Tag Archives: GASB

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.

Corporate welfare spending is not transparent

Over a century ago, the Italian political economist Amilcare Puviani suggested that policy makers have a strong incentive to obscure the cost of government. Known as “fiscal illusion,” the idea is that voters will be willing to spend more money on government if they think its costs is lower than it actually is. Fiscal illusion explains a great deal of public choices, including the popularity of deficit spending.

It also explains why the public knows the least about some of the most controversial items in the public budget such as corporate welfare. But some would like to change this. Here are Jess Fields and Tom “Smitty” Smith, writing in the (subscription required) Austin-American Statesman:

Texans believe in government transparency and accountability. For this reason, we have some of the most advanced open-government initiatives in the nation. Yet one policy area remains outside the view of the general public: economic development.

When local governments cut deals that result in millions in incentives, they can do it behind closed doors in “executive session” — legally — thanks to exceptions to the Open Meetings and Public Information Acts for “economic development negotiations.”

Fields is a senior policy analyst at the free enterprise Texas Public Policy Foundation, while Smith is the director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a progressive consumer advocacy group started by Ralph Nader in the ‘70s.

Texans aren’t the only ones interested in making corporate welfare more transparent. The Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) is considering rules that would require governments to report the tax privileges that they hand out to businesses. Here is Liz Farmer, writing in Governing Magazine:

Specifically, GASB is proposing that state and local governments disclose information about property and other tax abatement agreements in their annual financial statements. If approved, the new disclosures could shed light on an area of government finance and provide hard data on information that is assembled sporadically, if at all. Scores of public and private groups support the proposal and it has proven to be one of GASB’s most debated topic yet, as nearly 300 groups or individuals submitted comment letters to the board. But many still say the requirements don’t go far enough.

She notes that the proposal misses a number of tax privileges including:

  • Tax increment financing (TIF),
  • Agreements to discount personal income taxes,
  • “[P]rograms that reduce the tax liabilities of businesses or similar classes of taxpayers.”

Because of these omissions the new GASB rules may only capture about one-third of all tax expenditures.

Puviani would have predicted that.

Strong words from the SEC on Public Sector Pensions

As state and local governments begin to pull back the curtain on the true value of their pension liabilities with the implementation of GASB 68, Daniel Gallagher, Commissioner of the SEC issued an important statement last week, noting in plain terms that how governments measure their liabilities would have serious repercussions in the private sector. Here’s part of the remarks worth considering:

 …for years, state and local governments have used lax governmental accounting standards to hide the yawning chasm in their balance sheets…

The riskiness of a pension obligation depends on state law.[32]  If pension obligations have the same preference as general obligation debt, then the municipality’s own municipal bond yield (generally around 5%) would be the proper discount rate.[33]  Or, if as we’ve seen from Detroit, pensions will be saved before all else, then we should use a default-free measure to discount the liability:  specifically, the Treasury zero-coupon yield curve.[34]  This would result in a discount rate in the low 3% range.

Obviously, the higher the discount rate, the lower the present value of the liability.  The difference between a discount rate in the range of seven percent and one in the range of three percent is in large part responsible for the hidden $3 trillion in unfunded liabilities that are currently going unreported.

This lack of transparency can amount to a fraud on municipal bond investors, and it does a disservice to state and local government workers and retirees by saving elected officials from making the hard choices either to fully fund the pension promises that were made to public employees,[35] or not to make the promises in the first place.

In the private sector, the SEC would quickly bring fraud charges against any corporate issuer and its officers for playing such numbers games.  And, we would also pursue and punish the so-called fiduciaries who recklessly seek yield to meet unrealistic accounting assumptions.  We should not treat municipalities any differently.”

GASB 68 asks that sponsors use a high- yield, tax exempt 20-year municipal GO bond only on the unfunded portion of the liability. This will reveal bigger funding gaps in public sector pension plans. But it does not reveal the full value of the liability since it allows sponsors to continue using the higher discount rates on the funded portion of the liability.

 In addition to using the new GASB standards, Commissioner Gallagher advises that governments should also disclose their pension liabilities on a risk-free basis. This would have the effect of showing the value of these promises on a ‘guaranteed-to-be-paid’ basis. Commissioner Gallagher’s suggestions are extremely sensible and a call to basic transparency in public sector liability reporting.

