Tag Archives: beneficiaries

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.

No, bailouts are not something to celebrate

Robert Samuelson at the Washington Post is celebrating the auto bailout.

Last December I had a piece in the Post in which I argued that “pro-business” policies like bailouts are actually bad for business. I offered five reasons:

  1. Pro-business policies undermine competition.
  2. They retard innovation
  3. They sucker workers into unsustainable careers.
  4. They encourage wasteful privilege seeking.
  5. They undermine the legitimacy of government and business.

Read my piece for the full argument.

But aren’t things different in the midst of a major economic and financial crisis? Shouldn’t we have more leeway for bailouts in exigent circumstances?

No. Here is why:

First, we should always remember that the concentrated beneficiaries of a bailout have every incentive to overstate its necessity while the diffuse interests that pay for it (other borrowers, taxpayers, un-favored competitors, and the future inheritors of a less dynamic and less competitive economy) have almost no incentive or ability to get organized and lobby against it.

Bailout proponents talk as if they know bailouts avert certain calamity. But the truth is that we can never know exactly what would have happened without a bailout. We can, however, draw on both economic theory and past experience. And both suggest that the macroeconomy of a world without bailouts is actually more stable than one with bailouts. This is because bailouts incentivize excessive risk (and, importantly, correlated risk taking). Moreover, because the bailout vs. no bailout call is inherently arbitrary, bailouts generate uncertainty.

Todd Zywicki at GMU law argues convincingly that normal bankruptcy proceedings would have worked just fine in the case of the autos.

Moreover, as Garett Jones and Katelyn Christ explain, alternative options like “speed bankruptcy” (aka debt-to-equity swaps) offer better ways to improve the health of institutions without completely letting creditors off the hook. This isn’t just blind speculation. The EU used this approach in its “bail in” of Cyprus and it seems to have worked pretty well.

Ironically, one can make a reasonable case that many (most?) bailouts are themselves the result of previous bailouts. The 1979 bailout of Chrysler taught a valuable lesson to the big 3 automakers and their creditors. It showed them that Washington would do whatever it took to save them. That, and decades of other privileges allowed the auto makers to ignore both customers and market realities.

Indeed, at least some of the blame for the entire 2008 debacle falls on the ‘too big to fail’ expectation that systematically encouraged most large financial firms to leverage up. While it was hardly the only factor, the successive bailouts of Continental Illinois (1984), the S&Ls (1990s), the implicit guarantee of the GSEs, etc., likely exacerbated the severity of the 2008 financial crisis. So a good cost-benefit analysis of any bailout should include some probability that it will encourage future excessive risk taking, and future calls for more bailouts. Once these additional costs are accounted for, bailouts look like significantly worse deals.

Adherence to the “rule of law” is more important in a crisis than it is in normal times. Constitutional prohibitions, statutory limits, and even political taboos are typically not needed in “easy cases.” It is the hard cases that make for bad precedent.

Ex-Im’s Deadweight Loss

To hear defenders of Ex-Im talk, you’d think that export subsidies are ALL upside and no downside. Economic theory suggests otherwise.

Clearly, some benefit from export subsidies. The most-obvious beneficiaries are the 10 or so U.S. manufacturers whose products capture the bulk of Ex-Im’s privileges (if they didn’t benefit, their “all hands on deck” public relations campaign to save the bank wouldn’t make a lot of sense).

Foreign purchasers who receive loans and loan guarantees from the bank in exchange for buying these products also clearly benefit.

The least-conspicuous beneficiaries are the private banks who finance these deals and get to offload up to 85 percent of the risk on to U.S. taxpayers. But they too clearly benefit.

Those are the upsides. But as economists are wont to say, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”

Behind each of these beneficiaries is someone left holding the bag: there are taxpayers who bear risks that private lenders are unable or unwilling to bear. There are consumers who must pay higher prices for products that are made artificially expensive by Ex-Im subsidies. And there are other borrowers who lose out on capital because they aren’t lucky enough to have the full faith and credit of the U.S. taxpayer standing behind them.

