State retirement systems in America improved from last year, but are still Fragile.
This an annual report on the current status of statewide public pension systems, put into a historic context. State and local governments face a wide range of challenges in general – and some of the largest are growing and unpredictable pension costs. The scale and effects of these challenges are best understood by considering the multi-decade financial trends and funding policy decisions that have brought public sector retirement systems to this moment.
The financial market volatility over the past 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic has ultimately been a positive investment climate for institutional investors like state pension plans. And the federal government has provided substantial financial aid to states and municipalities, smoothing over what could have been seismic budgetary shortfalls in some jurisdictions due to tax revenue declines. The combined historically unprecedented nature of these events continues to create an unpredictable environment for state pension plans. However, in this report Equable uses patterns of behavior from the past two decades as a guide to what might happen in the coming decade while also a means to identify areas of concern that should be monitored closely or acted upon immediately.
After state pension debt grew to more than $1.4 trillion last year, two new reports estimate that gap between the total amount states have promised to retirees and what they’ve actually set aside in their pension investment funds will shrink dramatically. A recent analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts says the gap could dip below $1 trillion this year. And a report released today by the Equable Institute estimates that 2021 returns will shrink state pension debt to $1.08 trillion.
The gains in the stock market played a big role. Equable’s report calculates that preliminary 2021 investment returns averaged an astounding 20.7% return. That’s nearly triple the average assumed rate of return in any given year. Those gains will boost the average pension plan to about 80% funded, the highest funding ratio since 2008.
It is bad Illinois has the nation’s worst pension crisis, but state politicians have made it worse by using risky debt to delay the day of reckoning, and done so to the point that Illinois now owes 30% of the nation’s pension obligation bonds.
Pension obligation bonds are a form of debt used by state or local governments to fund their pension deficits. Illinois holds $21.6 billion of the nation’s $72 billion pension obligation bond debt.
The theory behind the bonds is that if a pension system can borrow money at a lower rate by selling bonds and earn a higher percentage from investing those funds, then it has realized a net gain using them. The issue is the gamble rarely works out that way, as the Government Finance Officers’ Association points out. Pension obligation bonds place taxpayer money at risk and often leave governments saddled with more debt rather than less. They often do not achieve a high enough return to justify their use.
Illinois’ five statewide retirement systems hold $144 billion in debt, according to official state reporting based on optimistic investment estimates. But Moody’s Investors Service says the true debt is $317 billion, which it calculates using more accurate methods common in the private sector.
The Garden State Initiative released a report on the state of New Jersey finances. You have heard it all before but what keeps being left out of these ivory tower pronouncements is the systemic corruption at all levels and in all corners of officialdom here that makes even the slightest improvement in our general fiscal situation a pipe dream. Here are some excerpts along with a few charts on the pension system, the last of which makes my point. ….. Focus on that last chart. Liabilities actually decreased over the last two years. Significantly decreased against all logic and reason. Did everybody take a pay cut? Did 30% of plan participants disappear? No. The actuaries just got told to lower liability values and like dutiful apparatchiks they complied.
NJ’s revenue is being produced by higher rates on a smaller tax base: New Jersey needs to ensure that the outmigration of high-income residents does not continue. Between 2008 and 2017, New Jersey experienced growth in the number of tax filers of 4.2%; however, growth in those making $500,000 or more annually was only 2.5% during the same time.
NJ’s public spending is growing faster than inflation, our population or job creation: Our state will continue to see specific needs increase, especially in public health, health insurance, and public safety. New Jersey already taxes residents and businesses more than most other states. The problem is not too little revenue; rather, it is that the state’s spending is growing at a faster pace than inflation and the state’s population
The cost of NJ’s public workforce retirement and healthcare is the key driver of escalating spending and taxes: What New Jersey owes employees and retirees is growing significantly faster than the underlying economy that must support this liability. This is not sustainable. Pension liabilities are growing faster than assets
A new report shows Illinois holds 30% of the nation’s pension obligation bond debt.
A pension obligation bond is a form of debt that some states use to make payments to state-run pension funds. A pension obligation bond gets paid out by a third party and the state then pays back that loan with interest. Financial experts often advise against the use of pension obligation bonds, said Adam Schuster of the Illinois Policy Institute.
