Tag Archives: local governments

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.

 

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.

 

 

Giving Illinois local governments control over their workers’ pensions

The Chicago Tribune makes a “modest proposal” this week. Discouraged by the inaction of the Illinois General Assembly on state-wide pension reform, the editorial board supports the idea that costs for teacher pensions should be shifted and shared with local governments. Republicans, fearful of property tax hikes, don’t like the notion. But the Tribune makes a good point: the cost shift should be accompanied with the ability of local governments to directly negotiate with their employees minus the influence of Springfield. It’s an interesting idea.

Ultimately, pension reform must proceed according to certain principles that clarify the following:

a) What is the true and full value of the benefit? The market valuation principle.

b) How do you incentivize such a system to properly value, steward, and fund benefits? The principal-agent problem.

c) How do you connect the full employee wage/benefit bill with taxpayers who enjoy the services? The fiscal illusion problem.

Right now, it’s a mess. Government accounting is a still a jumble. (But the real value is always knowable via market valuation.) No entity currently has the incentive to properly value and fund these systems. And in fact, we continue to see risk-taking and the shifting of assets into alternative investments, the issuance of Pension Obligation Bonds, and the deferral of reforms. Politicians have a short-term horizon.

And then there is the problem of “disjointed finance.”

Take the case of New Jersey. Local governments negotiate with their employees over wages. But pension policy is set by the state. New Jersey municipalities get an annual bill to fund their employee pensions based on the state actuary’s calculations. Local officials don’t have any sense of what those obligations look like going forward. The state’s annual funding calculations low-ball what is needed to fund the benefits. Could it be that such opacity leads local governments to offer wage enhancements, or hiring increases, that translate into total compensation packages that they can’t afford?

The Chicago Tribune’s idea only works if Illinois local governments accurately calculate what is needed on an annual basis to fund the pensions they negotiate with their workers and to have a full assessment of the value of compensation packages over time. How is market valuation incentivized? Perhaps Moody’s move to calculate pensions based on a corporate bond yield will have an effect. Or perhaps plans need to be managed by a third-party, as Roman Hardgrave and I suggest in our 2011 paper. 

Tying local costs to local taxpayers is a good idea. Another phenomenon the pension problem has revealed is gradual separation of taxing and spending in American public finance over the course of the past half century. That has produced a growing fiscal illusion in finance – where things seem less expensive than they actually are since the costs are spread over larger groups of taxpayers. Local costs are spread among state taxpayers, and now the worry is that state pension costs and debts will be spread across national taxpayers. At least, it’s been suggested.

In his 2012 budget, Governor Quinn alluded to a federal government guarantee  of Illinois’ pension debt. It’s not a popular idea with Congress at the moment. But it appears to have been part of the political calculations of those who are responsible designing and enforcing the rules that guide Illinois’ budget and determine pension policy.

 

 

 

 

Strategy and politics in the of phrasing of bond referendum

How detailed should bond referendum be? The Arlington County Board heard comments from the public on the FY 2013 capital spending plan a few weeks ago. At issue was $153 million in local GO bond referendum that will be on the ballot on November 6th. The Arlington Sun Gazette reports there are four major “bundles.”

  • $31.946 million for Metro, neighborhood traffic calming, paving and other transportation projects
  • $50.533 million for parks, including the Long Bridge Park aquatics and fitness center and parkland acquisition
  • $28.306 million for Neighborhood Conservation and other “community infrastructure” projects
  • $42.62 million for design and construction of various school projects.

At issue was the language accompanying the bond packages. The Arlington County Civic Federation contends the $45 million dedicated to the acquatics center be listed as a separate item rather than bundled under the general category of park improvements.

Scott McCaffrey writes that the County Board has been bundling bonds under thematic groupings for many years as a strategy to lessen voter opposition, an interesting claim.

How explicit does language have to be in municipal General Obligation bond offerings? States typically require GO bond debt be subject to voter approval before issuance, but how does ballot language matter to the outcome?

While not addressing the matter specifically a few related questions have been pursued in the literature. Damore, Bowler and Nicholson in their paper, “Agenda Setting by Direct Democracy: Comparing the Initiative and the Referendum” (State Politics and Policy Quaterly, forthcoming) considers if agenda setters use the referendum process to extract greater spending than the median voter desires. Some of this research indicates that voters are less likely to support state referendum for tax increases but that between 1990 and 2008, 80 percent of bond referendum received voter approval.

