Examining the Experiences of Public Pension Plans Since the Great Recession

Link: https://www.nirsonline.org/reports/greatrecession/

PDF of report: https://www.nirsonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/compressedExamining-the-Experiences-of-Public-Pension-Plans-Since-the-Great-Recession-10.13.pdf

Webinar slides: https://www.nirsonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/FINAL-Great-Recession-Retro-Public-Webinar.pdf

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This report finds that state and local government retirement systems on the whole successfully navigated the 2007 to 2009 Global Financial Crisis. Moreover, public retirement systems across the nation have adapted in the years since the recession by taking actions to ensure continued long-term resiliency.

Examining the Experiences of Public Pension Plans Since the Great Recession is authored by Tyler Bond, NIRS Research Manager, Dan Doonan, NIRS Executive Director, Todd Tauzer, Segal Vice President and Actuary, and Ronald Temple, Lazard Managing Director and Co-Head of Multi-Asset and Head of U.S. Equity.

The report finds:

  • The majority of public pension plans recovered their pre- recession asset levels within six years, while continuing to pay over a trillion dollars in benefits. In recent years, public plans have reported record-high asset levels.
  • Discount rates, or the assumed rate of return on investments, have broadly decreased from eight to seven percent for the median public pension plan, based on actuarial and financial forecasts of future market returns.
  • Generational mortality tables, possible today with more advanced financial modeling software, have been broadly adopted by nearly all large public plans and future longevity improvements are now incorporated into standard financial projections.
  • Many public plans have shortened amortization periods, or the period of time required to pay off an unfunded actuarial accrued liability, to align with evolving actuarial best practices. Tightening amortization periods, akin to paying off a mortgage more quickly, has had the effect of increasing short- term costs. In the long run, plans and stakeholders will benefit.
  • The intense focus on public plan investment programs since the Great Recession misses the more important structural changes that generally have had a larger impact on plan finances and the resources necessary for retirement security.
  • Plans have adjusted strategic asset allocations in response to market conditions. With less exposure to public equities and fixed income, plans increased exposure to real estate, private equity, and hedge funds.
  • Professionally managed public defined benefit plans rebalance investments during volatile times and avoid the behavioral drag observed in retail investment.

Author(s): Dan Doonan, Ron Temple, Todd Tauzer, Tyler Bond

Publication Date: October 2022

Publication Site: NIRS

The State Pension Funding Gap: Plans Have Stabilized in Wake of Pandemic

Link: https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2021/09/the-state-pension-funding-gap-plans-have-stabilized-in-wake-of-pandemic

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Since the fiscal 2019 reporting period ended, an unprecedented $5 trillion in federal stimulus and other government interventions have buoyed financial markets and strengthened plan balance sheets.2 As a result, state plans earned returns of over 25% in fiscal 2021—a highwater mark not seen since the 1980s. Pew estimates that total unfunded liabilities dropped below $1 trillion by the end of fiscal 2021, which would push state plans to be more than 80% funded for the first time since 2008. (See Figure 1; for more detail, see also Appendix G.) The significant improvement in plans’ fiscal position is due in large part to dramatic increases in employer contributions to state pension funds in the past decade, which boosted assets by more than $200 billion. Since 2010, annual contributions to state pensions have increased by 8% annually, twice the rate of revenue growth. And for the 10 lowest-funded states, the yearly growth in employer contributions averaged 15% over this period. As a result, after decades of underfunding and market losses from risky investment strategies, for the first time this century states are expected to have collectively achieved positive amortization in 2020—meaning that payments into state pension funds were sufficient to pay for current benefits as well as reduce pension debt.

An increase in pension contributions of the size seen over the past decade signals a shift in budget priorities by state policymakers and a recognition that the costs of postponing obligations are untenable if left unaddressed. Although this has improved the outlook for state pension plans, it has also crowded out spending on other important programs and services and left states with less budgetary space to sustain future rises in pension payments.

