The ‘Experts’ Were Never Going To Fix Inflation

Link: https://reason.com/2022/10/27/the-experts-were-never-going-to-fix-inflation/

Excerpt:

Debate now rages about whether the Federal Reserve should continue to raise interest rates to tame inflation or slow down these hikes and see what happens. This is not the first debate we’ve had recently about inflation and Fed actions. The lesson we should learn, and I fear we won’t, is that government officials and those advising them from inside or outside the government don’t know as much as they claim to about the interventions they design to control the economy.

As a reminder, in 2021, the dominant voices including Fed Chairman Jerome Powell asserted that the emerging inflation would be “transitory” and disappear when pandemic-induced supply constraints dissolve. That was wrong. When this fact became obvious, the messaging shifted: Fed officials could and would fight inflation in a timely manner by raising rates to the exact level needed to avoid recession and higher unemployment. Never mind that the whole point of raising interest rates is precisely to soak money out of the economy by slowing demand, which often causes unemployment to rise.

…..

Over at Discourse magazine, my colleague Thomas Hoenig—a former president of the Fed’s Kansas City branch—explains how Fed officials faced similar pressures during the late 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, he writes, “Bowing to congressional and White House pressure, [Fed officials] held interest rates at an artificially low level….What followed was a persistent period of steadily higher inflation, from 4.5% in 1971 to 14% by 1980. Only then did the [Federal Reserve Open Market Committee], under the leadership of Paul Volcker, fully address inflation.”

Often overlooked is Volcker’s accomplishment: the willingness to stay the course despite a painful recession. Indeed, it took about three years from when he pushed interest rates up to about 20 percent in 1979 for the rate of inflation to fall to a manageable level. As such, Hoenig urges the Fed to stay strong today. He writes, “Interest rates must rise; the economy must slow, and unemployment must increase to regain control of inflation and return it to the Fed’s 2% target.” There is a cost in doing this; a soft landing was never in the cards.

Author(s): VERONIQUE DE RUGY

Publication Date: 27 Oct 2022

Publication Site: Reason

Public retirement plan assets should never be utilized for political purposes

Link: https://reason.org/commentary/public-retirement-plan-assets-should-never-be-utilized-for-political-purposes/

Excerpt:

State executives and lawmakers from both major political parties have recently threatened to use public retirement plan assets to address political grievances or push political agendas. Issues ranging from guns to oil and climate change to social media are all being suggested as political targets that should dictate investment strategies for public pension funds. When making arguments for their activist agendas, proponents of these various positions rarely mention how investment restrictions or demands will aid in the basic retirement plan objective of supporting public employees in their retirement years.  

To be clear, public retirement plan assets should never be utilized for political purposes.

Trustees of these public pension plans, and others of influence, are under a clear fiduciary obligation to make decisions with the sole purpose of best meeting the pension plans’ objectives for the benefit of that plan’s participants. There is no ambiguity about this: Activist political agendas have no place in public pensions. To be effective in meeting their objectives, public pension systems must be completely apolitical in their decision-making and in their operations. They cannot be beholden to shifting political winds.   

While this idea seems straightforward, the thought of using these massive investment portfolios to leverage certain political agendas is often too enticing for some politicians to pass up. It is incumbent upon governors, other key stakeholders, and legislative representatives in all states to step up and acknowledge that public retirement assets are out-of-bounds for activist maneuvering. This is critical regardless of where these figures fall on the political spectrum. It is equally important for retirement system trustees and leaders, as well as state treasurers, to stand firm as plan fiduciaries and vigorously oppose any attempts to use plan assets in a way that is not solely directed at benefitting the plan’s participants. 

Author(s): Richard Hiller

Publication Date: 10 June 2022

Publication Site: Reason

Guns Aren’t a Public Health Issue

Link: https://reason.com/video/2022/09/30/guns-arent-a-public-health-issue/

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Excerpt:

The takeaway from the story of Dickey, Rosenberg, and the 1993 gun study at the center of the piece is that the congressman was correct to begin with. The CDC shouldn’t be studying gun violence.

Titled “Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home” and published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the 1993 study looked at 388 people who had been killed in their homes and matched them to 388 neighbors of similar age, sex, and race. One hundred and seventy-four of the victims lived in houses where at least one gun was present versus only 139 of the matched controls.

With scary music and breathless claims, the video tells viewers that if you had a gun in your house, you were 200 percent more likely to be killed with a gun in your home and 400 percent more likely to kill yourself. 

These are both exaggerations and misstatements of the study results. It didn’t address suicide risk at all, nor gun homicides. It found households in which a resident had been murdered at home by any means had a 25 percent greater frequency of having a gun, not 200 percent. But this doesn’t mean owning a gun increases your risk of being killed by 25 percent. 

This is a classic statistical error known as the “base rate fallacy” and is particularly important when studying rare events, like people murdered in their homes. Suppose 10 people are murdered in their homes, and five of those homes had guns. A matched set of 10 people who were not murdered in their homes found only four homes had guns. So there are 25 percent more guns in the homes of murder victims than matched nonmurder victims (Five vs. four).

But what if you put those 20 people in the context of another million, none of whom were murdered in their homes, half of whom had guns in their homes and half of whom didn’t. The rate for gun owners to be murdered at home becomes five out of 500,009, while the rate for non-gun owners becomes five out of 500,011. So now we find that the risk is 0.0004 percent higher.