As to the need for particular language, there are strategies. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) lists six steps governments can take to improve their chances of getting a bond approved. This includes, “measure design” or “developing ballot language that appeals to voters and clearly explains how this measure addresses the particular issue targeted by the bonds meets the needs of the community.”

I did find anecdotal evidence that politicians struggle with language on ballot questions, in an effort to strike a balance between clarity and increased likelihood of passage. The Rockford Illinois School Board appears to be hemmed-in by how it phrases bond questions. The more detailed the questions the more legally-bound the board is to spend the money as specifically approved by voters.

Speaking of language, in writing this post I was unsure if I should be using”referenda” as the plural of “referendum”. “Referenda” sounds more natural to me but “referendum” appears to be used more often.

Given the difficulty of the original Latin grammar (referendum is a “gerund” and has no plural), it turns out there is an unsettled debate over this. Either is correct according to the Irish paper The Daily Edge. I felt better knowing that even The British Parliament debated over which plural form to use back in 1998. It turns out whether one uses the Latin “referenda” or the Anglicized “referendum” is purely a matter of taste.

Is the mortgage crisis to blame for San Bernardino’s bankruptcy?

The LA Times contains a new kind of argument on why cities like Stockton and San Bernardino are in bankruptcy. To date, politicians, analysts and journalists have drawn a direct line from rising employee costs and declining revenues to municipal fiscal stress. Harold Meyerson takes another path to reach his own destination – to burnish the image of unions and  politicians. His bankruptcy diagnosis gets lost along the way.

He blames the banks. These cities went bankrupt because, “banks were peddling subprime mortgages to poorly-paid workers.” While the banks are certainly involved in the economic and fiscal train wreck he is upfront that the goal is to weave a counter-narrative, challenging the “right and center right” story of fiscal irresponsibility and overpaid public employees.

The problem with narratives (on either the right or the left) is when they cobble together related events and actors without a theoretical framework and empirical evidence. Mr. Meyerson is holding several of the puzzle pieces but then forces them together without regard to how they fit.

Some puzzle pieces he correctly identifies: a housing bubble, the role of banks, the economic fortunes of the Inland Empire, and the fiscal effects of California’s Proposition 13. What he airbrushes or ignores are the roles of Fed Policy, government lending, regulatory and land-use interventions, the short-term incentives of politicians, the hand of special interests, unions, and erroneous accounting assumptions that generated the perfect storm for a fiscal fallout in 2008.

Stockton’s troubles are plain for all to see. Steven Malanga discusses them here. The municipality’s spending spree can be traced to an overheated housing market which drove Bay Area homebuyers into Stockton in search of cheaper properties. That lead to a 20 percent population growth and a surge in property tax revenues fueling Stockton’s appetite for redevelopment. In 2003 the city borrowed for a waterfront revitalization and a 5000-seat sports arena. They bonded for pension enhancements. In total the city issued $700 million in debt.

Part of the pension deal allowed workers to retire at 50 with 90 percent of their final pay plus COLAs. To pay for this, Stockton invested some bond proceeds into CALpers on the bet it would earn more than the interest payments on that debt. They lost that bet. The housing boom – itself the creation of decades of government interventions – created the mirage of ever-increasing revenues that encouraged politicians to play fast and loose with bonds and future promises to workers.

The next claim is that defined benefit plans have been “demonized” also misses the mark. Defined benefit plans – or annuities – have been destroyed by those who champion them most loudly. Faulty government actuarial assumptions made them appear cheap to operate. That encourage politicians to offer workers (in union negotiations) increasingly generous retirement terms all while underfunding those benefits and taking risks with plan assets. This is accounting chicanery, and sadly, it was not (and still isn’t fully) recognized as such. The blame there can be pinned on the esoteric but well-documented trouble with defined benefit pension accounting. This case has been made in great technical detail by economists and practitioners.

The right salary for a public worker can really only be determined with reference to a private sector counterpart. It isn’t backed into based on area housing prices. Biggs and Richwine find public teacher salaries are on par with a private sector counterpart (in terms of SAT scores and skills). But, salary is only one component of total compensation for public sector workers. Compensation also includes (undervalued and underfunded) pension benefits and (largely unfunded) health benefits. Public sector compensation is a big and growing part of many municipal budgets. What can be said is that the cost of San Bernardino’s police and firefighters represent three-quarters of the city’s expenditures and revenues are flat.