One might be tempted to think that gains of the winners roughly offset the losses of the losers. But basic economic analysis suggests that the losses exceed the gains.

A few simple diagrams illustrate this point.

First consider any subsidy of a private (that is, excludable and rivalrous) good. Perhaps the most relevant example is a subsidy to private lenders. This is shown in the familiar supply and demand diagram shown below. The quantity of loanable funds is displayed along the horizontal axis and the price of a loan—the interest rate—is shown on the vertical axis.

People want loans to invest in their projects. We call this the “Demand for Investment.” It is shown as the blue, downward-sloping line. It is downward sloping because there are diminishing marginal returns to investment and because if you have to pay a higher interest rate, you will borrow less.

Other people have money to lend. We call this the “Supply of Savings.” It is depicted below as the solid red, upward-sloping line. It is upward sloping because there are increasing opportunity costs to lending out money and lenders must be enticed with higher and higher interest rates to lend more and more money.

The key to understanding this diagram—and this is a point that non-economists tend to find unintuitive—is that there is an optimal quantity of loans and it is not infinity. There is some point beyond which the marginal opportunity cost of further lending exceeds the marginal expected benefit from these investments.

Now consider what happens when the government guarantees the loans. Knowing that taxpayers will cover up to 85 percent of their losses, rational lenders will be willing to supply any given quantity of loans at a lower interest rate. Thus, the supply of savings shifts to the lower, dashed red line. But just because loan guarantees shield lenders from the true opportunity cost of these funds, it does not mean that the true opportunity cost goes away. In this case, taxpayers wear the risk. (For a dated but lucid explanation of the true opportunity cost associated with Ex-Im, see this Minneapolis Fed paper).

Society as a whole is made poorer because scarce resources are redirected from higher-valued uses toward lower-valued uses. In other words, those who lose end up losing more than the winners win. Economists call this “dead weight loss” (DWL). It is represented by the red triangle in the diagram below (click to enlarge).

DWL of a Subsidy

So far, this is the basic economic theory of a subsidy. But economists have developed more-specific models to understand subsidies in the context of international trade.

To get a handle on this, check out some videos by Professor Michael Moore of George Washington University. If international trade diagrams are new to you, I’d recommend looking at these diagrams before watching his videos. Then watch Professor Moore’s excellent illustration of an export subsidy in a small country, followed by the slightly more-complicated—but more relevant—case of export subsidies in a large country.

Small country case:

Large country case:

This is the basic case for free trade and it is widely accepted by economists. Some astute readers may know that there are some interesting theoretical exceptions to this rule. These exceptions derive from what are known as “strategic trade” models. They posit that in some situations—such as oligopolistic industries—governments can theoretically manage to use subsidies to make domestic firms win more than domestic consumers lose. The world is still poorer, but domestic winnings outweigh domestic losses.

These models are worth understanding. But the truth is they have not—and should not—undermine the basic economic case for free trade. The best exposition of this point is a classic piece by Paul Krugman called “Is Free Trade Passe?” In it, Krugman carefully walks the reader through the logic of these models. He then notes, quite rightly, that:

The normative conclusion that this justifies a greater degree of government intervention in trade, however, has met with sharp criticism and opposition—not least from some of the creators of the new theory themselves.

Krugman then ticks through the reasons why free trade should still be the reasonable rule of thumb. For one thing, since the strategic trade models seem to only work in oligopolistic industries, policy makers would need to know exactly how oligopolists will respond to these subsidies and the fact is “economists do not have reliable models of how oligopolists behave.” Then there is the problem of entry. Even if a government does solve the empirical problem of anticipating and accurately responding to oligopolists, it “may still not be able to raise national income if the benefits of its intervention are dissipated by entry of additional firms.”

