State retirement systems in America improved from last year, but are still Fragile.
This an annual report on the current status of statewide public pension systems, put into a historic context. State and local governments face a wide range of challenges in general – and some of the largest are growing and unpredictable pension costs. The scale and effects of these challenges are best understood by considering the multi-decade financial trends and funding policy decisions that have brought public sector retirement systems to this moment.
The financial market volatility over the past 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic has ultimately been a positive investment climate for institutional investors like state pension plans. And the federal government has provided substantial financial aid to states and municipalities, smoothing over what could have been seismic budgetary shortfalls in some jurisdictions due to tax revenue declines. The combined historically unprecedented nature of these events continues to create an unpredictable environment for state pension plans. However, in this report Equable uses patterns of behavior from the past two decades as a guide to what might happen in the coming decade while also a means to identify areas of concern that should be monitored closely or acted upon immediately.
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.
The 80 percent mark long has been considered the minimum threshold for a pension fund. However, that’s actually still too low. An Issue Brief by the American Academy of Actuaries called it, “The 80% Pension Funding Standard Myth” (pdf).
It said, “An 80 percent funded ratio often has been cited in recent years as a basis for whether a pension plan is financially or ‘actuarially’ sound. Left unchallenged, this misinformation can gain undue credibility with the observer, who may accept and in turn rely on it as fact, thereby establishing a mythic standard. … Pension plans should have a strategy in place to attain or maintain a funded status of 100 percent or greater over a reasonable period of time.”
Providence’s pension crisis has its roots in the late 1980s. That’s when the city’s Retirement Board approved unusually generous compounded cost of living adjustments for more than 2,500 city workers and retirees. Decades later, that move helps explain why there’s a $1.2 billion gap between the pension balance and the amount owed to current and future retirees.
The pension crisis has defied attempted solutions for years. Providence officials say the city has just 22% of the money needed to meet its long-term pension obligations. And the amount of the city budget consumed by the pension is growing 5 percent a year, to about $93 million currently. Without a change, that annual payment will rise to $227 million by 2040.
Mayor Jorge Elorza said these pension costs are unsustainable.
“It’s only a matter of time before they continue to squeeze everything else out of our budget, so that we’re cutting deeper and deeper into the bone,” he said during a recent news conference.
Elorza’s plan involves selling $704 million in pension obligation bonds. The idea is that these bonds could generate enough of a return to boost the pension system’s funding to more than 60 percent.
The Chicago Park District pension funding overhaul approved by lawmakers moves the fund off a path to insolvency to a full funding target in 35 years, with bonding authority.
State lawmakers approved the statutory changes laid out in House Bill 0417 on Memorial Day before adjourning their spring session and Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign it. It puts the district?s contributions on a ramp to an actuarially based payment, shifting from a formula based on a multiplier of employee contributions. The statutory multiplier formula is blamed for the city and state?s underfunded pension quagmires.
“There are number of things here that are really, really good,? Sen. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, told fellow lawmakers during a recent Senate Pension Committee hearing. Martwick is a co-sponsor of the legislation and also heads the committee.
?This is a measure that puts the district on to a path to full funding over the course of 35 years,” he said. “It is responsible. There is no opposition to it. This is exactly more of what we should be doing.”
The district will ramp up to an actuarially based contribution beginning this year when 25% of the actuarially determined contribution is owed, then half in 2022, and three-quarters in 2023 before full funding is required in 2024. To help keep the fund from sliding backwards during the ramp period the district will deposit an upfront $40 million supplemental contribution.
The 35-year clock will start last December 31 to reach the 100% funded target by 2055.
Between roughly 1997 and 2009, legislators decided to pay less of the employer contribution amount than statisticians deemed necessary. In kitchen table terms, those legislators chose not to pay their bills.
Now that creditors are demanding those bills be paid, critics are claiming the payouts are undeserved, and too generous.
It’s really a shame so many seem to feel it’s OK to not pay bills from the past because the interest is too high. I bet few business owners would accept nonpayment because customers chose to not pay when billed and now claim payments are too high.
