In recent articles, I have lamented poorly designed components of the Reconciliation Bill, from a poorly-designed “free childcare” program to a family leave plan that’s designed to be “free” rather than funded by the workers who benefit, to a Medicare drug benefit that’s planned to be implemented at the same time as Part A Medicare is facing insolvency, to a mandate that employers provide retirement plan access that leaves virtually all of the specifics up to a bureaucratic agency. And this just scratches at the surface of the expansive programs on tap if the bill is passed as currently drafted. But there’s one piece of legislation that advocates have been calling for, for years, which didn’t make the cut: an increase in the benefits for the poorest of the poor elderly and disabled who receive Supplemental Security Income, or SSI.
So why didn’t SSI make the cut, when the Democrats compiled their list of programs for the “American Family Plan”? Do some of these changes go too far, increase benefits too much? Did they want to avoid opening up a can of worms with respect to larger plan design issues with the system, for example, concerns that the children’s benefits have become an “alternative welfare system” providing benefits for children equal to those for adults, even with mild conditions such as ADHD, that mean no one wants to touch the system?
Or does an enhancement of SSI benefits simply fail to meet the Democrats’ objective of making voters happy with broad outlays of cash benefitting the middle class as well as the poor?
Now, what she identifies as an “accomplishment,” having finished the climb up the pension ramp, is actually a state law that left her no choice in the matter. But that’s not the only incorrect part of her statement. Even having finally left the ramp behind, the plans are not funded on an “actuarially determined basis.” They are funded based on the Illinois legislature’s decision of a funding schedule which, for the police and fire plans, is sufficient to attain 90% funding in the year 2055, and for the Municipal and Laborers’ plan, not until 2058. Yes, if you do the math, that’s 34 and 37 years from now.
In fact, the plans’ actuarial valuations calculate a figure that’s labelled the Actuarially Determined Contribution. For the Fire plan (19% funded), the city’s contribution was only 79% of the ADC; for the Police plan (23% funded), the city’s contribution was only 75% of the ADC. And these are the two plans which reached the top of the ramp last year!
At the same time, late last month, the latest Trustees’ Report for Medicare determined that the Medicare Part A Trust Fund will be exhausted in the year 2026, which, if you do the math, is a mere five years from now. At that point, Medicare would have to cut reimbursement rates for doctors by 9%, increasing to 20% in 2045, or even more if the report’s assumptions don’t pan out.
How will the new dental benefits — assuming they remain in the bill — affect Medicare Part A and its trust fund? Strictly speaking, not at all. The new benefits would be a part of Part B of the program, that is, doctors’ charges, rather than Part A, which covers hospital charges. In one respect, it would be its own benefit structure entirely, since, unlike “regular Part B” Medicare, the proposal would have the federal government pay 100% of the benefit’s costs, rather than requiring participants to pay a 25% cost-share premium. It would, in a way, become Medicare Part E.
It is reasonably well-known that the pension plan has been underfunded for years, and that the state, in setting a new funding plan, allowed a “funding ramp” in 2011 and then re-set that ramp in 2016, so that funding according to the “90% funded by 2055” target only began in 2020. However, Tobe alleges that “Chicago has consistently underfunded the plan more than the statutory amount, blatantly breaking the law, with no consequences.”
Regarding fees and management, Tobe alleges that the pension fund has “failed to monitor and fully disclose investment fees and expenses” and that “fees and expenses could be 10 times that which they disclose” because the fund’s disclosure “omits dozens of managers and their fees.” He also reports that the Fund claimed that “hundreds of contracts for the investment managers” are exempt from FOIA, and denied him access to the fund’s own analysis of fees. He concludes that “PABF may have over 100 ‘ghost managers’ in funds of funds,” that is, the fund is required to disclose its managers but it fails to do so, even though Tobe has identified them through other sources.
With respect to governance, the fund violates a fundamental aspect of prudent governance because its Chief Investment Officer is not a professional with qualification in the field, but simply a trustee and active-duty policeman, and, what’s more, one who has “22 allegations of misconduct as a police officer including one for bribery/official corruption.” Further, no staff members hold the credential of a CFA charter, another marker of professionalism. Another related governance issue is the use of offshore investments, e.g., in the Cayman Islands, which lack key governance and transparency protections of US-based funds.
This year, Social Security’s deficit is unusually high due to lower revenues and higher benefits: 1.75%. In 2040, the deficit climbs to 3.70% rather than 3.54%. In 2080, the deficit stands at 4.87% rather than 4.59%.
Put another way, if there were no Trust Fund accounting mechanism now, the OASI program would have been able to pay 93% of benefits. This would drop to 76% in 2035 – 2040 – 2045, then drop further to being able to pay 70% of benefits.
What’s more, this year, the actuaries changed several assumptions. They assume that by the year 2036, fertility rates will increase to 2.00 children per woman, an increase from the 2020 report’s assumption of 1.95. They also assume a long-term unemployment rate of 4.5% rather than 5%. At the same time, they calculate alternate projections with more pessimistic assumptions, including a continuingly low fertility rate (1.69), a higher rate of mortality improvement (that is, longer-lived recipients), a higher rate of unemployment (5.5%), and others. In these alternate calculations, the 2040 deficit becomes 6.47% rather than 3.7% (benefits 64% payable), and the 2080 deficit becomes 12.39% rather than 4.87% (benefits 50% payable).
Also consider that, at the moment, there are 2.7 workers for each Social Security recipient (2.8 in 2020). This is forecast to drop to 2.2 in 2040 and ultimately down to 2.1. But if the population trends are those of the pessimistic scenario, then that 2.1 would drop to 1.5 by the year 2080.