Krugman’s final two critiques are fascinating because they are precisely the sorts of concerns a George Mason economist might raise. First, there is what Hayek might call the information problem:

[T]o pursue a strategic trade policy successfully, a government must not only understand the effects of its policy on the targeted industry, which is difficult enough, but must also understand all the industries in the economy well enough that it can judge that an advantage gained here is worth advantage lost elsewhere. Therefore, the information burden is increased even further.

And finally, there is the public choice problem. At the international level, “In many (though not all) cases, a trade war between two interventionist governments will leave both countries worse off than if a hands-off approach were adopted by both.” And at the domestic level:

Governments do not necessarily act in the national interest, especially when making detailed microeconomic interventions. Instead, they are influenced by interest group pressures. The kinds of interventions that new trade theory suggests can raise national income will typically raise the welfare of small, fortunate groups by large amounts, while imposing costs on larger, more diffuse groups. The result, as with any microeconomic policy, can easily be that excessive or misguided intervention takes place because the beneficiaries have more knowledge and influence than the losers.

To this, one could add a host of problems that arise when governments privilege particular firms or industries.

Which (finally) brings me to the bottom line: the economic case remains strong that export subsidies to domestic firms like Boeing and GE end up costing American consumers, borrowers, and taxpayers more than they end up benefiting the privileged firms.

Some private sector pensions also face funding trouble

A new report by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp (PBGC) warns that while the market recovery has helped many multiemployer pension plans improve their funding there remain some plans that,”will not be able to raise contributions or reduce benefits sufficiently to avoid insolvency,” affecting between 1 and 1.5 million of ten million enrollees.

Multiemployer plans are defined as those which unions collectively bargained for, with multiple employers participating within an industry (e.g. building, construction, retail, trucking, mining and entertainment). They are also known as Taft-Hartley plans. Multiemployer plans grew out of the idea of offering pension benefits for unionized employees in transient kinds of work such as construction. These plans have been in trouble for awhile due to a variety of factors. Many plans have taken measures by increasing contributions and in a few cases cutting benefits according to GAO. But those steps have not been nearly enough to fix the growing shortfalls.

When a PBGC-insured pension plan goes insolvent beneficiaries are only guaranteed a fraction of their benefits. Those funds come from the premiums paid by remaining plans. The projected deficit for the ailing multiemployer plans range from $49.6 billion to $79.6 billion in 2022. By contrast the PBGC reports that single employer plans fare better with the current funding deficit of $27.4 billion narrowing to $7.6 billion by 2023.

Source: FY 2013 PBGC Projections Report


The unseen costs of the Ex-Im bank

The great 19th Century French economist Frederic Bastiat had good advice when thinking about economics. Actions, habits, and laws, he said,

[produce] not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

The good economist, he said, “takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.”

So it is with the US Ex-Im bank.

The independent federal agency helps foreign firms finance the purchase of American-made products. They do this by selling insurance to these foreign purchasers, by directly loaning them money, and by guaranteeing loans that others like Goldman Sachs make to these firms.

Ex-Im’s activities produce some seen benefits and these are widely touted by the bank and it’s boosters, such as the National Association of Manufacturers. These seen benefits are:

The gains to foreign purchasers

Since most foreign purchasers are sub-prime borrowers (what could go wrong, right?), the bank’s assistance allows them to obtain credit that private lenders would otherwise be unwilling to extend. At least in the short run, this helps these foreign purchasers.

The gains to U.S. manufacturers

Ex-Im’s loans, loan guarantees and insurance all increase demand for some domestic manufacturers’ products. This allows them to sell more stuff and to sell it at higher prices than they otherwise would. The bank boasts that, on average, “87% of transactions benefit small business exporters of U.S.-made goods and services.” Note the use of the words “transactions” and “small.” The bank is slicing the data here in a way that isn’t entirely honest. More on which below.

But as Bastiat would tell us, these seen benefits are less than half the story. There are also a host of less-conspicuous effects, and all of them are bad. These include:

Excessive risk

Rational lenders are unwilling to finance risky bets unless they are compensated with higher rates of return. These higher interest rates, in turn, make risky borrowers think twice about undertaking bad investments. This is a feature of a well-functioning financial system, not a bug.

