The search for high returns takes many pension funds far and wide, but the Pennsylvania teachers’ fund went farther than most. It invested in trailer park chains, pistachio farms, pay phone systems for prison inmates — and, in a particularly bizarre twist, loans to Kurds trying to carve out their own homeland in northern Iraq.
Now the F.B.I. is on the case, investigating investment practices at the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System, and new questions are emerging about how the fund’s staff and consultants calculated returns.
The error in calculating returns was a tiny one, just four one-hundredths of a percentage point. But it was enough — just barely — to push the fund’s performance over a critical threshold of 6.36 percent that, by law, determines whether certain teachers have to pay more into the fund. The close call raised questions about whether someone had manipulated the numbers and the error wasn’t really an error at all.
“If you can’t change the benefits, and you can’t change the contributions, the only lever left for these people to pull is investment policy — that’s it,” said Kurt Winkelmann, a senior fellow for pension policy design at the University of Minnesota’s Heller-Hurwicz Economics Institute. “And that exposes younger beneficiaries and taxpayers to a lot of risk.”
Both the House and Senate stimulus measures would give the weakest plans enough money to pay hundreds of thousands of retirees — a number that will grow in the future — their full pensions for the next 30 years. The provision does not require the plans to pay back the bailout, freeze accruals or to end the practices that led to their current distress, which means their troubles could recur. Nor does it explain what will happen when the taxpayer money runs out 30 years from now.
Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio who has been leading the charge to rescue the ailing pension plans, said that including the provision in the relief bill is a “really big deal” for both the retirees who depend on the money and the employers now being crushed by promises they cannot afford to keep.
Throughout the debate over stimulus measures, one question has repeatedly brought gridlock in Washington: Should the states get no-strings federal aid?
Republicans have mostly said no, casting it as a bailout for spendthrift blue states. Democrats have argued the opposite, saying that states face dire fiscal consequences without aid, and included $350 billion in relief for state and local governments in President Biden’s $1.9 trillion federal stimulus bill, which narrowly passed the House this past weekend. It faces a much tougher fight in the Senate.
As it turns out, new data shows that a year after the pandemic wrought economic devastation around the country, forcing states to revise their revenue forecasts and prepare for the worst, for many the worst didn’t come. One big reason: $600-a-week federal supplements that allowed people to keep spending — and states to keep collecting sales tax revenue — even when they were jobless, along with the usual state unemployment benefits.
That hasn’t deterred governments. Nationwide, cities and states issued $6.1 billion in pension obligation bonds in 2020, more than in any year since 2008, according to data compiled by Municipal Market Analytics, a research firm. States with significant new pension borrowings last year included Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Texas. In California, cities borrowed more than $3.7 billion to squirrel away at various public pension funds, breaking the old state record of $3.5 billion, set in 1994.
It’s a major comeback for this type of debt, said Matt Fabian, a partner at Municipal Market Analytics who has been writing about the deals for years. “They’re borrowing money and basically putting it into the market and gambling,” he said.
Mr. Fabian said his firm’s tally almost certainly missed the borrowing by municipalities that took West Covina’s approach, because those bonds used different names. Flagstaff rented its City Hall, libraries and fire stations last year to back a pension deal marketed as “certificates of participation.” In January, Tucson did the same, leasing two police helicopters, a zoo conservation center, five golf courses and the bleachers at its rodeo grounds, among other things. And a Chicago suburb, Berwyn, used “conveyed tax securitization bonds” to help fund police pensions.