Again, Meyerson is holding one of the right puzzle pieces: the revenue bust that followed the housing bubble. But he fails to note that it was the government-induced housing bubble and subsequent revenue boom that tempted public officials to overextend themselves. This house of cards was supported by flawed accounting and incentivized by short-term gains. This is why to make those pieces fit one needs a theory and empirics otherwise the diagnosis of San Bernardino’s and Stockton’s bankruptcy is cast aside in service of the meme. It is “politics with romance.”

What caused these two cities to tank? A host of economic and fiscal factors and scores of regulatory interventions over many decades. Some of that can be found in the accounts and CAFRs. They are no fun to comb over but they reveal choices, bargains, and tradeoffs under constraints and contain the record of the evasions and faulty assumptions of “public choosers.”

The Ravitch Volker report: State Budget Crisis is Real

The recession of 2008 pulled the mask off of state budget pathologies that had been identified as institutional weaknesses in the decades leading to the crisis.

The “new normal” for state and local governments does not look like the booming 1980s and 1990s but in fact is riddled with many fiscal challenges.  Revenues aren’t what they were before 2008 though they are expected to reach pre-recession levels in FY 2013. The Medicaid and employee benefits bill is rising. The stimulus pushed forward budgetary reforms. These are some of the findings of the Ravitch-Volker Report, an effort of the State Budget Crisis Task Force which assembled in 2010-2012 to diagnose the major problems facing six states: California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Virginia.

Much of the analysis is non-controversial: Medicaid is eating up budgets, as are pensions costs and health care benefits.

Medicaid, currently at 24 percent of state spending, will continue to increase as enrollment, medical inflation and the increasing caseloads that come with higher unemployment increase costs. This is not a surprise. What is new is that the federal government is making it harder for cost-saving measure to be enacted, and “entrenched provider groups in each state resist reductions in Medicaid provider rates….”  I do not believe this is the intention of the authors of the report but the diagnosis of Medicaid’s future highlights the dysfunctional aspects of this federal-state pact which has led to the creation of special interests that benefit from inflating costs.

On the pension front the Ravitch-Volker report points to the the role discount rates have played in the pension funding problems facing the state and local governments, in particular in New Jersey. And they also note the reliance on budgetary gimmicks that may even result in a kind of budgetary “cynicism.” A point I have made in the past.

But the report also makes a few assumptions about the interplay of federal, state and local spending that I think could benefit from an expanded debate. The authors warn that cuts in federal discretionary spending will doom subsidiary governments. On the surface, that’s true. Cuts in aid mean less money in state coffers for education, transportation and other areas. But the larger question is what are the fiscal effects of grants-in-aid between governments? There is the public choice literature to consider on the role of fiscal illusion in finances. And further, does the current model of delivering these services actually work as intended?

Their recommendations are largely sound. Many of them have been made before: more transparent accounting, a tightening of rainy day fund rules (see our recent paper on Illinois), broad-based tax systems should replace narrow ones, the re-establishment of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR). Abolished in 1995 ACIR was concerned with evaluating the fiscal impact of federal policies in the states. Further the commission recommends the federal government work with the states to help control Medicaid costs, and the re-evaluation by states of their own local needs including municipal finances and infrastructure spending.

The report is timely, contains good information and brings many challenges to the fore. But this discussion can also benefit from a larger debate over the current federal-state-local spending model which dates largely to the middle of last century. This debate is not merely about how books are balanced but how citizens are governed in our federalist system. The Ravitch-Volker report is sober but cautious in this regard. The report sketches out the fiscal picture of the U.S. in broad strokes and offers general principles for states to follow and it is sure to create discussion among policymakers in the coming months.

 

 

 

 

 

State and Local Government Spending vs. Private Sector Spending

In my latest chart, I take a look at the long-run growth patterns of state and local governments compared with the private sector. These governments depend almost entirely on the private sector for their resources. Just about every dollar they spend is borrowed or taxed from the private sector. (Either these governments directly borrow or tax, or the federal government borrows and taxes and then transfers the funds to the states and localities.)

Yet decade-in, decade-out, these governments have grown at a faster pace than the private sector on which they depend. I used National Income and Product Account data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and adjusted it for inflation. I then plotted each year as a multiple of its value in 1950. This allows us to see that after 60 years of economic growth, the private sector is more than 5 times the size it was in 1950. Unfortunately, over that same time period, state and local governments have grown nearly 13 times their 1950 size. This is what economists mean when they say that government spending patterns are not sustainable.

Waking Up Warwick, Rhode Island

Last week an article ran in the Warwick Beacon that was based on a chart I produced. I have since updated the chart to reflect the most recent FY 2011 numbers contained in the FY 2013 budget. (The first chart was based on the original FY 2011 budget.)