Ignoring the value of pension benefits is not going to make them cheaper to fund, and the longer a state waits to accurately measure the liabilities and payments, the worse it gets. Just ask New Jersey –  which is struggling to balance its budget and meet a fraction of a fraction of the required annual pension contribution to its state pension system. The situation is so dire that it could trigger yet another downgrade for the Garden State.

 

Municipal pension news: Baltimore to offer DC plan

Earlier this month, Baltimore’s city council approved a measure to give the city’s workers a choice between a defined contribution or defined benefit plan plan. According to Pensions and Investments, new hires will contribute 5 percent of their salary to whichever plan they choose, a significant increase from the 1 percent that workers were required to begin contributing to the city’s pension system last year. (Previously, workers had not contributed to their pension). As the article notes, the choice between a DB and a DC plan is a compromise. Mayor Rawlings-Blake preferred to move all newly hired employees to a DC plan, but this was not agreed upon by unions. In total, Baltimore two pension systems have an unfunded liability of $1.4 billion on a GASB-basis.

Baltimore’s proposed reforms are a bit stronger than the plan currently considered by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, which is largely focused on filling in very daunting funding gaps in the city’s multiple plans. The Wall Street Journal reports that the mayor’s plan to raise property taxes by $250 million represents an increase of about $50 a year for the owner of a $250,000 home. And, it’s not enough to cover the gap. The state will demand an additional $600 million in annual payments for the city’s police and fire funds by 2016. In addition, Mayor Emanuel proposes benefit cuts, such as  increased employee contributions and reduced COLAs. But structural reforms aren’t being pushed too strongly, instead, the focus in Chicago appears to be a search for more revenues. Consider a proposal floated by The Chicago Teachers Union. They would like to see a per-transaction tax levied on futures, options, and stock trades processed on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and Chicago Board Options Exchange.  Both the CME and Mayor Emanuel oppose the idea recognizing that it will simply drive the financial industry out of town.

 

America’s best pension system? The case of Milwaukee

NPR reports that while many municipal and state governments’s pension systems are suffering from deep underfunding, there are some outliers. One such city is Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With a funding ratio of 90 percent, Milwaukee’s public employees’ plan would seem to have beaten the odds with a very simple (and laudable) strategy: fully fund the pension plan every year.

It is common sense. Make the full annual contribution and the plan can ensure that the benefits promised are available when retirement day arrives.

Except, thanks to government accounting guidance, it’s a little more complicated than that.

The problem is that the annual contribution the city is (prudently) making each year is calculated incorrectly. This flawed approach is why Detroit could claim a few short years ago that its plans were 100 percent funded. It is why New Jersey thought its plans were overfunded in the late 1990s.

Public plans calculate their liabilities – and thus the annual amount needed to contribute to the fund – based on how much they expect the assets to return. Milwaukee’s discount rate is 8.25%, recently lowered from 8.5%.

Unfortunately, if these liabilities are considered safe and guaranteed by the government, then they should valued as such. A better rate to use is the yield US Treasury bonds. In economist-speak: the value of liabilities and assets are independent. By way of analogy: Your monthly mortgage payment doesn’t change based on how much you think you may earn in your 401(K).

On a default-free, market valuation basis, Milwaukee’s pension plans is 40% funded and has a funding gap of $6.5 billion.

The good news – Milwaukee’s elected officials have funding discipline. They aren’t skipping, skimming, or torturing their contributions based on  the desire to avoid paying their bills. And this can be said of many other cities and states. Funding a pension shouldn’t be magic or entail lots of uncertainty for the sponsor or employee.

But that leads to the bad news. Even when governments are responsible managers, they’re being sunk by bad accounting. Public sector accounting assumptions (GASB 25) lead governments to miscalculate the bill for public sector pension contributions. Even when governments pay 100 percent of the recommended amount – as it is presently calculated – this amount is too little to fully fund pension promises.