Like all goods, capital is scarce and this feature helps ensure it isn’t wasted, steering it to the projects where it can do the most good for people. Ex-Im’s activities, on the other hand, steer capital—at artificially low interest rates—to sub-prime borrowers so they can buy big, expensive products. This is bad for the world economy because it misallocates capital. But in the long run it’s bad for many of the borrowers themselves because it encourages them to take on risks they can ill-afford (which is why I hedged above when I said they gain “in the short run”). Another great French economist, Veronique de Rugy, highlighted this fact in a recent post. As she points out, this isn’t just a hypothetical concern:

In the 1990s, the Ex-Im Bank was so excited to “support” the people of the Republic of Nauru by extending financing assistance to Air Nauru to purchase some, you guessed it, Boeings. When Air Nauru defaulted in 2002, the Ex-Im Bank seized Nauru’s only jet straight off of the runway — leaving the country’s athletes stranded on the tarmac after the Micronesian Games.

Higher prices for manufactured products

Next consider the unseen effect on domestic purchasers. Like Air Nauru, domestic airlines such as Delta, United, Southwest, and dozens of others also buy Boeing aircraft. Unlike Air Nauru, these firms don’t receive loan subsidies. This hurts all of them once, and some of them twice.

First, the international carriers among this group like Delta lose market share to Ex-Im-privileged firms like Korean Air and Emirates Air. This explains why Delta has filed a lawsuit against Ex-Im.

Second, all US carriers—even those like Southwest that only serve the US market—end up paying higher prices for planes because Ex-Im privileges increase the demand for, and therefore the price of, airplanes. As Vero notes in this piece, this has many air carriers worried about a jet plane bubble. Simple economics, of course, predicts that some of this cost will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher ticket prices.

Privileges for banks

Presumably, many of the legislators who routinely vote to reauthorize Ex-Im do so because they want to subsidize domestic manufacturers. Unfortunately, the laws of economics dictate that the actual beneficiaries of a subsidy need not be the intended beneficiaries.

In the case of Ex-Im, a large chunk of the benefit is captured by privileged banks instead of by manufacturers. Thanks to Ex-Im’s loan guarantees, banks are able to make loans to foreign buyers while unloading most of the risk. This is yet one more way in which banks, “privatize gains and socialize losses” (to borrow a phrase used by Nobelist Joseph Stiglitz at an Occupy Wall Street rally).

This privilege sits on top of a pile of other privileges. The IMF recently estimated that in most years the biggest of these privileges—the too big to fail subsidy—is larger than bank profits!

Few gain at the expense of the many

Consider, again, the bank’s assertion that 87 percent of its “transactions” benefit “small business” exporters. Why focus on transactions? Wouldn’t it be more transparent to focus on the size of these transactions? When you break it down this way, as Vero does in this piece, you see that 81 percent of the value of Ex-Im assistance goes to “big businesses” as the bank defines them.

And just how do they define big and small business? Answer: not in the same way others like the Small Business Administration do. Ex-Im’s definition of “small” manufacturers and wholesalers is three times larger (by number of employees) than the SBA’s definition and it includes firms with revenues as high as $21.5 million a year.

A host of pathologies

As I emphasize in the Pathology of Privilege, these favors to a select few domestic manufactures and banks come with a host of problems. In short, privilege “misdirects resources, impedes genuine economic progress, breeds corruption, and undermines the legitimacy of both the government and the private sector.”

But Ex-Im and its beneficiaries don’t want you to see that.

Distinguishing between Medicaid Expenditures and Health Outcomes

As the LA Times reports, the Obama administration has vowed not to approve any cuts to Medicaid during budget negotiations:

Preserving Medicaid funding became even more crucial to the Obama administration after the Supreme Court ruled last summer that states were not required to expand their Medicaid coverage. Administration officials are working hard to convince states to expand and do not want any federal funding cuts that could discourage governors from implementing the law.

