Tag Archives: pension plans

Pension reform from California to Tennessee

Earlier this month Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers went on their second strike of the year. With public transport dysfunctional for four days, area residents were not necessarily sympathetic to the workers’ complaints, according to The Economist. The incident only drew attention to the fact that BART’s workers weren’t contributing to their pensions.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement employees will contribute to their pensions, and increase the amount they pay for health care benefits to $129/month.  The growing cost of public pensions, wages and benefits on city budgets is a real matter for mayors who must struggle to contain rapidly rising costs to pay for retiree benefits. San Jose’s mayor, Chuck Reed has led the effort in California to institute pension reforms via a ballot measure that would give city workers a choice between reduced benefits or bigger contributions, known as the Pension Reform Act of 2014. Reed is actively seeking the support of California’s public sector unions for the measure that would give local authorities some flexibility to contain costs. Pension costs are presenting new threats for many California governments. Moody’s is scrutinizing 30 cities for possible downgrades based on their more complete measurement of the economic liability presented by pension plans.  In spite of this dire warning, CalPERS has sent municipalities a strong message to struggling and bankrupt cities: pay your contributions, or else.

Other states and cities that are looking to overhaul how benefits are provided to employees include Memphis, Tennessee which faces a reported unfunded liability of $642 million and a funding ratio of 74.4%. This is using a discount rate of 7.5 percent.  I calculate Memphis’ unfunded liability is approximately $3.4 billion on a risk-free basis, leaving the plan only 35% funded.

The options being discussed by the Memphis government include moving new hires to a hybrid plan, a cash balance plan, or a defined contribution plan. Which of these presents the best option for employees, governments and Memphis residents?

I would suggest the following principles be used to guide pension reform: a) economic accounting, b) shift the funding risk away from government, c) offer workers – both current workers and future hires – the option to determine their own retirement course and to choose from a menu of options that includes a DC plan or an annuity – managed by an outside firm or some combination.

The idea should be to eliminate the ever-present incentive to turn employee retirement savings into a budgetary shell-game for governments. Public sector pensions in US state and local governments have been made uncertain under flawed accounting and high-risk investing. As long as pensions are regarded as malleable for accounting purposes – either through discount rate assumptions, re-amortization games, asset smoothing, dual-purpose asset investments, or short-sighted thinking – employee benefits are at risk for underfunding. A defined contribution plan, or a privately managed annuity avoids this temptation by putting the employer on the hook annually to make the full contribution to an employee’s retirement savings.

The math really matters in pension plans

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Andy Kessler, a former hedge fund manager, gets to the heart of the matter on why state and local pension plans are running out of assets (and time): the math is a mess. Economists, financial professionals and some actuaries have been making the case for awhile that the way public sector pension plans value their liabilities is a dangerous fiction.

Today, U.S. governments calculate the present value of plan liabilities based on the returns they expect to earn on plan assets (typically between 7 and 8 percent annually). That’s all wrong. How the assets perform is immaterial to the present value of plan benefits. Instead a public sector worker’s pension should be valued as a risk-free guaranteed payout much like a bond. Unfortunately, when pensions are valued on a “guaranteed payout” basis, unfunded liabilities skyrocket. Some major plans are not just a bit underfunded, they are deeply in the hole.

Many plan managers disregard the discount rate critique of the actuarial assumptions and persist in underestimating the funding shortfalls by an order of magnitude. In conflating expected asset returns with the value of plan benefits, another troubling behavior has ensued: shifting assets into higher-return/higher-risk vehicles to catch up after market downturns, a problem I note in a recent analysis of Delaware (and they are by no means alone in this approach.)

He gives an analogy to what is happening in Stockton and is certain to visit other California cities to his experience watching GM’s pension plan bottom out. The company’s pension shortfall spiked from $14 billion to $22.4 billion between 1992 and 1993. GM got some advice from Morgan Stanley: invest the money in alternatives and watch expected returns double from 8 percent to 16 percent. Make this assumption and the hole will be filled.

But as Kessler notes, “you can’t wish this stuff away.” Instead:

Things didn’t go as planned. The fund put up $170 million in equity and borrowed another $505 million and invested in—I’m not kidding—a northern Missouri farm raising genetically engineered pigs. Meatier pork chops for all! Everything went wrong. In May 1996, the pigs defaulted on $412 million in junk debt. In a perhaps related event, General Motors entered 2012 with its global pension plans underfunded by $25.4 billion.”

 The debate between economists and government accountants continues.

 

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.

 

 

Fort Lauderdale issues a Pension Obligation Bond and adds to its debts

To fully fund its city pensions the City Council of Fort Lauderdale has voted to issue a $340 million pension bond. One problem with this plan is the city’s pension plans are underfunded to a far larger extent than the accounting recognizes. I calculate, using their 2011 CAFR, that while Fort Lauderdale’s two pension systems report an $388 million unfunded liability when using a risk-free discount rate, the total unfunded liability is closer to $1.7 billion.

In that year, both the General Employees’ plan and the Police and Fire Plan used a discount rate of 7.75 percent to calculate their liabilities. Today the 15-year Treasury bond is close to 2 percent. Thus, the source for great difference between the two unfunded liability calculations.

The rationale for issuing the POB is that the city’s pensions will earn better than the 4 percent assumed interest rate on the bond, and thus they will capture the arbitrage benefits. But that is a bet on both the bond market and the stock market, and not a certainty.  The pensions remain valued as though they are risky and now the city has effectively put more risk on the balance sheet, all in the service of lessening the pain of rising annual contributions. The POB does not address the structural reasons for rising costs even if it gives the Council a temporary sense of budgetary relief.