Author(s): Greg Mennis, David Draine

Publication Date: 14 Sept 2022

Publication Site: Pew Trust

Citizens must be accurately informed for government to work

Link: https://www.news-gazette.com/opinion/columns/sheila-weinberg-citizens-must-be-accurately-informed-for-government-to-work/article_5d93e9cf-73c5-54c9-b762-133f91a94824.html

Excerpt:

An example of questionable disclosure practices is found in the Illinois budgeting and financial reporting process, specifically regarding pension contributions. In 1994, then-Gov. Jim Edgar led an effort to pass a bipartisan bill to solve the state’s $15 billion pension deficit. The plan would resolve the deficit within 50 years. The plan was structured to pay down the debt very slowly in the first 15 years and accelerate at the end. This ensured that sitting politicians in the early days of the plan would not be required to make the necessary tax increases or budget cuts to pay down the debt in a meaningful way.

This program is shown in charts to look like a skateboard ramp, appropriately named the “Edgar Ramp.” The problem is, the plan doesn’t work.

It is so unsuccessful that the Illinois pension deficit has grown from $15 billion to $317 billion as of June 30, 2020, according to Moody’s Investors Service. The state’s latest bond offering document emphasizes, “The state’s contributions to the retirement systems, while in conformity with state law, have been less than the contributions necessary to fully fund the retirement systems as calculated by the actuaries of the retirement systems.”

The latest Illinois Annual Comprehensive Financial Report discloses cash-flow problems, significantly underfunded pension obligations, other post-retirement benefit deficits and multiple references to debt-obligation bonds.

Author(s): Shiela Weinberg

Publication Date: 7 Aug 2022

Publication Site: News Gazette

The Government Pension Reckoning Cometh

Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-government-pension-reckoning-cometh-equable-institute-report-11660084312?st=j8a7o7efyyvjtdp&reflink=article_email_share&utm_source=Wirepoints+Newsletter&utm_campaign=24f39fc2e0-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_895ee9abf9-24f39fc2e0-30506353#new_tab

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The California Public Employees’ Retirement System reported a negative 6.1% return for the year, which includes a 21.3% positive return on private equity and 24.1% return on real estate as reported through the second quarter of 2022. What will happen if real-estate prices start to fall and some leveraged private-equity buyouts go south amid rising interest rates?

Collective-bargaining agreements limit how much workers must contribute to their pensions, so taxpayers are required to make up for investment losses. Employer retirement contributions—that is, taxpayers—make up 20% of government worker compensation. That amount has soared over the past decade as pension funds tried to make up for losses during the 2008-2009 financial panic.

A recent report by the Equable Institute found that state and local pension plans now are only 77.9% funded on average, which is about the same as in 2008. But some like Chicago’s are less than 40%. Advice to taxpayers in Illinois: Run.

Author(s): WSJ Editorial Board

Publication Date: 9 Aug 2022

Publication Site: WSJ

Ken Griffin talks the pension crisis, a once-secret meeting with Pritzker

Link: https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-opinion-ken-griffin-illinois-pension-jb-pritzker-desantis-20220809-jnrzlzbpvbfcnjauz522qcvi4m-story.html?utm_source=Wirepoints+Newsletter&utm_campaign=24f39fc2e0-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_895ee9abf9-24f39fc2e0-22956053

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Ken Griffin, founder and CEO of Citadel, spoke in his Chicago office to Editorial Page Editor Chris Jones on Aug. 2. This transcript has been edited for length.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said you and he met privately and that you agreed to drop your opposition to his graduated tax proposal if he took on pension reform in Illinois. True?

The Illinois pension crisis is rooted in the issue that politicians of the moment are able to make promises to the public sector workers, where the cost of those promises are borne by taxpayers, far into the future. So we have an intrinsic lack of accountability within the state when it comes to that dynamic between the leaders in Springfield and the public sector unions. (Former Gov.) Bruce Rauner and I actually would speak about this problem from time to time because it’s pretty well known that Bruce felt the state should move to a defined contribution program for the state employees.

And there are elements of that I think are attractive, but because the state employees do not participate in Social Security, a strictly defined contribution proposal leaves the state employee, in my opinion, at undue risk of adverse events if they do not invest their money successfully. … And there’s another issue, which is that the costs of the promises made by cities and counties are not borne by the cities and counties directly, they’re socialized across the entire taxpayer base of the state. So it’s pretty easy for the behavior of a number of Illinois cities to offer incredible increases in pay in final years to boost pension benefits, and that cost comes back to all Illinois taxpayers.