Last week I posted the Tax Foundation’s map of what pension funding levels look like under market valuation. Almost all state plans are under the 50 percent funded level. That is, they are in far worse funding shape than their current accounts recognize.

Until plans de-link the value of the liability from the expected performance of plan assets, even the best -managed plans are going to be in danger of not having put aside enough to pay these promises. Even the best intentions cannot undo the effects of bad accounting assumptions.

 

 

GASB’s new guidance and the well-funded plan

As of June 2012, GASB has put forth two new accounting guidelines to help value public sector pension plans. These are GASB 67 and GASB 68. These rules help government actuaries to calculate the value of plan assets and plan liabilities. The new rules are a replacement of GASB 25 and GASB 27. The former guidance – GASB 25 –  has been roundly critiqued by economists for conflating assets and liabilities for the purposes of valuation – a violation of several established principles of economics and finance. The main critique of GASB 25 has been covered many times. The old guidance allowed public sector pension plans to chose a discount rate to value pension plans liabilities based on the expected returns of plan assets – roughly 8 percent annually. The critique of economists is basically this. The value of the liability is independent from the value of the assets. How the liability is financed is independent from how it is valued. The discount rate that should be used to value the liability should be based on the characteristics of the liability. Public plans should be valued according to their relative safety (or risk) as government-guranteed payments to workers. Economists suggest the rate on Treasury bonds is a good choice. Using the expected return on assets is logically misguided and leads to all kinds of trouble – plan underfunding, diminished contributions, more risk taking on the investment side. Will GASB 67 and GASB 68 fix this? No. According to the new standards (which are only for reporting purposes), plans will apply two different discount rates to calculate plan liabilities. To the funded portion (the portion backed by assets)  the assumed rate of return on plan assets will be used. For the unfunded portion plans will use the yield on municipal bonds. Andrew Biggs notes in a recent paper, “the logic is precisely backwards.”And further, the new standards,

…. cement in place the flawed notion that boosting investment risk makes a pension better funded, before a dime of higher returns have been realized. Under the current rules, a pension that shifts to riskier investments can discount its liabilities using a higher interest rate. Under the new rules, a plan that takes greater investment risk can assume its trust funds will last longer and therefore fewer years of benefits would be discounted using lower municipal bond rates. The incentives to take greater investment risk, particularly at a time when state and local governments would be hard-­‐pressed to increase pension funding, are obvious.

How will the new GASB standards affect plans individually? Alicia Munnell and her co-authors at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College have calculated that. Well-funded plans look pretty good. Consider Delaware. Under GASB 25 Delaware’s main pension plan is 94 percent funded with an unfunded liability of $456 million. Using GASB’s new guidance – the blended rate of 8% – the state employees’ plan is 83 percent funded. And here is my rough estimate of the same plan using market valuation. Using a discount rate of 3.6 percent (the yield on 10 and 20 year Treasury bonds in 2011 when the valuation was performed) Delaware’s State Employees’ Plan is 51 percent funded and it has an unfunded liability of $6.9 billion. That also means the normal cost for the employer to fund employee benefits rises from 9.74 percent of payroll or $125 million a year to 12 percent of payroll or $216 million per year On the asset side Delaware is a leader in shifting its investment portfolio to riskier investments. Between 2002 and 2011 Delaware increased its exposure to alternatives from 9 percent to 24 percent. This puts Delaware in fifth place (in 2009) for the percentage of pension assets invested in alternatives. But with higher returns comes more risk, and that is something the new accounting guidance still does not adequately account for.

 

The lessons of bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the plenary session for the Association for Budgeting and Financial Management (ABFM)’s annual meeting in New York. My co-panelists included NYU finance professor Dall Forsythe who as Budget Director for the State of New York during the fiscal crisis that pushed New York City to near bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, gave us an inside look of what went into staving off fiscal collapse.  Professor Forsythe explained New York City may not be a generalizable example of municipal bankruptcy but it is an excellent study of  how a major city avoided collapse and rebuilt itself into a financial powerhouse over the following decades.