The chart shows Warwick, Rhode Island’s municipal budget (excluding the school budget) carved up according to current costs for funding the town’s pension benefits, Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB), current employee healthcare costs and General Obligation bond payment. The figures come from official budget documents.

My value-added is that I estimate the additional amount needed to fully fund pensions based on the risk-free discount rate. It’s a ballpark estimate backed into based on the plans’ valuation reports. The actuaries, with access to all the plan data, can model the effect of applying the risk-free rate to plan costs more precisely.

It caused quite a stir.

I think the Beacon article shows the myriad problems with how public sector benefits have been valued, accounted for and funded. The piece underscores the misconceptions and cloudy thinking that surround pension finance.

Let’s go through it.

Here’s the question the chart addresses:  If Warwick, Rhode Island were to fully fund employee benefits while paying healthcare costs for current retirees and active employees and make its annual bond payment, how much would be left over to fund everything else in the city budget?

Warwick operates four public pension plans. They are the locally-funded: Firefighters/Police I Pension Plan, Fire II Pension Fund, and Police II Fund. The fourth plan, the Municipal Employees Retirement System (MERS) is jointly funded by the state and participating local governments. (correction: the MERS plan is also locally operated and funded and is distinct from the state-run MERS plan).

Using these plans’ assumed 7.5 percent discount rate to value the liability, only one plan appears to be in deep distress. The Police/Fire I plan is 22 percent funded and requires an annual contribution of around $14 million. The remaining plans seem to be relatively well-funded. Together they add a further $12 million in annual contributions. In total, according to the pension valuation reports for the town of Warwick, fully funding these four pension systems requires an annual contribution of $26.4 million from the city.

Now, when valuing these four systems using the risk-free discount rate, the picture changes. The risk-free rate adds a further $29 million to the annual required contribution. Valuing these plans on a market basis doubles the annual contribution to $55.7 million. That’s 48 percent of the town’s municipal budget in FY 2011.

Employees also receive Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) – largely comprised of healthcare – in their retirement. According to the OPEB valuation Warwick spends $7.2 million to pay for current retirees who are now receiving these benefits. (Note, that the budget gives a slightly different total than the OPEB valuation. In the budget,  OPEB ran about $6.68 million in FY 2011)  If the town were to fully fund OPEB benefits for their current workers they would need to contribute a further $14 million. That represents the amortization of OPEB taken from the valuation report.

On top of this Warwick is contributing $12.5  $11.8 million to pay for current employee healthcare benefits in FY 2011 (see, Annual Budget, FY 2013). I added in General Obligation debt (principle and interest payments) of $8.5 million, since I assume this is a non-negotiable expense for the municipality. That leaves Warwick with about 18 percent of its FY 2011 budget remaining.

(Are my numbers wrong? have a look at their reports and let me know if I have made a mistake.)

On the Beacon article, I will underscore three points.

1) The risk-free rate and why it matters. To value and fund a pension plan requires figuring out how much is needed to be set aside today to fund a promised benefit to be paid in future. One must equate the value of a pension to be paid in the future with its value today (the time value of money). That means one must assume a discount rate (i.e., rate of interest) to convert the future value into the present. That enables one to figure out the amount needed to be set aside today to fund tomorrow’s payments.

As most followers of the pension story know, in choosing that discount rate, public sector pension plans look to what rate of return they expect the plan’s assets will return when invested. Most public plans have assumed a rate of return of 8 percent on their assets.

This approach, embedded in GASB 25 and ASOP 27 has been strongly criticized by financial economists as violating several established precepts of economics. Firstly, assets and liabilities should be kept separate for the purpose of valuation, otherwise known as the Modigliani-Miller theorem.

Public pensions represent a secure, government-guaranteed benefit and are not likely to be defaulted upon. Public pensions should be valued like a government bond. The rate to use is the return on Treasury bonds, currently 2.3 percent.

But what policymakers are worked up over is not the economic principles behind discount rate selection. It’s the practical effect that many politicians and plan sponsors protest, as The New York Times story of yesterday highlights.  Lowering the discount rate increases the liability and the amount needed to fund the plan. That has a real impact on the budget, as the Warwick chart shows.

The best and most lucid explanation for market valuation of pensions, I think, can be found in Pension Finance, by M. Barton Waring. (whose intent, I might add, is to save the defined benefit plan.) Other excellent explanations are provided by Douglas Elliot of the Brookings Institute, economists Joshua Rauh and Robert-Novy Marx, Andrew Biggs, and Jeffrey Brown.

