December 29, 2013 6:53 pm
US public finance: Day of reckoning
US pension plans
Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s Democratic mayor, has said the school closures – along with 3,000 job cuts in the school system – were necessary to close the yawning hole in the district budget. The episode has further soured the mayor’s relations with the teachers union, which held a seven-day strike last year. Karen Lewis, head of the union, called the school closures “racist” and “classist”.
“The pension crisis is not truly solved until relief is brought to Chicago and all of the other local governments across our state that are standing on the brink of a fiscal cliff because of our pension liabilities,” Mr Emanuel said after the state deal.
His administration points to the recent reform of the city’s parks department’s pension system as a model. Retirement ages were raised, with workers no longer able to retire at 50 with full benefits, employees will pay more towards their retirements and the city will increase its contributions.
Still, Mr Emanuel has been criticised for backing plans to delay some payments, and Moody’s has attacked Chicago’s latest budget for failing to set aside enough money for pensions. And the unions are preparing to fight back in Chicago, just as they have against the state deal, which they are challenging in court. A coalition of unions called the state reform “attempted pension theft”.
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Yet even those states and cities that paid their fair share of costs are probably understating the actual cost of the pension promises they have made. Current rules allow them to make assumptions each year based not on what their portfolios actually earn – or lose – but on what they expect to earn. These expectations are often too rosy; many state and municipal schemes assume investment returns will be much higher in future than those earned in the past decade. Even then, a pension scheme can tell members it is “well funded” when it has only 80 per cent of the assets needed to meet its promises.
In fiscal 2010, the most recent year in which data are available for all states, the state pension gap in the US hit $757bn, according to a report from the Pew Center on the States.
But the high assumed rate of return most states use to calculate the cost of benefits understates the problem, according to research by Joshua Rauh, a finance professor at Stanford University. Based on a more realistic rate, the actual nationwide unfunded state pension liability would be closer to $4.5tn, his research has found.
The standards for calculating public pension returns have long been abandoned by private sector employers in the US and the UK, and rejected by pensions regulators and accounting standards setters. In the private sector, when more realistic methods of counting the cost of pension promises were introduced, employers tended to stop making them.
Last year, a report from the State Budget Crisis Task Force, co-chaired by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker and financier Richard Ravitch, concluded that actual shortfalls at state pension schemes may be as much as three times the $1tn their own actuaries say they are.
That is because the methods used by US states and cities such as Detroit – where bankruptcy proceedings threaten to turn pensioners into unsecured creditors – are standard practice at pension schemes across the country.
“The structure and management of Detroit’s [pension scheme] is no different from those of other municipal schemes,” says Genevieve Nolan, an analyst at Moody’s.
Often overlooked in the pension debate is the role of actuaries, who assign a value today on benefits to be paid decades into the future. Critics say they sometimes use outdated methods when calculating public pensions. Blame, too, goes to the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, which has fallen far behind the private sector in requiring clarity in pension accounting.
When it comes to actuarial valuations, there are no hard rules over how to count the money a scheme has at hand today. Actuaries “smooth” values over three to five-year periods, meaning that market crashes can take a long time to show up. International accounting rules no longer allow companies to do that.
A rare look at how this practice can distort the true health of a pension fund can be seen in a report commissioned by the emergency financial manager of Detroit. Gabriel Roeder Smith, the actuary for Detroit’s General Retirement System, concluded at its latest valuation that it had enough on hand to pay 87 per cent of promised benefits.
But the city commissioned a second opinion, which found that the market value of assets was $648m lower than reported, thanks to smoothing. Worse, the assumed investment returns were far too high, and a more realistic assumption shows that the scheme is little better than 50 per cent funded. Even with freezes to benefits, it could be roughly two-thirds funded.
Altering an estimate, even by tiny amounts, makes a big difference to whether a scheme has enough cash. Actuaries, says John Ralfe, a UK-based independent pensions adviser, have “a magic pencil” that can turn a shortfall into a surplus just by changing a key assumption.
It is the more optimistic scenarios that show up on Detroit’s – and other municipalities’ – balance sheets when bond investors are considering loaning them money. Worse, the rules do not help municipal workers understand the value of promises made to them. In bankruptcy proceedings, unless there is a special deal cut for them, workers find that they were not accruing an income in old age, but instead were lending that income to their employer.
The GASB, after more than a decade of debate and years after private sector accounting standards setters altered rules, is moving to inject more realism into the way pension obligations are accounted for.
Jeremy Gold, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, who has been critical of actuarial methodology for years, describes the system as follows: “The actuaries invented it and the accountants fell in love with it and married it.”
Carl Hess, global head of investment at Towers Watson, a consultancy, says the system has remained dysfunctional because “most stakeholders have an immense interest in maintaining the status quo”.
Scheme members have no interest in challenging overly rosy calculations, and they may not be informed enough to raise objections. State treasurers, Mr Hess says, serve terms of four to eight years and do not want to see taxes raised on their watch.
Indeed, the National Council on Teacher Retirement and the National Association of State Retirement Administrators – along with the actuarial and accounting firms that live on public sector pension business – have been critical of reform efforts.
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Nick Sposato, an 18-year veteran of the Chicago fire department, serves as an alderman for a ward that is heavily populated by city workers. In between fielding calls on mundane district matters – garbage collection, neighbour disputes – Mr Sposato hears from his former colleagues who are worried about their pensions.
“It’s scary – everybody is scared about this whole thing,” he says, noting that many city workers are not eligible for Social Security, the US social insurance programme.
There is little an alderman can do. Still, people come to Mr Sposato for answers and the most he can offer, he says, is a frustrated “wait and see”.
“The whole problem is that the city, the county, the state, the Feds – they didn’t do what they were supposed to do – if they did, I don’t think we’d be in this mess,” he says. “The people who earned the pension – they did everything right.”
Law: Legal challenges loom for reform efforts
Lawmakers bear the bulk of the blame when it comes to the sorry state of pension funds, writes Neil Munshi. More often than not, they failed on a multitude of fronts: overpromising generous benefits in return for public employees agreeing to take lower pay packages, succumbing to union lobbying for ever-more generous benefits, and skimping on government contributions for years on end.
It is no small task, however, when they finally muster the courage to reform their systems. The political risks are high, since the challenge often involves raising taxes and cutting benefits. And, as many US states have found, cutting benefits opens the door for serious legal challenges that can delay reforms for years.
Most states protect pensions under the contract clause of the US constitution, or a similar state provision, which prohibits lawmakers from passing any law that impairs existing private or public contracts, according to Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. Seven US states – including Illinois, Michigan and New York – have explicit constitutional protections of public employee benefits.
In Illinois, the state constitution says pension benefits are contracts that “shall not be diminished or impaired”. Union leaders have cited this in their legal efforts to challenge the new reform.
Michigan’s constitution has similar language. But Judge Steven Rhodes, in his ruling deeming Detroit eligible for bankruptcy earlier this month, said the constitution did not offer pensioners any special protections over other creditors. Nevertheless, the unions involved have vowed to fight on.
Labour groups take some solace from a 2012 decision in Arizona, where a judge ruled that a reform that would have increased employee contributions violated the state constitution’s protections against the impairment of contracts between the state and its employees.
“Their retirement benefits were a valuable part of the consideration offered by their employers upon which the teachers relied when accepting employment,” Judge Eileen Willett, of the Maricopa County superior court, wrote in her opinion.
The case ended up in the state supreme court, which heard oral arguments last summer but has yet to issue a ruling – two-and-a-half years after the reform passed through the legislature.