Will Actuaries Come Clean on Public Pensions?

Link: https://www.cato.org/regulation/winter-2023-2024/will-actuaries-come-clean-public-pensions



To appreciate the significance of using inappropriate discounting, consider this example: A 45‐​year‐​old public sector employee earns $75,000 per year with no pension plan or other benefits. To help secure her retirement, her employer considers changing her compensation to $73,000 in salary plus a U.S. Treasury zero‐​coupon bond that pays $5,000 in 20 years. The bond is selling in the market at $2,000. The Treasury bond’s implicit annual “discount rate” is thus 4.69 percent, i.e., $2,000 plus 4.69 percent interest compounded for 20 years equals $5,000.

The total compensation cost to the employer would remain $75,000. The employee, in turn, has three options:

  • She can sell the bond and be in an identical position as before.
  • She can accept her employer’s nudge and keep the bond until retirement.
  • She can sell the bond and invest the $2,000 in other assets, e.g., stocks, in the hope of generating additional retirement income, albeit taking the risk that she may end up with less than $5,000.

Now suppose the public employer decides to be more paternalistic. Instead of giving the employee the Treasury bond worth $2,000, it promises her that in 20 years it will pay her $5,000. To fund this liability, the employer could deposit the $2,000 in a trust and have the trust buy the Treasury bond. The promise would then be fully funded by the trust. In 20 years, the Treasury bond would be redeemed for $5,000 and the proceeds forwarded to the employee. In the intervening 20 years, before the bond redemption and payment to the employee, the value of the future payment would increase with the passage of time, and increase (or decrease) as market interest rates decrease (or increase). But the value of the bond held in the trust would change identically to the liability, and the contractual obligation to pay $5,000 at age 65 would remain fully funded at every instant until paid, regardless of what happens in financial markets. Ignoring frictional costs and taxes, the employer’s cost of those actions would be the same as if it had paid the employee $75,000 in cash. And the employee’s total compensation would still be $75,000: $73,000 in cash plus a promise worth $2,000.

But instead of contributing the $2,000 and using it to buy the bond, the public employer could hire a public pension actuary and invest any trust contributions in a “prudent diversified” portfolio including assets, like equities, exposed to various market risks. The actuary would attest that the “expected” annual earnings of the portfolio over the long term is 7 percent (according to a sophisticated financial model). The actuary would then use the 7 percent to discount the $5,000 future payment and certify that the “cost” to the employer is $1,292, which is 35 percent less than the $2,000 cost of the Treasury bond. The actuary would certify that if the employer contributes the $1,292, its benefit obligation is “fully funded” because, if the trust earns the “expected return” of 7 percent (50 percent probable, after all), the $1,292 will accumulate to $5,000 in 20 years. The public employer can then claim it has saved taxpayers $708 ($2,000 – $1,292) by investing in a prudent diversified asset portfolio.

The question is, does it really cost only $1,292 to provide the same value as a $2,000 Treasury bond? Is $1,292 invested in the riskier portfolio worth the same as a Treasury bond that costs $2,000? Of course not. If it is possible to spin $1,292 of straw into $2,000 of gold, why would the government employer stop at pensions? Why not borrow as much as possible now and invest the proceeds in a prudent diversified portfolio expected to earn 7 percent and use the “expected” gains from taking market risk to pay for future general government expenditures?

The public employer is providing a benefit worth $2,000—a guarantee—and hoping to pay for it with $1,292 invested in a risky portfolio. The $708 difference represents the value of the guarantee that taxpayers will make good on any shortfall when the $5,000 comes due. The cost to taxpayers in total is still $2,000, but $708 is being taken from future generations by the current generation in the form of risk. Risk is a cost (precisely $708 in this example). Its price reflects the possibility as viewed by the market that future taxpayers ultimately may have to pay nothing at all if things go well, or a significant sum if they don’t.

Suppose the employer takes this logic one step further and, rather than promising $5,000 in 20 years, it contributes $1,292 to a defined contribution plan that invests in the same prudent diversified portfolio on the theory that the employee will be breaking even because the $1,292 is “expected” to accumulate to $5,000. The employee would be correct to view that as a cut in pay. The $708 cost of risk is shifted to the employee, reducing her compensation, instead of being borne by future taxpayers as in the case of the defined benefit plan.

The employee might complain. Future taxpayers cannot.

The only way for the employer to keep the employee whole with $73,000 of cash compensation plus a defined contribution plan is to contribute $2,000 to the plan. Whether it is invested in the Treasury bond or in riskier assets in the hope of higher returns, the value of her total compensation would still be $75,000.

Table 1 summarizes all these scenarios. The fourth column is the analog of public pension plans. Both the reported annual cost for the future $5,000 payment ($1,292) and the reported total compensation ($74,292) are understated. Investment professionals are paid well for managing risky assets for which high expected returns can be claimed. The actuary collects a fee. The employee has the value of the guarantee and bears none of the market risk being taken. Along with a happy employee, the public employer gets to report an understated compensation cost, freeing up money for other budget items. It’s good for all involved—except for the taxpayers on the hook for $708 in costs hidden by using the 7 percent discount rate.