So these are some of the areas in which the average man in the street is really being handed a very significant bill. And the most tragic part of this whole story is that when the state hires people early in their careers, they’re not even placing that much value on these pension plans.

Twenty-two-year-olds don’t make lifetime career decisions on pension benefits. So, from my perspective, as a state we’re much better off having higher starting salaries to attract really good people to serve in the public sector. And, as with Bruce, my advice to the governor was consistently that either the state should mirror the benefits of Social Security as a baseline or, even better, go back to the federal government and get into Social Security again. We should reverse our opt-out from decades ago. And then to the extent that a city wants to offer benefits in excess of the Social Security baseline amount, that’s pay-as-you-go through a 401(k)-equivalent program. …

The proposal that I gave to J.B. to solve the state’s pension problems is exactly what I just shared with you. … It would, in all likelihood, require us to amend the constitution for the state to head in this direction. It might be for new employees only. I’m very sensitive to a promise made and earned. That’s your benefit. That’s a very different talking point than you’re 22 years old and it’s your first day working for the state.

But, big picture, we get the state into a program that looks like what I just described. And it’s gonna accelerate, in all likelihood, the costs of the current system. It may require revenue increases.

And like many of the business leaders in this city, I was very direct. I said, “If you’re willing to engage in pension reform, I’m willing to publicly support you in a tax increase.” It wasn’t graduated versus not graduated. It was just a tax increase.

I would’ve assumed that this meeting would’ve been private for the rest of my life until J.B. decided to open the door and talk about this. What he did talk about in terms of fiscal reform for the state was to restructure the state’s (information technology) budget.

And he felt he could achieve $50 million in budget savings for the state of Illinois by taking an ax toward our IT budget for the state, and that was going to be his victory lap for fiscal discipline in the state of Illinois. Here we have a multibillion-dollar problem on the left and 50 million (dollars) on the right. I was like, “J.B., we’re not having the same conversation here.”

To be clear, that was a fracturing moment between the two of us. … He does not want to use his political capital for good. He wants to maintain that capital to maintain the certainty of staying in power.

Author(s): Chris Jones

Publication Date: 10 Aug 2022

Publication Site: Chicago Tribune

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas needs to adjust its investment return assumptions

Link: https://reason.org/commentary/the-teacher-retirement-system-of-texas-needs-to-adjust-its-investment-return-assumptions/

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An adjustment of the assumed rate of return down to 7.0% means the plan will recalculate pension debt upwards in 2023, but will also be better positioned to avoid future debt growth over the longer run. The forecast in Figure 2 compares the growth of TRS’ unfunded liabilities under three scenarios: 

  1. Returns meet TRS assumptions;
  2. TRS experiences two major recessions over the next 30 years;
  3. And, TRS makes actuarially determined contributions (also using the two-recession scenario).

With this actuarial modeling of the system, it is clear that statutorily limited contributions will continue to pose funding risks for TRS that will be borne by Texas taxpayers. A proposed 7.0% assumed return will readjust 2023 unfunded liabilities upwards by $6.5 billion, but the plan will suffer fewer investment losses over the next 30 years when the plan inevitably experiences returns that diverge from expectations. TRS’ unfunded liabilities will remain elevated under the rigid statutorily-set contributions. If, however, TRS was to transition to Actuarially Determined Employer Contributions (ADEC) each year, then even by recognizing higher 2023 debt (under a 7.0% assumption) TRS could shave billions off its unfunded liabilities by 2052 ($74.7 billion down from $81.3 billion with current 7.25% assumption).  

Author(s): Anil Niraula, Zachary Christensen

Publication Date: 15 Jun 2022

Publication Site: Reason

TAXPAYER PENSION COSTS EXCEEDED ILLINOIS PROJECTIONS BY $13.7 BILLION SINCE 2013

Link: https://www.illinoispolicy.org/taxpayer-pension-costs-exceeded-illinois-projections-by-13-7-billion-since-2013/

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Unrealistic assumptions and missed investment returns have meant Illinois taxpayers paid $13.7 billion more for public pensions than state leaders projected five years earlier. Unless the estimates improve, taxpayers will pay an extra $21.3 billion during the next decade.

