A new study published by Pioneer Institute finds that issuing pension obligation bonds (POBs) to refinance $360 million of the MBTA Retirement Fund’s (MBTARF’s) $1.3 billion unfunded pension liability would only compound the T’s already serious financial risks.
With POBs, government entities deposit revenues from bond sales into their pension funds and use the money to make investments they hope will deliver returns that outpace borrowing costs.
“Virtually every study of POBs finds that timing and duration of the bond issues are critical,” said E.J. McMahon, author of “Rolling the Retirement Dice.” “Bonds floated at the end of a bull market are the most likely to lose money, and that makes this idea a wrong turn at the worst possible time.”
If investments don’t meet a pension fund’s assumed rate of return, it could be left with debt service costs in addition to the pre-existing unfunded liability. In 2015, the Government Finance Officers Association bluntly warned that “State and local governments should not issue POBs.” It reaffirmed its guidance last year.
Pension systems said earnings on investments accounted for 68% of overall pension revenues in their most recent fiscal year. Employer contributions made up 23% of revenues, and employee contributions totaled 8%.
The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated efforts by public pension systems to expand their communications capabilities. In all, 78% offered live web conferences to members during 2021, up from 54% a year earlier.
Pension funds that participated in the survey in 2020 and 2021 reported that their funded levels rose to 72.3%, from 71.7%. Overall, pension funds reported a funded level of 74.7% for 2021. While funded levels are not as important to pensions’ sustainability as steady contributions are, the trend is positive.
The inflation assumption for the funds’ most recent fiscal year remained steady at 2.7%. These assumptions were in place in the midst of an acceleration in the rate of inflation, which reached 7% at the end of 2021, from 1.4% a year earlier, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The combined total of the required Fiscal Year 2023 State contribution for the six retirement systems was $10.97 billion, an increase of $0.14 billion over the previous year. Cheiron verified the arithmetic calculations made by the systems’ actuaries to develop the required State contribution and reviewed the assumptions on which it was based.
The Illinois Pension Code (for TRS, SURS, SERS, JRS, and GARS) establishes a method that does not adequately fund the systems, back loading contributions and targeting the accumulation of assets equal to 90% of the actuarial liability in the year 2045. This contribution level does not conform to generally accepted actuarial principles and practices. Generally accepted actuarial funding methods target the accumulation of assets equal to 100% of the actuarial liability, not 90%.
According to the systems’ 2021 actuarial valuation reports, the funded ratio of the retirement systems ranged from 47.5% (CTPF) to 19.3% (GARS), based on the actuarial value of assets as a ratio to the actuarial liability. If there is a significant market downturn, the unfunded actuarial liability and the required State contribution rate could both increase significantly, putting the sustainability of the systems further into question.
Author(s): Frank J. Mautino
Publication Date: 22 Dec 2021
Publication Site: Office of the Auditor General, State of Illinois
The spike in Milwaukee’s annual pension contribution will be one of the top challenges facing the next mayor — and he or she won’t have much time in office before big decisions must be made.
Next year, current estimates predict the city’s annual pension contribution will increase from about $71 million to about $130 million, according to the city budget office. It is expected to remain elevated for years to come.
The projected increase is driven by factors including a drop in the anticipated future earnings on the city’s pension fund, from 8.24% to 7.5%.
Despite a 32% investment return in the last fiscal year, Marin County’s public pension fund is playing it safe.
The board of the Marin County Employees’ Retirement Association decided to factor in the extraordinary gain over four years rather than immediately when assigning annual employer contributions.
The association includes Marin County and eight other public entities. Its net investment return was $829.8 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30.
Last year, when the association’s board voted to cut the fund’s assumed annual rate of return from 7% to 6.75%, Block advocated reducing it to 6%. At that time, the association also lowered its assumed annual rate of inflation from 2.75% to 2.5%.
The Cheiron actuaries, however, said the association’s assumptions regarding inflation and the annual rate of return remain valid.
