Tag Archives: retirement

A public sector retirement plan for Millennials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More labor market freedom means more labor force participation

The U.S. labor force participation (LFP) rate has yet to bounce back to its pre-recession level. Some of the decline is due to retiring baby-boomers but even the prime-age LFP rate, which only counts people age 25 – 54 and thus less affected by retirement, has not recovered.

Economists and government officials are concerned about the weak recovery in labor force participation. A high LFP rate is usually a sign of a strong economy—people are either working or optimistic about their chances of finding a job. A low LFP rate is often a sign of little economic opportunity or disappointment with the employment options available.

The U.S. is a large, diverse country so the national LFP rate obscures substantial state variation in LFP rates. The figure below shows the age 16 and up LFP rates for the 50 states and the U.S. as a whole (black bar) in 2014. (data)

2014-state-lfp-rates

The rates range from a high of 72.6% in North Dakota to a low of 53.1% in West Virginia. The U.S. rate was 62.9%. Several of the states with relatively low rates are in the south, including Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. Florida and Arizona also had relatively low labor force participation, which is not surprising considering their reputations as retirement destinations.

There are several reasons why some states have more labor force participation than others. Demographics is one: states with a higher percentage of people over age 65 and between 16 and 22 will have lower rates on average since people in these age groups are often retired or in school full time. States also have different economies made up of different industries and at any given time some industries are thriving while others are struggling.

Federal and state regulation also play a role. Federal regulation disparately impacts different states because of the different industrial compositions of state economies. For example, states with large energy industries tend to be more affected by federal regulation than other states.

States also tax and regulate their labor markets differently. States have different occupational licensing standards, different minimum wages and different levels of payroll and income taxes among other things. Each of these things alters the incentive for businesses to hire or for people to join the labor market and thus affects states’ LFP rates.

We can see the relationship between labor market freedom and labor force participation in the figure below. The figure shows the relationship between the Economic Freedom of North America’s 2013 labor market freedom score (x-axis) and the 2014 labor force participation rate for each state (y-axis).

lab-mkt-freed-and-lfp-rate

As shown in the figure there is a positive relationship—more labor market freedom is associated with a higher LFP rate on average. States with lower freedom scores such as Mississippi, Kentucky and Alabama also had low LFP rates while states with higher freedom scores such as North Dakota, South Dakota and Virginia had higher LFP rates.

This is not an all-else-equal analysis and other variables—such as demographics and industry composition which I mentioned earlier—also play a role. That being said, state officials concerned about their state’s labor market should think about what they can do to increase labor market freedom—and economic freedom more broadly—in their state.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pension-avg-return-table2

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.

 

 

Governors’ Priorities in 2013: Medicaid Funding, Pension Reform

As the month of March draws to a close, most governors have, by this point, taken to the podiums of their respective states and outlined their priorities for the next legislative year in their State of the State addresses. Mike Maciag at Governing magazine painstakingly reviewed the transcripts of all 49 State of the State addresses delivered so far (Louisiana, for some reason, takes a leisurely approach to this tradition) and tallied the most popular initiatives in a helpful summary. While there were some small state trends in addressing hot-button social issues like climate change (7 governors), gay rights (7 governors), and marijuana decriminalization (2 states), the biggest areas of overlap from state governors concerned Medicaid spending and state pension obligations.

Medicaid Spending

Judging from their addresses, the most common concern facing governors this year is the expansion of state Medicaid financing prompted by the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act last year. While the ACA originally required states to raise their eligibility standards to cover everyone below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, the Supreme Court overturned this requirement and left up to the states whether or not they wanted to participate in the expansion in exchange for federal funding or politely decline to partake.  The governors of a whopping 30 states referenced the Medicaid issue at least once during their speech. Some of the governors, like Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi, brought up the issue to explain why they made the decision to become one of the 14 states that decided not to participate in the expansion. Others took to defending their decision to participate in the expansion, like Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who outlined how his state’s participation would benefit fellow Buckeyes suffering from mental illness and addiction.