“There is a big irony,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Washington-based Families USA, a leading Medicaid advocate. “The fact that the Supreme Court undermined the Medicaid expansion is now resulting in greater support and a deeper commitment to making sure the program is not cut back.”

Paying for Medicaid remains a major challenge for states. The program has been jointly funded by states and the federal government since it was created. And many states, including California, Illinois and New York, have had to make painful cutbacks in recent years to balance their budgets by reducing physician fees and paring benefits, such as dental care.

However, protecting Medicaid spending — without changing incentives for the healthcare industry or patients — does not necessarily mean improved health outcomes for beneficiaries. As of 2011, nearly one-third of doctors said that they would not accept new Medicaid patients because they are losing money on those who they do see, indicating not only a lower quality of care for Medicaid patients compared to those on private insurance, but reduced access to care. Under the current Medicaid structure, states are incentivized to spend more to receive larger federal matching funds grants, but at the same time federal requirements limit opportunities to improve quality of care through innovation.

The State Health Flexibility Act proposed by Representative Todd Rokita (R-IN) proposes a way to change these incentives. Under the State Health Flexibility Act, state funding for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program would be capped at current spending levels. At the same time, states would be released from many federal Medicaid mandates and instead would have the flexibility to determine eligibility and benefits at the state level. Rokita proposed this bill last year, and parts of the bill made it into the House budget.

While this bill seems unlikely to make any progress under the current administration, it mirrors reforms proposed by at least one democratic state governor. Oregon’s Governor John Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, received a Medicaid waiver in 2011 to receive a one-time $1.9 billion payment from the federal government to close the state’s Medicaid funding gap. In exchange, he promised to repay this money if the state failed to keep Medicaid costs growth at a rate two-percent below the rest of the country. Kitzhaber sought to achieve this by allowing local knowledge to guide cost savings. The Washington Post reports:

Oregon divided the state into 15 region and gave each one a set amount to care for each patient. These regions can divvy their dollars however they please, so long as patients hit certain quality metrics, like ensuring that adolescents get well-care visits and that steps are taken to control high blood pressure.

The hope is that each of the 15 regions, known as coordinated care organizations, will invest only in the most cost-effective health care. A behavioral health worker who can prevent emergency admissions becomes a lot more valuable, the thinking goes, when Medicaid funding is limited.

While the Oregon plan is not a block grant — the federal government has not capped the amount that it will provide to the state — it does share some similarities with the State Health Flexibility Act. The state and its designated regions have a strong incentive to provide their Medicaid recipients better health outcomes at lower costs because if they fail the state will have to repay $1.9 billion to the federal government. Additionally, the state and the regions have the freedom to find cost savings at the level of patients and hospitals, which isn’t possible under federal requirements.

Discount rates and pension plans: 98 percent of economists agree….

I realize that 98 percent sounds impossibly unified around any subject. But I find this recent survey by the University of Chicago’s IGM Economics Experts panel especially compelling. According to their survey of 39 professional economists, 98 percent agree that public sector plans understate pension liabilities and costs by using high discount rates.

Here’s the question as stated:

Question A: By discounting pension liabilities at high interest rates under government accounting standards, many U.S. state and local governments understate their pension liabilities and the costs of providing pensions to public-sector workers.

The response:

49 percent strongly agree

49 percent agree

Who was surveyed?

39 economists – from across the field –  including Richard Thaler (Chicago), Jose Scheinkman (Princeton), Robert Hall (Stanford), Austen Goolsbee (Chicago, and former advisor to President Obama), Barry Eichengreen (Berkeley), Claudia Goldin (Harvard), Alberto Alesina (Harvard) and Daron Acemoglu (MIT).

You can check out who was surveyed and their academic credentials at the site.

