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.
Most analysts attribute the strong market performance to historically low interest rates and an unprecedented $5 trillion in federal stimulus in response to the pandemic. In addition, the economy is now recovering at a rapid pace, with recent projections by the Congressional Budget Office, Moody’s, and the Federal Reserve forecasting a return to pre-pandemic levels of gross domestic product by calendar year 2022 or before.3
However, the path to recovery remains uncertain, and the long-term forecast for economic growth and pension investment returns is less rosy. The Congressional Budget Office expects average real economic growth of 1.6% between 2026 and 2031 and nominal growth of 3.7% over the same time frame—significantly lower than the historical average.4 As such, market experts now estimate equity returns, which are related to economic growth and current market value of stocks, to be 6.4% over the long term, compared with 6.7% before the pandemic.5 And with interest rates currently lower than pre-pandemic levels, they also project bonds to yield just 2% over the next decade before returning to the pre-pandemic expected yield of about 4%.6
The first metric is net amortization, which measures whether total contributions to a public retirement system are sufficient to reduce unfunded liabilities if all actuarial assumptions—primarily investment expectations— are met for that year. Plans with positive net amortization are expected to retire pension debt over time and therefore improve their funded status.
Pew reviewed the three-year average for net amortization. This figure provides a more complete picture of contribution adequacy given the impact of volatile investment performance and demographic experience on plan assets. In total, the 33 cities in Pew’s analysis achieved positive amortization (104% of the benchmark) from 2015 to 2017. However, individually, more than half of the cities had negative amortization. Notably, Chicago and Dallas contributed less than 50% of the benchmark. In contrast, New Orleans contributed 174%, or $132 million, which was well over the city’s benchmark over the time period. For cities that are poorly funded, net amortization can indicate that they are on a path toward sustainably funding their pension plans. For example, New Orleans and Philadelphia have both increased their contributions significantly in recent years to achieve positive net amortization and decrease unfunded liabilities. On the other hand, better funded cities that fell short of the benchmark may face growing pension debt absent a policy change or adjustment.
As states respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, many also face severe revenue shortfalls because of the economic downturn. These gaps between resources and planned spending pose immediate challenges for policymakers, who must balance budgets while addressing increased demand for public health and other essential services. Some states have already tried to cut costs by reducing or delaying contributions to public pension plans, and others may consider doing so if federal aid to states does not materialize.
The pandemic’s effect on state budgets has been significant. Fiscal year 2020 marked the first time that state general fund revenues declined since the Great Recession, with preliminary projections issued since March showing that states expected fiscal 2021 revenues to fall below initial estimates by about 10%, on average. More recent estimates indicate that state revenue shortfalls could total more than $300 billion cumulatively over fiscal years 2020-22.