a pay as you go system. To be sure, that is a sobering claim.

The RSA staff argues that the runout date calculated by Rauh is based on “bad data” from 2006, when Alabama offered a 3.5 percent ad hoc Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). It further contends the runout date is based on the assumption of a risk-free discount rate and asset values from 2009, and this all unfairly inflates liabilities and cherry-picks a low-point for asset values. In addition, Rauh assumes that the plan only pays for normal costs going forward (not for past benefits), in keeping with the contribution behavior of most plans at the time of the study.

The first two claims by the RSA staff are incorrect. In the “run-out dates” paper, Rauh’s data is assembled from, “the individual plans and the Center for Retirement Research on a plan-by-plan basis.”[4] This dataset was originally developed for a previous peer-reviewed paper with Robert Novy-Marx entitled, “Public Pension Promises: How Big Are They and What Are They Worth?” which drew from the individual Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) of 116 state-sponsored pension plans.[5] Nine data items were taken from the pension plan CAFRs that were available as of December 31, 2008. (The FY 2008 CAFR contains data for 2007 that the authors project to 2009). These CAFR-derived items are:

  • the plans’ stated liability
  • its state-chosen discount rate
  • the actuarial method (EAN or PUC)
  • a benefit factor
  • a Cost of Living Adjustment
  • an inflation assumption
  • the share of active workers in the plan;
  • the share of retired workers in the plan; and
  • the dollar amount of benefits paid in the most recent year.

The third item – the actuarial method – was drawn from both the CAFR and information from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College as of 2006.[6]

Novy-Marx and Rauh estimated a total of $42 billion projected liabilities as of June 2009 for all three of Alabama’s plans. [7] The authors’ estimate closely matches the reported value of $41.6 billion in September 30, 2009 in RSA’s FY 2010 CAFR. Novy-Marx and Rauh re-calculate the value of state promised pension liabilities when valued based on risk-free Treasury bonds. They find that Alabama’s total liabilities of $42 billion increase to $61.8 billion when discounted using the risk-free Treasury rate.

Their paper triggered a lot of attention. Clearly, the finding that GASB 25 was leading state plans to obscure the true size of their pension liabilities generates a lot of follow-up questions, such as, “When will they run out of money?”

In a subsequent paper Rauh (2010) tackles this very question. His assumptions are key to interpreting the run out date. Beginning with the data that he and Novy-Marx assembled, Rauh models the cash flows of these pension plans under the rate of return assumed by the plan itself, in the case of Alabama: 8 percent. A further assumption is made that future contributions to the plan will be equal in value to the benefits earned by employees in that year, “an assumption broadly in keeping with states’ recent contribution behavior.”[8] If the state fully funds benefits as they are accrued how long will the assets last under the assumption that the plans earn 8 percent each year?

Under an 8 percent discount rate with no COLA, and only funding the normal cost, Rauh projects that the RSA will run out of assets in 2023. The implication is that state contributions will have to increase, placing a greater demand on state budgets, necessitating increased taxes or cuts to spending. One thing going in Alabama’s favor is that they have a history of making the full contribution each year. However, this contribution amount is calculated under optimistic assumptions that I demonstrate in the paper are based on assuming a large amount of investment risk. And that is where the danger lies.

Contrary to the RSA staff’s claim:

  • There is no COLA assumption in Rauh’s 2010 run-out date study
  • The run out date of 2023 is based on a discount rate of 8 percent.

The RSA staff is correct to note that Rauh’s calculation is based on only paying the normal cost. Since Alabama has a history of making the full annual contribution this will help the system to forestall a run-out. The question is by how much, by how many years? As long as the RSA assumes an 8 percent discount rate and embraces a risky investment strategy they are operating under an accounting illusion that leads them to low-ball the annual contribution needed to fund the system.

If the market has a great run over the next decade with returns exceeding 8 percent per year and the RSA continues to to pay 100 percent of the ARC under these conditions it would stay solvent. The RSA points to the fact that between 2009 and today its assets have grown by 46 percent, or $35 billion. [9]

But there’s another problem. The RSA’s funded status continues its decade-long drop. Let’s look at Alabama’s assets, liabilities, and funded status of the plan between 2008 and 2013 (the most recent data available) taken from the plan CAFRs, with no adjustments to the data. The trend is clear. Liabilities are growing faster than the assets. Funding ratios are falling.

For Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) over the period the total actuarial value of assets fell by six percent from $20.8 billion to $19.6 billion, while total liabilities grew from $26 billion to $29 billion (11 percent), leaving the system with a funded ratio of 66 percent.