Illinois does a particularly poor job of figuring out how much money is needed to pay its public pensions: The past decade has seen the projections miss by 16%, which meant taxpayers needed to give $13.7 billion more than was estimated.

Author(s): Justin Carlson

Publication Date: 17 Jun 2022

Publication Site: Illinois Policy Institute

CT poised to pay down $3.6 billion in pension debt

Link: https://ctmirror.org/2022/05/20/ct-poised-to-pay-down-3-6-billion-in-pension-debt/

Excerpt:

Connecticut is poised to deposit an extra $3.6 billion in its cash-starved pension funds when the fiscal year closes in June, after tax revenues surged yet again on Friday.

Those supplemental payments would be on top of the $2.9 billion in required contributions Connecticut made this fiscal year to pensions for state employees and municipal teachers. 

Those projections were included Friday in the latest monthly budget estimates from Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration, which also forecast a $3.8 billion surplus for the current fiscal year.

Author(s): Keith Phaneuf

Publication Date: 20 May 2022

Publication Site: CT Mirror

Forensic Analysis of Pension Funding: A Tool for Policymakers

Link: https://crr.bc.edu/briefs/forensic-analysis-of-pension-funding-a-tool-for-policymakers/

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Full pdf: https://crr.bc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/SLP83_.pdf

Key findings:

State and local policymakers face a growing pension cost burden, but often lack understanding of the root causes.

One underappreciated cause is “legacy debt” – unfunded liabilities accumulated long ago, before plans adopted modern funding practices.

Legacy debt still exists today because historical unfunded liabilities were ultimately paid in full using some of the money intended to fund later benefits.

In a sample of plans with particularly low funded ratios, legacy debt averaged more than 40 percent of unfunded liabilities.

A failure to recognize the legacy debt has provided misleading information about benefit generosity, hindering progress toward effective solutions.

Author(s): Jean-Pierre Aubry

Publication Date: April 2022

Publication Site: Center for Retirement Research at Boston College

Retirees plead for extra pension funding in new state budget

Link: https://newschannel20.com/news/local/retirees-plead-for-extra-pension-funding-in-new-state-budget

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Retired public service workers gathered Monday to urge lawmakers to put more money into state pension funds.

The pension situation in Illinois is often referred to as a crisis because as of June 2021, the unfunded pension liabilities were almost $140 billion, according to a Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability report.

That is money the state has promised to retirees who say they need it to live.

There’s a proposal in this year’s budget to put half a billion dollars toward pension debt on top of the required payments from the state.

Author(s): Jordan Elder

Publication Date: 7 Mar 2022

Publication Site: News Channel 20

Providence Pension Working Group

Link:https://www.providenceri.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/PVDPensionWorkingGroup_Jan312022.pdf

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Decisions made more than 30 years ago drive challenges. The seeds of the City’s
pension problems were sown more than three decades ago when the City promised
unsustainable benefit increases to members of the retirement system without
funding the associated annual Actuarily Determined Contribution (ADC).2


The severity of the situation makes Providence an outlier. The City of Providence’s
Employee Retirement System (ERS) is among the lowest funded pension plans in
the nation. Since 1991, the City’s unfunded pension liability increased by more than
$1 billion. In addition to the pension liabilities, and over and above the pension
shortfall, the City’s retiree health benefits are underfunded by approximately $1.1
billion.3
The unfunded liability of the ERS drives costs to City that outpace revenue
growth, limiting investments in other priorities. As of June 30, 2020, the ERS was
only 22.2 percent funded.4 Total pension liabilities equated to $8,518 per resident –
of which $6,629 is not funded.5 In the last twenty years, the City’s unfunded liability
per capita increased by $4,000 per resident.

Publication Date: January 2022

Publication Site: Providence RI

Public Pension Systems Pared Costs and Assumptions in 2021, NCPERS Study Finds

Link:https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20220202005695/en/Public-Pension-Systems-Pared-Costs-and-Assumptions-in-2021-NCPERS-Study-Finds

Excerpt:

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.

Author(s): NCPERS

Publication Date: 2 Feb 2022

Publication Site: Businesswire