However, these numbers are highly influenced by unusual economic times. For starters, states delayed their tax filing deadline by several months when the pandemic began. For most, this pushed their 2020 income tax revenue into the next fiscal year. This artificially deflated 2020’s numbers while inflating 2021 collections.
The federal stimulus has also played a role. Since March 2020, the feds have doled out $867 billion in cash to households via three Economic Impact Payments. While those payments weren’t taxable, they could indirectly increase state tax liability for some. (The New York TimesNYT+1% has a good explainer on that.) Plus, unemployment insurance — which most states do tax — received a massive boost for about 15 months.
State securities regulators and NASAA have historically had very little to say about Wall Street looting of these pensions. That’s not altogether surprising given that state securities regulators almost universally serve at the whim of elected politicians—politicians who depend upon Wall Street campaign contributions. If a state securities regulator aggressively pursues Wall Street pension looting, she may be swiftly out of a job.
However, since NASAA believes “every investor deserves protection and an even break” the organization should focus upon the disturbing fact that today public pension stakeholders in all 50 states are routinely denied prospectuses and other material investment information related to their pension assets—the very same information which is widely disseminated globally to wealthy individuals. In the absence of prospectuses, public pension stakeholders cannot possibly evaluate whether pension assets are prudently invested.
Recently I filed a complaint with the Ohio Department of Commerce, Division of Securities regarding the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio which has failed since February to provide prospectuses and other offering materials related to the teachers’ pension investments in response to my public records request filed on behalf of 19,000 Ohio teachers. Not a single page of a single prospectus has been released to me by STRS Ohio since February. The Division is investigating my complaint at this time.
In Rhode Island, my request for the prospectuses regarding that state’s pension investments was also denied by Treasurer Seth Magaziner last week as the pension perversely asserts, on behalf of Wall Street, that widely distributed prospectuses can somehow be “trade secrets.” I intend to file an appeal and a lawsuit challenging Magaziner’s secret pension dealings in Rhode Island.
Given that public pensions in all 50 states today refuse to provide some or all prospectuses to stakeholders, including both participants and taxpayers, publci pension secrecy is a national problem that needs to be addressed.
For nearly two decades, alternative investment managers have been permitted to handle public pension money while they refuse to play by the rules applicable to these funds and submit to public scrutiny.
Wall Street alternative managers have successfully argued that the very same investment information widely distributed to wealthy individuals somehow amounts to “trade secrets” exempt from public records laws… when requested by state workers.
While it’s not surprising Wall Street’s biggest gamblers want to keep investors in the dark as to their misdeeds, it’s unconscionable that STRS Ohio and other public pensions around the nation are willing to abandon transparency, exposing workers to unfathomable risks and jeopardizing their retirement security.
Alternative investment managers may seek to keep secrets, but it’s no secret what’s often in these well-guarded documents: excessive and illegal fees; outrageous conflicts of interest and self dealing; fiduciary breaches and outright violations of law—even criminal conduct. For example, eight years ago the SEC staff found that a majority of private equity firms inflate fees and expenses charged to companies in which they hold stakes.
Private equity firms widely distribute their prospectuses and offering materials to prospective wealthy investors as they trawl globally to raise capital for their costly, high-risk funds. Yet when state and local government pension stakeholders request prospectuses of the funds in which their pensions invest, PE firms claim these very same broadly disseminated documents are “trade secrets” exempt from disclosure under state public records laws. On the one hand, PE risks, fees, and questionable business practices are fully disclosed via prospectus to wealthy investors who can afford to gamble. On the other, government workers in severely underfunded pensions (many of whom have already seen their retirement benefits cut) and taxpayers who are on the hook for any public pension gambling losses, are intentionally kept in the dark. SEC and state securities regulators should demand that every PE investor, including public pension stakeholders, be provided with all material investment information related to these risky investments and end PE secret fleecing of government workers’ pensions.