Table 1. Teachers Retirement System Actuarial Accrued Liability and Actuarial Assets (2008-2013) Adjusted for Inflation

($ mil) 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 % change 2008-2014
TRS Liabilities $26,804 $27,537 $28,299 $28,776 $28,251 $29,665 11%
TRS Assets  $20,812 $20,582 $20,132 $19,430 $18,786 $19,629 -6%

Source: Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for Retirement System of Alabama (RSA) FY 2009-2014.

The same story can be told of the Employees Retirement System (ERS). Assets fell by 4 percent as liabilities grew by 11 percent over the period. The ERS is currently funded at 65 percent, down from 77 percent in 2009. Four years of increased returns have not reversed the decline.

Table 2. Employees’ Retirement System Actuarial Accrued Liabilities and Actuarial Assets 2008-2013

($ mil) 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 % change 2008-2014
ERS Liabilities $13,078 $13,756 $14,248 $14,366 $13,884 $14,536 11%
ERS Assets $9,905 $9,928 $9,739 $9,456 $9,116 $9,546 -4%

Source: Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for Retirement System of Alabama (RSA) FY 2009-2014

The Judicial Retirement Fund (JRF) had the steepest increase in liabilities. Assets fell by 6 percent and liabilities grew by 28 percent. JRF is the most weakly funded at 58 percent.

Table 1. Judicial Retirement System Actuarial Accrued Liability and Actuarial Assets (2008-2013) Adjusted for Inflation

($ mil) 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 % change 2008-2014
JRF Liabilities $323 $340 $358 $393 $380 $414 28%
JRF Assets $259 $252 $246 $235 $234 $243 -6%

Source: Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for Retirement System of Alabama (RSA) FY 2009-2014

Looking back at the decade shows an even more dramatic trend. These systems began 2003 with funding levels of 90 percent. They have fallen every year since to their current levels of between 66 percent and 58 percent.

The RSA has stated in the past that 80 percent funding is good enough and that investing assets in a risky portfolio currently comprised of 70 percent equities will enable the system to comfortably meet its obligations. But as these funding trends show a volatile portfolio comes with a downside. The assets may be back to where they were five years ago, but in the meantime, liabilities continue their steady growth.

The next observation the RSA staff makes is that these numbers are too bleak since they are based on 2009 asset values. Since then the assets have grown by 11 percent on average over the period. To be sure, once you exclude 2008, things look better. But that’s a bit like excluding the F when you calculate your average grade for the semester. Ignoring the downturn doesn’t mean it didn’t happen or that it didn’t erode the assets. It takes exceptional and sustained performance to make up for it.

The five and 10-year period tell a less bullish story.

Annualized returns for the RSA for the Fiscal Year ended September 30, 2013. (p. 60)

Total Portfolio 1 year Last 3 Years Last 5 Years Last 10 Years
TRS 14.93% 11.45% 6.68% 6.29%
ERS 14.6% 11.4% 6.17% 5.97%
JFR 14.05% 10.89% 8.74% 7.06%

While investments have rebounded for the RSA, plan funding status is falling despite increased contributions. Since 2012 employers and most employees are making bigger contributions to these plans. Alabama now operates a Two-tiered pension system. Tier 1 TRS and ERS employees (those hired before January 1, 2013) saw their individual contributions rates increase from 5 percent of pay in 2011 to 7.5 percent of pay in 2013. JRF members, firefighters, police officers and correctional officers contribution rates increased from 6 percent in 2011 to 8.25 percent of pay in 2013. Tier II members (those hired after January 1, 2013) will have lower contribution rates and diminished benefits. Both tiers will give something up.

Employers are also contributing more. The state’s contributions have increased. For the TRS (Tier 1 employees), the state’s contribution has risen from 6.3 percent of payroll in 2000 to 11.7 percent in 2014. Employer contributions for the ERS (Tier 1) rose from 4 percent to 12 percent of payroll over the same period. JRF has the largest employer contribution “In 2000, the state contribution to the JRF was 21 percent of payroll. It reached 35% by 2014.”

Rauh’s 2010 study points to a trend worth monitoring. Funding levels are dropping. Assets are not growing fast enough to keep up with the growth in liabilities necessitating more revenues, higher contributions or some other action. Yet the RSA staff points to its recent returns of 11%, as if that is something the RSA can sustain. The stock market does reward risk-taking with high returns in bull markets, but at a cost of negative returns in recession years like 2008. Increasing the risk of RSA assets to chase high stock market returns is banking on something neither the RSA nor anyone else can guarantee.

Valuing a guaranteed pension based on the expected returns of risky and volatile assets increases the chance of a funding shortfall. It is likely that Alabama will find it will need more revenue to fund the RSA. Already inadequate funding levels are falling. The investment portfolio is heavily exposed to market risk. And contribution rates are rising.