DiNapoli announced today that he’s approved a recommendation by the State Retirement System Actuary to reduce, from 6.8 percent to 5.9 percent, the assumed rate of return (RoR) on investments by the $268 billion Common Retirement Fund, which underwrites the New York State and Local Employee Retirement System (NYSLERS) and Police and Fire Retirement System (PFRS), of which the comptroller is the sole trustee.
To be sure, even at 5.9 percent, the RoR that the pension fund literally counts on to pay constitutionally guaranteed benefits will remain considerably higher than the yields from commensurate low-risk U.S. Treasury or high-quality corporate bonds, which currently range from 2.3 percent to 3.3 percent. Nonetheless, in isolation, cutting the RoR assumption is an unequivocally good and prudent thing for the comptroller to do.
Assuming lower earnings also tends to result in higher required contributions by employers—which is why politically sensitive public pension fund administrators across the country have tended to set their RoRs at much higher levels than those required for private corporate plans. To guard against volatility in investment returns, which has been especially pronounced over the past 25 years, DiNapoli and other pension fund administrators also resort to “asset smoothing” — i.e., counting average market returns over several years—as a basis for estimating the assets available to pay retirement benefits. In New York’s case, the smoothing period is five years.
For the last 20 years, state and local pension plans’ assumed rates of return have been far too optimistic. The distributions of average (geometric mean) assumed investment returns and actual returns from 2001 to 2020 demonstrate this. The figure below shows the distribution of the average assumed investment return rate versus actual investment returns for 200 of the largest state and local pension plans in the United States. The median assumed rate of return over the last 20 years was 7.7 percent per year, the median actual rate of investment return for these public pension plans was 5.7 percent.
This two percent difference helps to explain the nearly 30 percent drop in the average pension plan funded ratio over the same period. In recent years, many pension plans lowered their assumed rates of return.
State pension systems dropped the rate of return they assume for their investment portfolios again, continuing a two-decade long trend that public-finance experts say is necessary, even as it presents some challenges for the entities that participate in such plans.
A dramatic, recent example of this dilemma occurred in a Massachusetts district court proceeding, when an employer agreed to a $59.17 million settlement in a proposed ERISA class action accusing it of using outdated mortality rates to calculate pensions. Cruz v. Raytheon Co., Mass. Dist. case number 1:19-CV-11425-PBS, Feb. 16, 2021.
The employer had argued in its motion to dismiss that the retirees failed to make the case that the plan violated ERISA by unreasonably using a mortality table created in 1971 and a 7% interest rate to calculate retirees’ alternative annuity benefits it said would be “actuarially equivalent” to the plan’s benefits. The employer argued that its conversion factors for determining the alternative annuity benefits were reasonable and that the retirees were attempting to force their own arbitrary actuarial assumptions. The employer further asserted that under ERISA, employers sponsoring pension plans have wide discretion in determining which actuarial assumptions or conversion factors can be used, requiring only that the single life annuity (SLA) normal form of benefit is equivalent by actuarial standards.
Author(s): Jeffrey D. Mamorsky, Richard A. Sirus, Greenberg Traurig, LLP
Overall, the typical pension fund is now expected to return approximately 6% annually over the next 20 years, compared with 6.4% pre-pandemic (Figure 4). This change in outlook is consistent with the reduction in the median long-term return found by a recent survey of pension investment consultants13 and aligns with revisions for public pension return expectations published by S&P Global.14
The $116 billion North Carolina Retirement Systems has lowered its assumed rate of investment return for the third time in four years, cutting it by 50 basis points (bps) to 6.5% from 7% annually.
The target return had already been reduced to 7.2% from 7.25% in 2017 and again in 2018 to 7%. Prior to then, the rates had been left unchanged for nearly six decades even though the two main state pension funds—the Teachers’ and State Employees’ Retirement System and the Local Government Employees’ Retirement System—have, on average, underperformed their assumed rates of return over the past 20 years. In fact, the new target rate of 6.5% is still higher than the fund’s estimated 20-year return of 6.28%.