David W. Wilcox, the director of research and statistics for the Federal Reserve Board has stated:

 These [public pension benefits] happen to be really simple cash flows to value. They’re free of credit risk. There’s only one conceptually right answer to how you discount those cash flows. You use discount rates that are free of credit risk. This is one of those things where it just really is that simple.*

Now for a few common objections to the risk-free rate. These are perennial and have been very elegantly addressed elsewhere by economists.

2) “But, the private sector uses…”

Private sector defined benefit plans suffer from their own set of accounting and moral hazard problems; and, they use a variety of discount rates for a variety of reasons.

Pension plans governed by the Taft-Hartley Act are collectively bargained-for plans. These plans use the return on assets (7.5%) to value the actuarial liability. According to a March 2012 analysis by Credit Suisse, such discount rate “hocus pocus” means Taft-Hartley plans are now “crawling out of the shadows” with an unfunded liability of about $369 billion when using the corporate bond rate.

Other corporate pension plans are covered by the Pension Protection Act of 2006 and governed by FASB guidance 158. They use a composite return on corporate bonds to value their pensions, currently in the 5 percent range, which is lower than the rate used by public plans. The corporate bond is closer to a low-risk (though not a guaranteed) rate. Public plans carry a stronger guarantee, as they are backed by government, and therefore should be discounted using lower rates than used by the private sector – not a higher one – as is current practice.

 These different guidances explain the plethora of discount rates cited by public plan officials as justification for their current assumptions. And that leads to a great question.

So, why do public and private plans get to value their pension liabilities differently?” (Quick answer: exactly!)

If the Law of One Price is correct (which holds that in an efficient market there must be only one price for similar assets, otherwise opportunities for arbitrage exist) then then salad bar approach to selecting the discount rate is absurd.

The Long Answer:

Actuarial practice has not incorporated the lessons of modern portfolio theory into pension accounting. In the 1960s and into the 1970s the harm was not visible. Pensions were more heavily invested in bonds. The ticking time bomb that ‘high risk’ discount rates  presented to defined benefit plans was not really revealed until the behavior it encouraged began to manifest. These behaviors included the shifting of pension asset portfolios into more risky investments, enhancing benefits, and skipping payments during the 1980s and 1990s. The result was growing funding gaps that accompanied market downturns in the late 1990s, the early 2000’s, and lastly in 2008. Each of these episodes is a demonstration of the problem of valuing liabilities based on risky asset returns.

For some insight into how actuarial science remained largely frozen in time, Jeremy Gold and Lawrence Bader discuss the gap between corporate finance and actuarial practice.

3) “We’ll get the expected 7.5 percent”.

This is another recurring defense of the current public sector accounting. But, an investor doesn’t “get” the expected return. The investor realizes a random and uncertain draw from an increasingly wide distribution of possible realized returns (Waring, 2012).

An oft-expressed rejoinder is,  “…but the market returned an average of 8 percent over the past 20 years.”

This statement alone should be cause for alarm. There is always a chance you will either do better, or worse, than expected. Yet, by virtue of ASOP 27 and GASB 25 the risk of not achieving 8 percent annually, is simply ignored. (Or more accurately it is borne by future taxpayers and younger retirees.) Discounting benefits at a risk-adjusted interest rate captures the cost to taxpayers of having to supplement pensions should projected returns not be realized and the plan’s assets fall short.

The coming years will satisfy a proposition of Waring’s that I think is worth stating again:

Measures of the pension plan based on conventional accounting methods will always follow measures based on economic accounting, even with a lag. The accounting will follow the economics, sooner or later.

The economics on this issue is non-controversial. One can review the work of Nobel-Prize economists Bill Sharpe (one of the developers of the Capital Asset Pricing Model), Robert Merton, (expansion of Black-Schoeles option pricing model), as well as the contributions of finance professors Roger Ibbotson (Yale) and Olivia Mitchell (Wharton, UPenn) for further reading.

The policy message the economics points to is unsettling. Defined benefit plans are in trouble and they will require more funding and difficult budget and policy decisions starting now.

And, who really wants to hear that?

So, the best I can do to drive home the importance of market valuation is to re-state the analogy. You don’t calculate the employer’s annual payment to the pension system based on how the plan’s assets are expected to perform.  Just as you don’t value your home mortgage based on what you think your 401K might do. This video developed by Nobel-Prize winning economist Bill Sharpe makes the case perhaps better than I can do in this blog.