The RSA staff’s response to my research is part of a more general problem. Many of those responsible for public sector pensions think that investment risk can be ignored or it can just be passed on to taxpayers. The point of this entire body of literature drives home one theme consistently: public sector pension accounting flaunts the established principles of finance by claiming that there is no price for assuming investment risk. Financial theory can be abstract. But recent history gives us a demonstration of these core principles. Many pensions systems, the RSA included, have ignored the lessons of the Great Recession and are exposing pensions to even more investment risk.

[1] Eileen Norcross, “Pension Reform in Alabama: A Case for Economic Accounting,” in Improving Lives in Alabama: A Vision for Economic Freedom and Prosperity, The Johnson Center at Troy University, May 2014 (

[2] “Troy University Report on RSA has Erroneous Assumptions,” by RSA Staff, The Advisor, July 2014 (

[3] Joshua Rauh, “Are State Public Pension Plans Sustainable? Why the Federal Government Should Worry about State Pension Liabilities,” National Tax Journal 63(3) p. 585-601, May 2010. (

[4] Ibid, p. 6 and p. 9.

[5] Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh, “Public Pension Promises: How Big Are They and What Are They Worth?” Journal of Finance 66 (4), 1211-1249, 2011 (

[6] Ibid p. 1224, “The actuarial method (item 3) combines our own data collection with information from the state and local pension data made available by the Center for Retirement Research (2006.)

[7] Ibid, p. 1239

[8] Rauh, (2010) “Are Public Pensions Sustainable?” p. 2.


Grants to Puerto Rico haven’t helped much

Greece’s monetary and fiscal issues have overshadowed a similar situation right in America’s own back yard: Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s governor recently called the commonwealth’s $72 billion in debt “unpayable” and this has made Puerto Rico’s bondholders more nervous than they already were. Puerto Rico’s bonds were previously downgraded to junk by the credit rating agencies and there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Puerto Rico’s ability to honor its obligations to both bond holders and its own workers, as the commonwealth’s pension system is drastically underfunded.   A major default would likely impact residents of the mainland U.S., since according to Morningstar most of the debt is owned by U.S. mutual funds, hedge funds, and mainland Americans.

So how did Puerto Rico get into this situation? Like many other places, including Greece and several U.S. cities, the government of Puerto Rico routinely spent more than it collected in revenue and then borrowed to fill the gap as shown in the graph below from Puerto Rico’s Office of Management and Budget. Over a recent 13 year period (2000 – 2012) Puerto Rico ran a deficit each year and accrued $23 billion in debt.

Puerto rico govt spending

Puerto Rico has a lot in common with many struggling cities in the U.S. that followed a similar fiscal path, such as a high unemployment rate of 12.4%, a shrinking labor force, stagnant or declining median household income, population flight, and falling house prices. Only 46.1% of the population 16 and over was in the labor force in 2012 (compared to an average of nearly 64% in the US in 2012) and the population declined by 4.8% from 2010 to 2014. It is difficult to raise enough revenue to fund basic government services when less than half the population is employed and the most able-bodied workers are leaving the country.

Like other U.S. cities and states, Puerto Rico receives intergovernmental grants from the federal government. As I have explained before, these grants reduce the incentives for a local government to get its fiscal house in order and misallocate resources from relatively responsible, growing areas to less responsible, shrinking areas. As an example, since 1975 Puerto Rico has received nearly $2.7 billion in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, has received over $900 million. The graph below shows the total amount of CDBGs awarded to the major cities of Puerto Rico from 1975 – 2014.

Total CDBGs Puerto Rico

As shown in the graph San Juan has received the bulk of the grant dollars. The graph below shows the amount by year for various years between 1980 and 2014 for San Juan and Puerto Rico as a whole plotted on the left vertical axis (bar graphs). On the right vertical axis is the amount of CDBG dollars per capita (line graphs). San Juan is in orange and Puerto Rico is in blue.

CDBGs per capita, yr Puerto Rico

San Juan has consistently received more dollars per capita than the other areas of Puerto Rico. Both total dollars and dollars per capita have been declining since 1980, which is when the CDBG program was near its peak funding level. As part of the 2009 Recovery Act, San Juan received an additional $2.8 million dollars and Puerto Rico as a country received another $5.9 million on top of the $32 million already provided by the program (not shown on the graph).

It’s hard to look at all of this redistribution and not consider whether it did any good. After all, $2.7 billion later Puerto Rico’s economy is struggling and their fiscal situation looks grim. Grant dollars from programs like the CDBG program consistently fail to make a lasting impact on the recipient’s economy. There are structural problems holding Puerto Rico’s economy back, such as the Jones Act, which increases the costs of goods on the island by restricting intra-U.S.-shipping to U.S. ships, and the enforcement of the U.S. minimum wage, which is a significant cost to employers in a place where the median wage is much lower than on the mainland. Intergovernmental grants and transfers do nothing to solve these underlying structural problems. But despite this reality, millions of dollars are spent every year with no lasting benefit.