In this paper we explore the fiscal sustainability of U.S. state and local government pensions plans. Specifically, we examine if under current benefit and funding policies state and local pension plans will ever become insolvent, and, if so, when. We then examine the fiscal cost of stabilizing pension debt as a share of the economy and examine the cost associated with delaying such stabilization into the future. We find that, despite the projected increase in the ratio of beneficiaries to workers as a result of population aging, state and local government pension benefit payments as a share of the economy are currently near their peak and will eventually decline significantly. This previously undocumented pattern reflects the significant reforms enacted by many plans which lower benefits for new hires and cost-of-living adjustments often set beneath the expected pace of inflation. Under low or moderate asset return assumptions, we find that few plans are likely to exhaust their assets over the next few decades. Nonetheless, under these asset returns plans are currently not sustainable as pension debt is set to rise indefinitely; plans will therefore need to take action to reach sustainability. But the required fiscal adjustments are generally moderate in size and in all cases are substantially lower than the adjustments required under the typical full prefunding benchmark. We also find generally modest returns, if any, to starting this stabilization process now versus a decade in the future. Of course, there is significant heterogeneity with some plans requiring very large increases to stabilize their pension debt.
Author(s): Jamie Lenney, Bank of England Byron Lutz, Federal Reserve Board of Governors Finn Schüle, Brown University Louise Sheiner, Brookings Institution
Plans that experienced larger declines in funded status may have “erased” losses and experienced “incrementally higher asset returns and funded status gains” as risk assets rallied through the latter half of the year, the report said.
“The same thing that caused volatility in their portfolios on the way down actually helped on the way back up,” said William Chang, pension strategist at GSAM. “When the pandemic hit last year, it was one of the quickest drawdowns, one of the quickest declines in equity markets. And the subsequent recovery and exit out of that bear market was equally as quick.”
At the end of March 2020, the top quartile of plan funded status was around 81 to 90 percent. By March 2021, that figure increased to 91 to 100 percent funded status, according to the report. GSAM attributed the improvement to the subsiding effects of the pandemic: rising vaccination numbers, declining initial jobless claims, and rising consumer confidence.
According to the EMMA website New Jersey borrowed another $400 million last week for which they had to provide an Official Statement which included 20 pages on the situation with public pensions and benefits. Excerpts follow.
The contribution of the Lottery Enterprise is valued as of June 30, 2020 at $12.569 billion, based on a 30-year straight line amortization. However, the first reevaluation of the value of the Lottery Enterprise required by LECA has not yet been performed. If the contribution of the Lottery Enterprise were not taken into consideration in calculating the funded ratio of the Pension Plans, the funded ratio of the Pension Plans as of June 30, 2020 would have been 37.6% instead of 49.8%. (page I-60)
In 2021, public pensions have continued their strong recovery from a year prior, with the funded status of the Milliman 100 plans increasing to 79.0% as of March 31, up from 78.6% at the end of December 2020 and 66.0% in Q1 2020. The Q1 2021 funded ratio is the highest recorded in the history of Milliman’s Public Pension Funding Study.
“While 2021 has proven to be a strong year for public pensions so far, there are still lingering questions around the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on these plans,” said Becky Sielman, author of Milliman’s Public Pension Funding Study. “The past year has seen workforce volatility and strain on state budgets which could put downward pressure on funding in the future.”
Milliman, Inc., a premier global consulting and actuarial firm, today released the latest results of its latest Pension Funding Index (PFI), which analyzes the 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans.
In February, corporate pension funding improved by $67 billion thanks to a 26-basis-point increase in the monthly discount rate, from January’s 2.62% to 2.88% as of February 28. As a result, the funded status deficit dropped to $133 billion at month’s end. Meanwhile, the market value of assets dropped by $2 billion for the month, the result of a meager 0.13% investment gain. Overall the funded ratio for the Milliman PFI plans climbed from 89.7% at the end of January to 92.9% as of February 28, the fifth straight month of improved funding for these plans.