The city of Jacksonville is about to enjoy the benefits of a credit rating boost. Moody’s Investors Service moved the Florida city’s credit rating to Aa2 from Aa3, citing pension reform among the main reasons for the upgrade. The credit rating increase will allow the state to borrow funds at a lower interest rate and invest in more infrastructure and public services.
Five years ago, the Jacksonville City Council approved a pension reform package while enacting innovative changes, reducing debt by more than $585 million and adding over $155 million to pension reserves. A key element of the pension reform that led to reduced debt was closing the city’s three pension plans to new public employees in 2017. Since that change was put in place, over $715 million has been used to grow Jacksonville’s economy and invest in public services for its population. In addition, credit rating agencies, such as Moody’s, assign “grades” to governments’ ability and willingness to service their bond obligations, taking into consideration the jurisdiction’s economic situation and fiscal management. Since the pension reform reduced budgetary pressure, it improved the chances of the city getting a credit upgrade.
Private equity investments lack transparency and are difficult to value. As opposed to publicly traded securities, limited partnerships used by private equity managers can’t provide frequent performance updates and, as a result, advise stakeholders after the end of each fiscal year. This leads to a lag in reporting important details. Moreover, shares of companies owned by private equity funds are not publicly traded, meaning that their values can only be estimated, which is subject to potential bias. Private equity firms are also not obligated by the law to publish their lists of assets in accordance with Securities and Exchange Commission rules. While this information can be found on Bloomberg Professional Terminal, it is not available to the general public. This lack of transparency should be concerning to employees and retirees who rely on these funds and taxpayers who contribute to them.
For the Pennsylvania teacher system, the management fees associated with private equity investments that the plan had to pay over the past four years ($4.3 billion) are more than the total amount members paid into the plan during the same time ($4.2 billion). The pension plan recently announced that member contributions will have to be raised going forward because of long-term investment results below the plan’s benchmark. As a point of comparison, the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System, which has double the assets of PSERS, reported 36% less in total investment fees and expenses than PSERS.
The latest analysis by the Pension Integrity Project at Reason Foundation, updated this month (February 2021), shows that deviations from the plan’s investment return assumptions have been the largest contributor to the unfunded liability, adding $897 million since 2002. The analysis also shows that failing to meet investment targets will likely be a problem for TRS going forward, as projections reveal the pension plan has roughly a 50 percent chance of meeting their 7.5 percent assumed rate of investment return in both the short and long term.
In recent years TRS has also made necessary adjustments to various actuarial assumptions, exposing over $400 million in previously unrecognized unfunded liabilities. The overall growth in unfunded liabilities has driven Montana’s pension benefit costs higher while crowding out other education spending priorities in the state, like classroom programming and teacher pay raises.