This principle concerning the valuation of pension liabilities is not very controversial (or even interesting) for economists as M. Barton Waring has noted in, Pension Finance. It only remains controversial among actuaries and policymakers/pension plan analysts and advisors in this one corner of the world: U.S. public sector pension plans. It is partly a matter of professional training. Economists and actuaries are using different toolkits to evaluate plans. (There are notable exceptions, see, Gold and Bader). It is also a matter of the implications of what happens when governments use discount rates more in line with the guaranteed nature of public plans. Lowering discount rates increases the necessary contribution.

But if governments are serious about offering these plans as guaranteed to retirees, then they should be especially interested in valuing them accurately.



Principles of Pension Accounting Part 1

Much of Eileen and Ben’s recent work has focused has focused on public defined benefit pensions and the problems that are common in public pension accounting. This post will explore some of the theoretical foundations that lie behind their arguments for reform. These principles might be foreign to people who haven’t studied economics or accounting, but all state taxpayers and public employees depend on responsible pension fund management. The second post in this short series will outline some of the incentives that policymakers face in managing pension funds.

Determining the amount of money that goes into a public pension fund requires an understanding of the time value of money, or an investment’s net present value. Because of the time value of money, funds in a savings account or invested in bonds earn interest; people prefer to have money now rather than later. In order to get a loan, borrowers must pay interest for the service, and conversely, savers are compensated for not spending their money today.

Net present value means that a fund’s outgoing payments and incoming payments must be adjusted to the present value. Calculating the net present value of pension obligations requires selecting an appropriate interest rate. This interest rate is called the discount rate.

In the case of public pensions, the appropriate discount rate to value fund liabilities, or outgoing payments is the risk-free discount rate. Unlike other retirement vehicles in which savers decide what level of risk they would like to take on, defined benefit pensions are typically guaranteed by the states and municipalities that provide them. As such, using any discount rate other than the risk-free rate unfairly transfers risk to taxpayers.

We can easily determine the risk-free discount rate by looking at the interest rate of Treasury bonds. The right bond to look at is the 15-year Treasury bond because this is the midpoint of the stream of cashflows that goes to pension fund beneficiaries. Currently, this rate is about 2.25%.

Unfortunately, defined benefit public pensions do not use this discount rate. Instead, they choose higher discount rates based on the return on investment that they hope their funds will earn. Most states assume a rate of return of around 8%. This higher discount rate leads states’ unfunded pension liabilities to appear smaller than they actually are, masking their true bill.

Assuming a lower discount rate leads to a lower Net Present Value of the fund and thus a higher liability. Elected officials and fund managers may view the risk-free discount rate as making retirement benefits cost more because it unveils the true size of unfunded liabilities. In reality though, the risk-free discount rate provides an honest assessment of how much funding these plans require.

By banking on higher returns than the risk-free discount rate, fund managers opened the door for the possibility that they are now experiencing: large unfunded liabilities. Both the net present value of pension funds and of pension liabilities must be valued with the appropriate risk-free discount rate for states and municipalities to get out of the current funding gap and to ensure that the problem is avoided in the future. Without proper accounting methodology, defined benefit pension funds expose taxpayers and beneficiaries to high levels of risk, as these benefits are supposed to be guaranteed by the government, putting taxpayers on the hook.

Red ink flows in state-run prepaid tuition programs

In three years the Prepaid Alabama College Tuition Program (PACT) will run dry. The State Treasurer reports PACT which pays $100 million in tuition a year, has $347 million in investments remaining. To fulfill its obligations to all 40,000 participants over the next 20 years, PACT needs an additional $843.9 million. The state Supreme Court recently struck down a potential solution put forth by the legislature: cap payouts to 2010 tuition levels and have beneficiaries make up the difference. The remedy didn’t pass scrutiny due to a 2010 law that promises PACT be 100 percent funded.

PACT worked for about 20 years until hit with the combination of unrelenting tuition inflation and a bear market which halved the plan’s investments.

Unfortunately, Alabama isn’t the only state with a prepaid program in the red. The Wall Street Journal reports South Carolina’s plan expects to run out of funds in 2017. Tennessee’s budget seeks an infusion of $15 million into its program. And West Virginia recently transferred funds from an unclaimed-property program to shore up its struggling prepaid plan.