The text of the bill, H. 2808/S. 1669, is brief. All employees of the state, its political subdivisions, and its public colleges and universities, a bonus of three years “added to age or years of service or a combination thereof for the purpose of calculating a retirement benefit,” if, at any point between March 10, 2020 and December 21, 2020, they had “volunteered to work or who [had] been required to work at their respective worksites or any other worksite outside of their personal residence.”
In subsequent reporting, government watchdog group The Pioneer Institute voiced its opposition. In a statement posted on their website, they criticized the broad coverage — acting as an unfunded mandate for municipalities, including workers even if they had worked outside their home for a single day, encompassing both blue collar and white collar workers. They estimate the bill’s cost at “in the billions of dollars” and point to a massive boost even for a single individual, the president of the University of Massachusetts, whose lifetime pension benefit would increase by $790,750.
And left out of Zlotnik’s proposal is a recognition that the state’s main retirement fund is 64% funded, and the teachers’ fund, 52%, as of 2019.
Here’s some good news: using the costs of actual annuities available for consumers to purchase in June 2020, and comparing them to bond rates which were similar to the investment portfolios those insurance companies hold, the authors calculated “money’s worth ratios” that show that, for annuities purchased immediately at retirement, the value of the annuities was between 92% – 94% (give-or-take, depending on type) of its cost. That means that the value of the insurance protection is a comparatively modest 6 – 8% of the total investment.
But there’s a catch — or, rather, two of them.
In the first place, the authors calculate their ratios based on a standard mortality table for annuity purchasers — which makes sense if the goal is to judge the “fairness” of an annuity for the healthy retirees most likely to purchase one. But this doesn’t tell us whether an annuity is a smart purchase for someone who thinks of themselves as being in comparatively poorer health, or with a spottier family health history, and folks in these categories would benefit considerably from analysis that’s targeted at them, that evaluates, realistically, whether annuities are the right call and whether their prediction of their life expectancy is likely to be right or wrong.
The PBGC’s decisions here are not what organizations such as the NCCMP would have liked, although, clearly, it is the PBGC’s job to interpret the law, not to try to fix a poorly-written law.
At the same time, no multiemployer pension plan is worse off with this legislation than without it, even if it isn’t as generous as they would have liked. And nothing prohibits those plans from boosting contributions and using additional contributions to fund future accruals — which would mean that pension plans which express their contributions as fixed dollar amounts, rather than a percentage of pay, will be better positioned to provide for existing employees as well as retirees. What’s more, the calculation of future contributions is based on a one-time open group projection, without being revised from year to year, so that, in principle, if more workers join a plan, the plan will be better off. (Of course, if the projection is too optimistic about the number of future workers, the opposite will be true.)
But, of course, this is $86 billion that could have been spent for other needs, or not spent at all. And, however much advocates profess that they still hope for a more comprehensive revision of funding rules for multiemployer pensions, the poorly-conceived nature of this bailout makes it less, rather than more, likely that both sides of the aisle will come together to repair multiemployer pensions and prevent future bailouts.
The Illinois legislature ended its regular legislative session on May 31, in a flurry of legislation passed late into the night. One of those bills was a set of changes to the 30% funded pension plan of the Chicago Park District. Were these changes long-over due reforms, or just another in the long line of legislative failures? It’s time for another edition of “more that you ever wanted to know about an underfunded public pension plan,” because this plan illustrates a number of actuarial lessons.
80% is not OK. Governance – who gets to set the contributions? Funded status can collapse very quickly and be very difficult to rebuild. Need to use actuarial analysis not just legislator’s brainstorms
When it comes down to it, I’ll suggest to readers that they don’t really believe that it matters. And with the Biden administration’s 2022 budget proposal comes a fairly strong indication that this is their point of view as well, that they expect, when the Trust Fund well comes dry, to simply tap general federal revenues for the necessary funds, in exactly the same manner as is done for Parts B (doctors) and D (drugs).
This single sentence makes it clear that’s not the case: the only premiums paid by Medicare recipients are partial-cost payments for Parts B and D. For Part B, this is 25% of the cost for most retirees; for those with income above $85,000/$170,000 single/married, premiums are higher, reaching as much as 85% of the total cost for the highest earners. For Part D, the premium is set to cover 25.5% of the standard drug benefit, plus any extra costs charged by particular private providers for enhanced benefit levels, and an extra flat charge for higher earners. The remaining cost, 75% of Part B and 74.5% of Part D, is funded by the federal government through its general revenues.
Which is why every politician and every voter in Illinois ought to know how Arizona managed its 2016 reform of the 48% funded Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, which had a cost-of-living adjustment calculation that everyone agreed was broken, including the unions themselves. But Arizona shares with Illinois a constitutional protection against pension changes, specifically stating that “public retirement systems shall not be diminished or impaired.”
So how did they implement this change? In a two-step process, the legislature passed reform legislation and then placed on the ballot a constitutional amendment which inserted a new clause into the state constitution: “Public retirement systems shall not be diminished or impaired, except that certain adjustments to the public safety personnel retirement system may be made as provided in Senate Bill 1428, as enacted by the fifty-second legislature, second regular session.”
This meant that the citizens of Arizona could vote on this pension change without having to worry about whether they were authorizing any unknown future changes to pensions that they might not have wanted.
First, as I referenced in passing in my prior column, the long-lasting nature of infrastructure is what justifies paying for it over time. This proposal’s spending is meant to be accomplished over 8 years, with the tax increase funding it over 15 years. That could be justifiable for some types of infrastructure, when it is something new rather than ongoing maintenance, but is not at all appropriate for ongoing day-to-day spending.