Neither the considerable amount of concern nor the markedly divergent positions of the governors are especially shocking. A recent Mercatus Research paper conducted by senior fellow Charles Blahous addresses the nebulous options facing state governments in their decision on whether to participate in the expansion. This decision is not one to make lightly: in 2011, state Medicaid spending accounted for almost 24 percent of all state budget expenditures and these costs are expected to rise by upwards of 150 percent in the next decade. The answer to whether a given state should opt in or opt out of the expansion is not a straightforward one and depends on the unique financial situations of each state. Participating in the Medicaid expansion may indeed make sense for Ohioans while at the same time being a terrible deal for Mississippi. However, what is optimal for an individual state may not be good for the country as a whole. Ohio’s decision to participate in the expansion may end up hurting residents of Mississippi and other states who forgo participating in the expansion because of the unintended effects of cost shifting among the federal and state governments. It is very difficult to project exactly who will be the winners or losers in the Medicaid expansion at this point in time, but is very likely that states will fall into one of either category.

Pensions

Another pressing concern for state governors is the health (or lack thereof) of their state pension systems. The governors of 20 states, including the man who brought us “Squeezy the Pension Python” himself, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, tackled the issue during their State of the State addresses. Among these states are a few to which Eileen has given testimony on this very issue within the past year.

In Montana, for instance, Gov. Steve Bullock promised a “detailed plan that will shore up [his state’s] retirement systems and do so without raising taxes.” While I was unable to find this plan on the governor’s website, two dueling reform proposals–one to amend the current defined benefit system, another to replace it with a defined contribution system–are currently duking it out in the Montana state legislature. While it is unclear which of the two proposals will make it onto the law books, let’s hope that the Montana Joint Select Committee on Pensions heeds Eileen’s suggestions from her testimony to them last month, and only makes changes to their pension system that are “based on an accurate accounting of the value of the benefits due to employees.”

Don’t like the fiscal cliff? You’ll hate the fiscal future.

Absent an eleventh-hour deal—which may yet be possible—the Federal government will cut spending and raise taxes in the New Year. In a town that famously can’t agree on anything, nearly everyone seems terrified by the prospect of going over this fiscal cliff.

Yet for all the gloom and dread, the fiscal cliff embodies a teachable moment. At the risk of mixing metaphors, we should think of the fiscal cliff as the Ghost of the Fiscal Future. It is a bleak lesson in what awaits us if we don’t get serious about changing course.

First, some background. Over the last four decades, Federal Government spending as a share of GDP has remained relatively constant at about 21 percent. This spending was financed with taxes that consumed about 18 percent of GDP and the government borrowed to make up the difference.

After a decade of government spending increases and anemic economic growth, federal spending is now about 24 percent of GDP (a post WWII high, exceeded only by last year’s number) and revenues are about 15 percent of GDP (the revenue decline can be attributed to both the Bush tax cuts and to the recession).

But the really telling numbers are yet to come.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office now projects that, absent policy change, when my two-year-old daughter reaches my age (32), revenue will be just a bit above its historical average at 19 percent of GDP while spending will be nearly twice its historical average at 39 percent of GDP. This is what economists mean when they say we have a spending problem and not a revenue problem: spending increases, not revenue decreases, account for the entirety of the projected growth in deficits and debt over the coming years.

Why is this so frightful? The Ghost of the Fiscal Future gives us 3 reasons:

1) As spending outstrips revenue, each year the government will have to borrow more and more to pay its bills. We have to pay interest on what we borrow and these interest payments, in turn, add to future government spending. So before my daughter hits college, the federal government will be spending more on interest payments than on Social Security.

2) When the government borrows to finance its spending, it will be competing with my daughter when she borrows to finance her first home or to start her own business. This means that she and other private borrowers will face higher interest rates, crowding-out private sector investment and depressing economic growth. This could affect my daughter’s wages, her consumption, and her standard of living. In a vicious cycle, it could also depress government revenue and place greater demands on the government safety net, exacerbating the underlying debt problem.