Ted Orson also spoke. As lead legal council for Central Falls’ recent bankruptcy proceedings, Mr. Orson gave a riveting talk about how leaders in Central Falls worked with the state government and retired workers to come to terms with the city’s empty coffers. It was not easy. Retired firemen and police officers were asked to take a 55 percent cut in their pension benefits. I think his talk underscored the importance of transparency and truth in pension accounting. No one wants to have it get to this point.

Newsmakers 9/23: Gallogly, Orson

My talk zoned in on pension accounting – the new GASB rules and what they mean. In a followup post I’ll explore how GASB 67 and GASB 68 are likely to affect government’s accounts. And also the role that Moody’s decision to discount pensions using a corporate bond rate is going to change the way we view municipal and state finances.

 

Proposed changes to Illinois’ pension benefits

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn proposed several changes to the state’s pension plan last week designed to shore up the state’s fund that has one of the nation’s largest unfunded liabilities. The Chicago Tribune summarizes the potential changes:

Illinois’ unfunded pension liability has grown to a huge $83 billion after the state skimped on funding for years. In fiscal 2013, which begins July 1, the state’s payment into the pension system will hit $5.2 billion, or 15 percent of general revenue spending – up substantially from 6 percent in 2008, according to the governor’s office.

Quinn, a Democrat, said his plan would leave the system, which covers state, local school, university and community college employees, 100 percent funded by 2042. Without it, he said Illinois will have expected payments totaling nearly $310 billion between 2012 and 2045, when a $32.7 billion unfunded liability would still remain.

“This plan rescues our pension system and allows public employees who have faithfully contributed to the system to continue to receive pension benefits,” he said.

Under the proposal, workers’ pension contributions would increase by 3 percent, while cost-of-living adjustments would be reduced. A retirement age of 67 would also be phased in.

Governor Quinn says that these changes will save state taxpayers between $65 and $85 billion in the next 30 years. The plan would also take steps to try to reduce abuse of the public sector pension system on the part of union employees that the Tribune exposed this fall.

The reforms are designed to bring the Illinois pension fund in line with the practices that the Governmental Accounting Standards Board advocates. While these reforms are marginal improvements toward putting the pension fund on a sustainable trajectory, they do not address the fundamental problem with the GASB standards. Public pensions are guaranteed benefits, so they should be valued at the risk free discount rate and invested in safe assets like US Treasury bonds. The unfunded liability is, in reality, much larger than what GASB standards suggest because they do not require the use of the risk free discount rate.

Furthermore, the reforms would do nothing to ensure that future politicians do not continue the decades of irresponsible practices that have gotten the state’s fund to where it is today. While the plan says that going forward the state will make the required contributions, we know that current legislators cannot tie the hands of future legislators. Future policymakers could easily return to skipping pension fund payments and painting a rosy picture of the funds assets with accounting gimmicks.

As Eileen and Ben point out in their paper “Illinois’s Fiscal Breaking Points,” the state needs larger institutional reforms to achieve fiscal stability and improve its bond rating. These changes could include a constitutional cap on the unfunded liability, or, better, a transition away from defined benefit public pensions to a defined contribution system.

CalPERS proceeds with lawsuit against credit ratings agencies

A judge in San Francisco has ruled that the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) may proceed with a lawsuit against Moody’s and Standard and Poors. The suit was brought in July 2009 on the grounds that the credit ratings agencies misled CalPERS investors by giving its highest ratings to three companies that tanked in 2007 and 2008.The ratings agencies claim the suit is groundless since ratings opinions are a matter of free speech. CalPERS counters that the agencies furnish investors with supposedly factual information, and “without reasonable grounds to believe that the representations were true.”

The three companies that defaulted on their payments to CalPERS: Cheyne Finance LLC, Stanfield Victoria Funding LLC and Sigma Finance Inc were “structured investment vehicles” or SIVs. The assets underlying the SIVs (packages of loans, debt and sub-prime mortgages) were only known to the SIVs. CalPERs lost $1 billion in the investment. A similar suit brought by CalPERS against Fitch Ratings was dropped in August 2011.

Other public pension systems that have sued ratings agencies due to bad investments include the state of Ohio on behalf of the Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund and the Ohio Public Employee Retirement System. In September a judge ruled that the opinions of ratings agencies are protected speech, dismissing Ohio’s $457 million suit.