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*Wilcox, David. Testimony before the Public Interest Committee Forum sponsored by the American Academy of Actuaries, September 4, 2008. Novy-Marx and Rauh present a similar argument; see Novy-Marx, Robert, and Joshua Rauh, “The Liabilities and Risks of State-Sponsored Pension Plans,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 23, no. 4 (Fall 2009), pp. 191–210. In analyzing federal employee pensions, the CBO used a discount rate 1 percentage point above the Treasury rate. However, the CBO explicitly noted that this was because federal pensions lack the legal protections that state pension plans like the WRS are entitled to.

Government Spending Has Shrunk…When You Ignore 44 Percent of Government Spending

Floyd Norris has made an astounding discovery. When you don’t count 44 percent of government spending, it appears that government spending has shrunk in recent years.

Writing in the New York Times, Mr. Norris asserts:

Spending by the federal government, adjusted for inflation, has risen at a slow rate under President Obama. But that increase has been more than offset by a fall in spending by state and local governments, which have been squeezed by weak tax receipts.

In the first quarter of this year, the real gross domestic product for the government — including state and local governments as well as federal — was 2 percent lower than it was three years earlier, when Barack Obama took office in early 2009.

The operative phrase here is “real gross domestic product for the government.” What Mr. Norris neglects to note is that real gross domestic product for the government is only about half of what governments actually spend. And when you look at total spending, it is actually up over the last three years, not down.

Let’s begin with government gross domestic product (GDP). This is the portion of government spending which is counted by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) when it tabulates national GDP. It consists of government consumption expenditures and gross investments. You can think of it as the tab for all items that the government buys on the open market: salaries of public employees, purchases of weapons for the military, investment in infrastructure, etc.

Among other things, however, government GDP does not include transfer payments such as Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Earned Income Tax Credits, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance, Housing Assistance, Supplemental Security Income, Pell Grants, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, WIC, LIHEAP…you get the point.

It turns out that real spending on everything other than government consumption and gross investment is up about 19 percent since Obama took office. And this is more than enough to offset what’s going on with consumption and gross investment. Thus, total spending is up 7.7 percent in real terms.

You can see this in this chart*:

There’s nothing wrong with using government GDP figures. They are used all the time to estimate things like the government purchases multiplier. And they are also helpful in understanding whether government is growing faster or slower than the private sector. But Mr. Norris does his readers a disservice to casually conflate government GDP and total government spending. How many people reading his column would know that he left out 44 percent of what government spends? Or that when you include that 44 percent, total spending actually rose over the last three years?

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*Technical note: when the BEA calculates real government GDP, it uses chained 2005 dollars. It does not calculate real total spending, offering only the nominal figures in Table 3.1. I have therefore used 2005 inflation conversion factors found here to convert total spending from Table 3.1 and government GDP from Table 1.1.5 into real figures. When you do it this way, real government GDP actually rose slightly (0.41 percent) under Obama. In other words, the 2 percent drop in real government GDP looks like a slight increase if you use a different inflation conversion method.

Governor Quinn’s pension reforms: constitutionally bold, but is it enough?

 

On Friday, Governor Quinn proposed the most drastic pension reforms to date in Illinois. To meet the funding gap in the pension system, which on an actuarial basis is reported at $83 billion, the Governor will offer workers a choice between higher annual contributions to the system or the loss of health care benefits and a reduced pension.

The measures reflect the growing pressure the pension system is placing on general revenues. In FY 2008 Illinois contributed six percent of its revenues to the pension system. In FY 2013, the state must contribute 15 percent of general revenues or $5.2 billion to keep the system afloat.

Employees who accept the terms will contribute 3 percent more to their pensions, have a reduced or delayed COLA upon retirement and in some cases be required to retire at age 67 (up from the current 65). However, any pay increases would continue to count for the purpose of calculating benefits. Employees who refuse the terms and continue under the current plan will lose their health care benefits and their pay increases will not count towards their pension benefit calculation.

Considering the legal framework of Illinois’ pension plan, which constitutionally guarantees workers’ pension benefits, Governor Quinn’s reforms are quite bold. The proposal offers a kind of “constitutional test” to the system and could set a legal precedent in the state for pension reform. It is a sure bet that public unions will take legal action against the measures.

If they are adopted, will Quinn’s new proposal be enough to fill the funding gap? On a market basis, Illinois’ unfunded pension liability is several times larger than reported. We calculate it is closer to $173 billion, so mathematically speaking, no. However, the plan confronts current employee costs and shows a new willingness to tackle the problem. Up until now pension reform in Illinois has only affected new hires.