Author(s): Larry Pollack

Publication Date: Winter 2023-2024

Publication Site: Cato Regulation

Legacy Debt in Public Pensions: A New Approach

Link: https://crr.bc.edu/briefs/legacy-debt-in-public-pensions-a-new-approach/



The inclusion of “legacy debt” – unfunded liabilities from long ago – with current liabilities impedes effective pension policy.

A new approach would separate legacy debt from other unfunded liabilities in order to:

spread the legacy cost over multiple generations; and

properly identify fixed vs. variable costs.

It would also use the municipal bond yield – rather than the assumed return on assets – to calculate liabilities and required contributions.

This approach, by properly allocating costs, would improve intergenerational fairness, government resource decisions, and public credibility.

Author(s): Jean-Pierre Aubry

Publication Date: June 2022

Publication Site: Center for Retirement Research at Boston College

City of Newport Beach Urges Greater Sustainability in State Pension Fund, Aims to Pay CalPERS Debt by 2030



Newport Beach City officials are advocating for policies aimed at increasing long-term sustainability in the state public employee pension fund, CalPERS, as Newport Beach continues to make significant progress in paying down its debt obligations to the system.

On November 16, the CalPERS Board of Administration decided to maintain the fund’s discount rate, or the expected rate of return of the pension fund investments, at the current 6.8 percent. The discount rate had been lowered from 7.0 percent to 6.8 percent in July through CalPERS’ Funding Risk Mitigation Policy, which automatically lowers the discount rate in years when investment returns are above the assumed rate of return. Prior to the recent discount rate change, Newport Beach had asked CalPERS to lower its discount rate to 6.5 percent or below, a more conservative number that could help further reduce future risk.


Newport Beach expects to eliminate its unfunded liability by 2030, thanks to an aggressive payment schedule. Beginning in 2018, the City Council decided to increase annual payments to $35 million a year, $9 million more than required. This fiscal year, for the second year in a row, the City will contribute $5 million more as an additional, discretionary payment, bringing the total contribution to $40 million.

Publication Date: 29 Nov 2021

Publication Site: Newport Beach Independent

SFA Application: Through the Forest and Into the Weeds



The Road Carriers Local 707 Pension Fund , which was the first plan to seek bailout money under the PBGC Special Financial Assistance (SFA) program for troubled multiemployer plans, has their 425-page application uploaded on the SFA website.


412-425) SFA calculations which is a fairly simple spreadsheet calculating the present value of the liabilities of all current participants (pages 419-420) and coming up with one amount ($706,400,534) to cover all their liabilities through 2051. New entrants presumably will be covered by new negotiated contributions and, after 30 years though if any of the current participants survive until 2051 they will presumably need another bailout.

The problem PBGC has with this filing appears to be that an interest rate of 5.32% was used for valuing liabilities which happens to be 2% plus the first HATFA Segment Rate when it is the third PPA Segment Rate to which the 2% should have been added. Per the IRS website (scroll down a little to Funding Table 3), that rate would likely have been the April, 2021 rate of 3.52% which would have made 5.52% the rate to be used for valuing liabilities (thus lowering the liability value as the higher the interest rate the lower the value). The tricky part is that the PPA third Segment Rate has been going down and is now 3.34% as of October, 2021.

Author(s): John Bury

Publication Date: 25 Oct 2021

Publication Site: burypensions

N.C. treasurer announces move to make state pension plan less risky for taxpayers

Link: https://www.carolinacoastonline.com/regional/article_c65c2932-6633-11eb-8288-1f1410ad3f83.html


In a move that will make government-employee pensions less risky for taxpayers, N.C. Treasurer Dale Folwell announced Tuesday, Feb. 2, that the assumed rate of return on the main state retirement plan will be lowered.

Folwell and the Retirement Systems Division said the assumed rate of return for investments in the North Carolina Retirement Systems Fund will be reduced from 7% to 6.5%. The move was unanimously approved by the boards representing teachers, state employees and local government employees on Jan. 28.

Lowering the rate requires greater contributions from state and local governments, but keeps debt from piling up in the long term.

Author(s): Johnny Kampis, Carolina Journal

Publication Date: 3 February 2021

Publication Site: Carolina Coast Online

How the Federal Reserve’s Actions and Low Interest Rates Impact Public and Private Retirement Savings



The extended period of low interest rates we’re in is not only creating challenges for public pension systems across the nation, but it is also negatively impacting people who are relying on their own savings to fund their retirements.

A common strategy for generating retirement income is to invest savings from an individual retirement account (IRA) or 401(k) into income-producing assets such as corporate bonds. But interest rates on corporate bonds have been falling in recent decades, reaching multi-decade lows in 2020.

Author(s): Marc Joffe

Publication Date: 20 January 2021

Publication Site: Reason

Editorial: Marin pension changes are painful but necessary


The combination of reality and responsible caution is getting expensive for Marin public agencies that provide their workers with generous pensions.

The member agencies in the Marin County Employees’ Retirement Association are getting the latest dose and the association’s board voted to reduce its annual assumption rate on investment returns to 6.75%. It is a quarter of one percent reduction, but one that will cost agencies such as the county and the city of San Rafael thousands of dollars every year.


It recognizes a combination of expected returns on its stock market and real estate investments and that the number of pensioners is not only growing, but they are living longer and drawing more from the fund.

Living longer may be great news for the retirees, but it is an increased cost for MCERA.


Publication Date: 28 January 2021

Publication Site: Marin Independent Journal