 

Maryland Study Finds States Spend Too Much on Wall Street

A report from the Maryland Tax Education Foundation and the Maryland Public Policy Institute finds that state pension funds spend a significant amount of money paying investors to manage their funds. States spent $7.8 billion on Wall Street in 2011. Funds’ recent poor performance casts these expenditures in a particularly bad light for taxpayers, and the Maryland researchers Jeff Hooke and Michael Tasselmyer suggest these funds are not well-spent.

Much less expensive investment strategies are available to investment funds, however, these investment strategies rely on index funds that typically seek to match the market’s performance rather than outpace it. However, as Governing the States and Localities explains:

Pension experts interviewed for this story, though, question the validity of the report, which compares investment firm fees with each plan’s net assets. Even with the higher fees, they say additional returns from investment managers outweigh the added cost in the long run, and tossing more money into equity index funds wouldn’t diversify portfolios.

“The suggestion that all public pensions should be shifted into index accounts is just not well informed,” said Keith Brainard, research director for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.

The need to outperform the market comes from the way that states value their liabilities. Rather than valuing defined benefit pensions at the appropriate risk-free discount rate, states choose to assume higher rates of return, commonly 5 percent above the risk-free rate. When a low-risk investment strategy fails to meet these returns, state fund managers are incentivized to pursue riskier strategies with the hope of making the return needed to make the defined benefit obligations. This is demonstrated in state funds’ participation in recent IPOs.

The Maryland report states:

For many state pension funds, investment results over the last 10 years have failed to hit target returns of 7 to 8 percent annually. This has prompted Maryland’s System and other state systems to make large commitments to “alternative investments,” like leveraged buyout funds and hedge funds, with the hope of obtaining higher returns than conventional public stocks and bonds. In fiscal 2011, 25 percent of the Maryland System’s investment portfolio was in alternative investments, including private equity and real estate.

alternative investments are less liquid, less transparent, and more volatile than conventional public stocks and bonds. It is also questionable whether these investments provide higher returns than a similar risk-adjusted portfolio of public equities. Buyout fund promoters claim higher returns, for example, but many of their leveraged buyouts from the pre-crash period have yet to sell, and the state pension systems rely on the buyout funds’ in-house valuation of such investments to determine pension investment returns. The states exercise limited supervision over the buyout funds, and the examination of buyout fund portfo- lio values by fund auditors is typically inadequate.

With a risk-free discount rate for valuing guaranteed defined benefits, state fund managers would not be faced with the choice of either accepting higher risks or facing a reality of falling short on obligations. In determining what discount rate to choose, state policymakers should remember that the benefit level determines the cost of pension plans. Lowering the assumed rate of return does not change the cost of pensions, but merely means taxpayers will be paying for benefits as they are accrued, whereas a higher discount rate pushes these payments into the future.

 

Why Proper Pension Accounting Matters, Stockton Version

For the better part of two years, Eileen has tirelessly worked to help municipalities grapple with the true costs of their pension systems. As I have argued before, Eileen’s work should be seen as pro-worker since it stresses the need for honest accounting and since it relies on the assumption that when we cost out pension plans, we should plan to live up to our promises:

So, what does it mean when people argue for a high discount rate in valuing pension systems? It means that they don’t think it is very likely that we will actually honor our promises to public employees. Thus, they believe we should discount those costs accordingly. They won’t say this, but this is exactly what such an assumption means. Conversely, people like Eileen who feel it is more prudent to use a low discount rate are saying that we should count on actually having to pay these pensions; that we should plan to honor our commitments.

Of course, in many circles, she and others who think it prudent to use a low discount rate are often characterized as being anti-public sector worker.

This week, Stockton, CA, became the largest US city in history to declare bankruptcy. In a recent interview with NPR’s Tess Vigeland, Stockton Vice-mayor Kathy Miller talked about the causes and consequence of the bankruptcy. In so doing, she lent support to Eileen’s work (emphasis added):

I think the most important thing is for the people here, this pendency plan reinforces our commitment to not reducing services to the public any further. For the last three-and-a-half years it’s the residents and our current employees that have borne the brunt of our cuts. Our employees, their compensation has been reduced anywhere from between 9-22 percent. Our workforce is down — 23 percent of our police officers, 30 percent of our firefighters and 43 percent of our other non-safety public employees. That translates to a direct reduction in services that the people living here have already experienced. These people have already given. It’s my belief that if these very generous pensions and health care retiree benefits had been fully costed out at the time they were granted, it would have been immediately apparent that they were not affordable.

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.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

*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.

Potential Pension Cuts for Retired Teachers in Illinois

There was an interesting op-ed in the Chicago Tribune recently that points to the severity of Illinois’s pension mess. According to the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) in Illinois, if new revenues are not generated then benefits for current retirees may need to be cut via COLA reductions. This statement should not come as a surprise considering the state’s pension system is slated to run out of assets within the next decade.

As expected, however, teacher unions are unhappy with this discussion and have already deemed it unconstitutional. Unfortunately, because current benefits are protected in Illinois’s state constitution, this is a common fall back for nearly every argument against changes to the pension system.

Reducing COLA benefits may sound extreme but, as we already know, this type of reform was celebrated as a bipartisan success in Rhode Island last year. Unfortunately, during the same time, the Illinois TRS was releasing statements like this one:

The Tribune’s July 5 editorial ‘Rescuing public pensions’ is centered on the false premise that Illinois’ current pension plans for public employees are ‘doomed’ and unsustainable. The truth is that the state’s pension plans are sustainable.

One word comes to mind after reading that… scary. Illinois’s pension system is surely not sustainable. If the state continues to tell people that it is then the possibility for serious structural reform will become less likely. Reducing or suspending the COLA is one of many important steps that Illinois needs to consider.

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.