In remarkably bad shape is IllinoisCrain’s Chicago Business finds that Illinois’ 12-year old $1.1 billion prepaid plan has the largest shortfall in the entire nation. Worse still, plan managers are making up for losses by embracing a huge amount of risk. In 2011, 47 percent of Illinois’ prepaid tuition plan was shifted into alternatives and investment expectations set at 8.75 percent. An expectation that far outstrips any other prepaid plan by a long-shot. (Florida has the country’s largest prepaid tuition plan and operates with an expected return of 4.3 percent on plan investments).

This year the agency that runs the prepaid program, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission ,has dropped that return assumption to 7.5 percent.  According to its actuarial report College Illinois! has enough money to pay out tuition for a few more years.

Prepaid plans are a type of 529 plan (the other is the college savings program) that allow parents to purchase contracts (or credits) for their children’s education.  The prepaid tuition plan locks-in tuition for the current year for eligible in-state colleges. Contributions are invested and benefits paid from those funds. To remain well-funded asset performance must track or exceed tuition increases. Given the rapid increase in college tuition which on average has increased 5.6 percent per year over the rate of inflation in just the past decade, it’s easy to see why so many plans have gone bust.

PACT participants who may not recoup their initial investments are understandably upset, “everything about the way the plan was promoted implied it was backed by the state.”

But, just how good is the state’s guarantee?

That is often in the fine-print. The WSJ finds three levels of guarantee in operation. 1) Full Faith and Credit – the state promises to pay for shortfalls if the fund goes dry. (Washington, Texas, Ohio, Mississippi and Florida)  2) Legislative appropriation – the legislature must consider an appropriation to cover shortfalls. (Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina and West Virginia)  and 3) Fund Assets – the plan is solely backed by the assets in the plan. (Alabama, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.)

Alabama’s PACT participants found they had little recourse in 2009.  Since the state doesn’t guarantee payment of tuition,they were technically out of luck. However, after a series of demonstrations and hearings in 2010 the Alabama legislature granted a $548 million bailout, tiding the plan over for the next three years. And then what? The state legislature filed a bill last week to tweak the previous solution to the court’s liking. It is again proposing to cap tuition payouts at 2010 levels.

Strangely, in spite of the risk present in pre-paid tuition plans they continue to provide a “flight to safety” for some investors. Last year growth in pre-paid plans outstripped growth in 529 college savings plans. The lure of higher returns attracts some who are banking on the ability of governments to keep their promise to pay it out regardless of market performance or the fine-print.

Reforming State and Local Pension Plans

The Government Accountability Office recently issued a report that provides a nice analysis on the changes that have been taking place in state and local pension plans over the past few years. According to the GAO’s tabulations, the following reforms have been implemented since 2008:

 • Reducing benefits: 35 states have reduced pension benefits, mostly for future employees due to legal provisions protecting benefits for current employees and retirees. A few states, like Colorado, have reduced post-retirement benefit increases for all members and beneficiaries of their pension plans.

• Increasing member contributions: Half of the states have increased member contributions, thereby shifting a larger share of pension costs to employees.

• Switching to a hybrid approach: Georgia, Michigan, and Utah recently implemented hybrid approaches, which incorporate a defined contribution plan component, shifting some investment risk to employees.

The reforms listed in this report seem to indicate that some states and localities are taking a step in the right direction in regards to pension reform. There is, however, a lot more work that needs to be done. One reform, for example, that we need to see more of is shifting public sector pensions from defined benefit to defined contribution plans (see Scott Beaulier’s recent paper for more on this topic). As the GAO report points out, roughly 78 percent of state and local employees participated in defined benefit plans in 2011 – compared to 18 percent of private sector employees.

Another important topic that this report touches on is the discount rate debate. That is, whether or not states should base the discount rate on the expected return of plan assets or on relevant interest rates in the bond market (Eileen Norcross has done some valuable research on this topic here and here).