This is not just theory. Economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have examined 200-years’ worth of data from over 40 countries. They found that those nations with gross debt in excess of 90 percent of GDP tend to grow about 1 percentage point slower than otherwise (the U.S. gross debt-to-GDP ratio has been in excess of 90 percent since 2010)

If, starting in 1975, the U.S. had grown 1 percentage point slower than it actually did, the nation’s economy would be about 30 percent smaller than it actually is today. By comparison, the Federal Reserve estimates that the Great Recession has only shrunk the economy by about 6 percent relative to its potential size.

3) Things get worse. The CBO no longer projects out beyond 2042, the year my daughter turns 32. In other words, the CBO recognizes that the whole economic system becomes increasingly unsustainable beyond that point and that it is ludicrous to think that it can go on.

What’s more, if Congress waits until then to make the necessary changes, it will have to enact tax increases or spending cuts larger than anything we have ever undertaken in our nation’s history. As Vero explains:

By refusing to reform Social Security, lawmakers are guaranteeing automatic benefit cuts of about 20-something percent for everyone on the program in 2035 (the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted in 2035, the combined retirement and disability trust funds will run dry in 2033, and both will continue to deteriorate).

In other words, if we fail to reform, the fiscal future will make January’s fiscal cliff look like a fiscal step. I’ve never understood why some people think they are doing future retirees a favor in pretending that entitlements do not need significant reform.

You might think that we could tax our way out of this mess. But taxes, like debt, are also bad for economic growth.

But it is not too late. Like Scrooge, we can take ownership of the time before us. We can make big adjustments now so that we don’t have to make bigger adjustments in a few years. There is still time to adopt meaningful entitlement reform, to tell people my age to adjust our expectations and to plan on working a little longer, to incorporate market incentives into our health care system so that Medicare and Medicaid don’t swallow up more and more of the budget.

Some characterize these moves as stingy. In reality, these types of reforms would actually make our commitments more sustainable. And the longer we wait to make these inevitable changes, the more dramatic and painful they will have to be.

For all the gloom and dread, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was Scrooge’s savior. In revealing the consequences of his actions—and, importantly, his inactions—the Ghost inspired the old man to take ownership of the “Time before him” and to change his ways.

Let us hope that Congress is so enlightened by the Ghost of the Fiscal Cliff.

Generational Unfairness in Pensions

California Governor Jerry Brown has led an effort to pass some changes to current state employee pension benefits that will affect new employees by raising their retirement age, capping their potential benefits, and requiring both new employees and some current workers to pay at least half of the cost of their pensions.

At Public Sector, Inc. Steve Greenhut explain that the savings from these changes won’t be felt for years to come:

It’s clear the reform would do little to touch current unfunded pension liabilities, estimated in California at as much as a half-trillion dollars, but will bring in reforms in decades after new hires start retiring.

The changes are projected to save state taxpayers between $40 billion and $60 billion. With these changes, California’s pension fund will still be underfunded by about $450 billion, calculated using the risk-free discount rate (pdf). If policymakers refuse to make further changes to the system, this remaining debt will require greater sacrifices from new workers and future taxpayers.

This unfunded liability represents generational unfairness. Today’s taxpayers are paying for current retirees who provided state services in the past. Likewise, the new reforms require sacrifices primarily from new workers. They will be receiving fewer benefits while paying into a system that benefits current workers and retirees.

States have unfunded pension liabilities due to management mistakes of the past. However, the costs of these mistakes are being felt today. Going forward policymakers should see the pain they impose on younger workers and make every effort not to repeat this pattern.

The longer that reforms are delayed, the greater inter-generational inequity grows. While California has the largest unfunded pension liability, it is not alone. Because Illinois has failed to take significant actions to address the state’s debt and pension liabilities, S&P downgraded its bond rating to A-plus with a negative outlook. This makes it S&P’s second-lowest-rated state above only California. Moody’s ranks Illinois’ bonds the lowest of all states. These ratings will be accompanied by higher bond yields on Illinois’ debt for future taxpayers. This will saddle them with more of their tax dollars going to debt service rather than current state services.

Policymakers have every incentive to engage in policies that benefit current voters at the expense of future voters because they want to receive credit for providing services that exceed their cost in the present. The only way to correct this tendency is for voters to demand that lawmakers do not force the cost of current programs onto those who do not have a voice in today’s elections.

Principles of Pension Accounting Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.