The interest on the pension obligation bonds continues to climb and is leaving Illinois in a worse spot than it was previously in. The state has borrowed a total of $17.2 billion since 2003, but repayment cost is now $31 billion. Pension obligation bonds can save taxpayers money if the interest rates on the bonds is lower than the rate of return on the pension investments. If the rate of return drops below the interest rate on the bonds, then taxpayers are on the hook for the difference. This is a strategy that Schuster said is the same as gambling with the state’s money.
An audit of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, America’s largest public pension fund, found regular payments to pensioners well after they died, so much so it’s challenging to get the money back.
Around 1,800 CalPERS pensioners die every month, according to a June memorandum from the fund’s Office of Audit Services that recently become public. CalPERS had more than $41 million in wrongful pension payments outstanding as of July 31, 2020, the audit said. It estimated CalPERS made those payments to about 22,000 dead pensioners.
The CalPERS Death and Survivor Benefits Division (DSBD) is responsible for verifying a pensioner has passed away and stopping payment. The audit found this process is done by a part-time employee that’s not given regular supervisory oversight.
Of the sample of 30 cases audited, the report found DSBD learned pensioners had died an average of 47 months after the date of their deaths, resulting in $2.34 million in wrongful payments that had yet to be recovered.
Less well known is the nearly $75 billion of pension debt held by local governments in Illinois, which is the primary reason for Illinois’ second-highest in the nation property taxes. Combined with the state’s pension debt, politicians who mismanaged the pension system dug a $219 billion hole.
In Danville, the average household owns nearly $40,000 in state and local pension debt, with over $10,000 of that debt stemming from local systems for police, firefighters and municipal workers. To pay off that pension debt, a Danville household would have to give up 110% of an entire year’s $36,172 median annual income.
The 80 percent mark long has been considered the minimum threshold for a pension fund. However, that’s actually still too low. An Issue Brief by the American Academy of Actuaries called it, “The 80% Pension Funding Standard Myth” (pdf).
It said, “An 80 percent funded ratio often has been cited in recent years as a basis for whether a pension plan is financially or ‘actuarially’ sound. Left unchallenged, this misinformation can gain undue credibility with the observer, who may accept and in turn rely on it as fact, thereby establishing a mythic standard. … Pension plans should have a strategy in place to attain or maintain a funded status of 100 percent or greater over a reasonable period of time.”
State treasurers in New Jersey and Arizona are divesting approximately $325 million in investments from consumer goods giant Unilever after subsidiary Ben & Jerry said it will stop selling its ice cream in Israeli-occupied territories.
In July, the company said in a statement that it was “inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” It said it has informed the licensee that manufacturers the ice cream in the region that it will not renew its license when it expires at the end of 2022. Despite leaving the Palestinian territories, Ben & Jerry’s said it will stay in Israel through a different arrangement that has not yet been determined.
A New Jersey law enacted in 2016 requires state pension funds to withdraw investments from any company that boycotts the goods, products, or businesses of Israel or companies operating in Israel or territories occupied by Israel. The law requires the state to create a blacklist of companies that boycott Israel.
New York City police unions that hold partial control over how their members’ pension money is invested are planning to pull out of a consortium of other city pension funds that Comptroller Scott Stringer has credited with considerably augmenting their return on investment.
In 2015, Stringer launched what’s come to be known as the Common Investment Meeting, where the trustees of the city’s five largest union pension funds meet to hash out how their money is managed.
According to Stringer, the CIM has boosted the pension funds’ growth overall, with their rate of return hitting 11.58% over the five years since the CIM was created, compared to a 7.02% rate of return for the five years prior to its creation.
The police pension funds’ trustees are made up of several police unions. The most powerful among them is the Police Benevolent Association.
The PBA’s head, Patrick Lynch, pointed out that the CIM began as a pilot program and disputed the idea that, over the past five years, it’s made life easier for the funds’ trustees.
A New Jersey state treasury official said on Wednesday it is set to divest $182 million in Unilever Plc stock and bonds held by its pension funds over the restriction of sales by the consumer giant’s Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
It is the latest action by a U.S. state challenging Unilever over Ben & Jerry’s move in July to end a license for its ice cream to be sold in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Ben & Jerry’s said selling its products there was “inconsistent with its values.”
New Jersey’s Division of Investment had said on Tuesday it made a preliminary determination that maintaining its investment in Unilever would be a breach of a state law barring it from investing in companies boycotting Israel. It gave the company 90 days to request a modification of the order.