Advanced refunding bonds allowed governments to refinance debt earlier, thus letting them take advantage of lower interest rates years sooner and save taxpayer money. The 2017 tax reform eliminated their tax-exempt status which effectively nixed their cost-saving value for governments. But the move increased federal government revenues by billions of dollars each year. Reinstating the bonds, according to a report from the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), would cost $11 billion over the next five years.
A federally subsidized taxable bond — what market watchers are calling BABs 2.0 — works differently. Unlike tax-exempt municipal bonds, BABs are taxable, and, as a result, open up the municipal market to new investors, such as pension funds or those living abroad. More buyers is a good thing, but BABs are also more expensive for governments. So to defray the added cost, the federal government in 2009 offered a direct subsidy of 35% of state and local governments’ interest payments on BABs.
BABs 2.0 would work similarly, but also lock in the federal subsidy — a much better deal for governments. They’re expected to cost the federal government more than $22.5 billion between 2022 and 2031, according to estimates from the JCT.
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?
An investigation of the Chicago Policemen Annuity and Benefit Fund was funded by members of the Chicago Police Department Pension Board Accountability Group. According to the report, the CPABF is one of the worst funded public pension plans in the U.S. today with a funding ratio at year-end of only 23%. According to the report, “The toxic mix of defunding the police pension, conflicted and high-risk investments, and poor management of the pension cry out for greater transparency and accountability.”
As Arthur Levitt, Chairman of the SEC stated back in 1999 in connection with the Commission’s review of pay-to-play practices at public pensions, “Today, public funds hold more than $2 trillion of assets. These assets do not belong to the elected officials, and they do not belong to the trustees. They belong to the tens of thousands of firefighters, ambulance drivers, city clerks, bus drivers and other public employees who make our communities work. “Their interests,” as my father said twenty years ago, “must be paramount in investment of that money.”
The tremendous importance of public funds demands that they be managed with complete honesty and integrity and for the sole benefit of their beneficiaries.”
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.
After state pension debt grew to more than $1.4 trillion last year, two new reports estimate that gap between the total amount states have promised to retirees and what they’ve actually set aside in their pension investment funds will shrink dramatically. A recent analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts says the gap could dip below $1 trillion this year. And a report released today by the Equable Institute estimates that 2021 returns will shrink state pension debt to $1.08 trillion.
The gains in the stock market played a big role. Equable’s report calculates that preliminary 2021 investment returns averaged an astounding 20.7% return. That’s nearly triple the average assumed rate of return in any given year. Those gains will boost the average pension plan to about 80% funded, the highest funding ratio since 2008.
According to a lawsuit filed this week by Tobe, the pension denied most of his requests for records under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. It’s no secret that state and local government pensions—which are supposed to be the most transparent of all pensions—are regularly criticized for opposing public record requests, particularly related to alternative investment documents.
The report accuses the pension of failing to monitor and fully disclose investment fees and expenses. It is estimated that fees and expenses could be 10 times greater than the $7.4 million disclosed in the pension’s most recent financial audit. Tobe believes the fees related to dozens of investment managers are not properly disclosed. Using assumptions from an Oxford study, Tobe estimated that undisclosed fees could be as high as $70 million a year. Also, $2 million to $3 million a year in investment fees may have been paid to Wall Street for doing nothing, i.e., fees on committed, uninvested capital.
In a September 2, 2021 statement on the police pension’s website it was stated:
“Recently, certain annuitants, without asserting any wrongdoing on the part of the Fund, any Fund employee, or any Board Trustee, past or current, and in fact repeatedly acknowledging no wrongdoing or fraudulent conduct has occurred, have demanded the Board contract with another entity to conduct a desired independent forensic audit. The purpose of a forensic audit is in substance to conduct an investigation as a means of discovering potential fraud, wrongdoing, or other financial crimes. Given that no legitimate cause for this type of audit exists, it is not a prudent use of Fund resources to engage with an additional auditor to perform a forensic audit.”
According to the report, CPABF is one of the worst funded public pension plans in the U.S. today with a funding ratio at year-end of only 23%. That fact alone merits an independent investigation, in my opinion. And, by the way, forensic investigations of pensions are not necessarily focused upon “potential fraud, wrongdoing or financial crimes.”