In other words, being murdered in your home means you have a 25 percent higher chance of having a gun, but having a gun means you have only a 0.0004 percent greater chance of being murdered in your home. Those are not the same thing.

The finding that owning a gun made study subjects less safe was also a conclusion selected from much stronger statistical results that didn’t fit the authors’ political views and, thus, weren’t mentioned in the study. Yes, 25 percent more victims’ homes had guns than control homes, but 38 percent more victims had controlled security access to their property. Why not lobby against gates as a public health matter? Twenty times as many victims had gotten in trouble at work because of drinking, so why worry about guns when drinking at work is two orders of magnitude more dangerous? Renting and living alone were far more dangerous than having a gun. Victims were less likely than controls to own a rifle or a shotgun, so why not a government program to trade in handguns for long guns?

Author(s): JOHN OSTERHOUDT AND AARON BROWN

Publication Date: 30 Sept 2022

Publication Site: Reason

Retirement plans’ impact on recruiting and retention in the public market

Link: https://reason.org/commentary/retirement-plans-impact-on-recruiting-and-retention-in-the-public-market/

Excerpt:

A number of conclusions regarding the retirement plan’s impact on recruiting and retention can be drawn from the MissionSquare survey results:  

Recruiting and retention should not be looked at as a singular issue. While public employers have seen steady success in hiring, retention has suffered greatly in recent years in the public market. 

The survey does not make the case that an employer’s retirement plan, whatever the design, has a substantial impact on recruiting or retention at all. In fact, the survey shows employers are more focused on employee morale, development, and engagement to enhance retention, along with salary increases. The survey does not suggest that there is a widespread recruiting issue although some positions, including nurses, engineers, and police officers, are more difficult to hire than others. 

Plan sponsors should avoid treating retirement plan design only as a tool for retaining employees. Rather, they should focus on a retirement plan design that realistically meets the needs of a modern workforce. The retirement plan should focus on providing lifetime income in retirement commensurate with the part of a career that an employee spends with a particular employer. The plan should recognize the realities of mobile modern employees and should not penalize employees that do not spend a full career with one employer. 

The survey illustrates that employers are focused on employee wellness as a means to improve retention. It follows that keeping employees happy should also be the focus of the retirement plan. Retention is best addressed by having a retirement plan that addresses the realities of the workforce today, as noted above.  

Author(s): Richard Hiller

Publication Date: 9 Aug 2022

Publication Site: Reason

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas needs to adjust its investment return assumptions

Link: https://reason.org/commentary/the-teacher-retirement-system-of-texas-needs-to-adjust-its-investment-return-assumptions/

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An adjustment of the assumed rate of return down to 7.0% means the plan will recalculate pension debt upwards in 2023, but will also be better positioned to avoid future debt growth over the longer run. The forecast in Figure 2 compares the growth of TRS’ unfunded liabilities under three scenarios: 

  1. Returns meet TRS assumptions;
  2. TRS experiences two major recessions over the next 30 years;
  3. And, TRS makes actuarially determined contributions (also using the two-recession scenario).

With this actuarial modeling of the system, it is clear that statutorily limited contributions will continue to pose funding risks for TRS that will be borne by Texas taxpayers. A proposed 7.0% assumed return will readjust 2023 unfunded liabilities upwards by $6.5 billion, but the plan will suffer fewer investment losses over the next 30 years when the plan inevitably experiences returns that diverge from expectations. TRS’ unfunded liabilities will remain elevated under the rigid statutorily-set contributions. If, however, TRS was to transition to Actuarially Determined Employer Contributions (ADEC) each year, then even by recognizing higher 2023 debt (under a 7.0% assumption) TRS could shave billions off its unfunded liabilities by 2052 ($74.7 billion down from $81.3 billion with current 7.25% assumption).  

Author(s): Anil Niraula, Zachary Christensen

Publication Date: 15 Jun 2022

Publication Site: Reason

Examining the Teachers Retirement System of Texas after the pension reforms of 2019

Link: https://reason.org/backgrounder/reason-review-trs-after-sb12/

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Excerpt:

TRS currently uses a 7.25% assumed rate of return, which is on the higher end of investment return assumptions among major public systems.

The national average expected rate of return has fallen to 7.0% over the years, with major plans like CalPERS now lowering assumptions into the 6-7% range.

Despite SB12 (2019), with investment returns expected to underperform over the next decade relative to expectations, capping contribution rates in statute creates the perfect conditions for unfunded liabilities to keep accruing just as they have since 2001.

Author(s): Leonard Gilroy, Steven Gassenberger

Publication Date: 3 June 2022

Publication Site: Reason

Inflation Hits 9.1 Percent, Highest Level in 41 Years

Link: https://reason.com/2022/07/13/inflation-hits-9-1-percent-highest-level-in-41-years/?utm_medium=email

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Excerpt:

Prices were 9.1 percent higher in June than a year before, exceeding expectations and surging to a 41-year high.

Department of Labor data released Wednesday morning showed that inflation picked up speed in June, rather than slowing. Prices rose by 1.3 percent during the month, up from a 1 percent increase in May. A sharp rise in energy prices, and gasoline prices particularly, helped power the annualized inflation rate to its highest levels in more than four decades. Food prices rose by 1 percent during June, and are up 10.4 percent over the past year.

Author(s): Eric Boehm

Publication Date: 13 July 2022

Publication Site: Reason

Unfunded public pension liabilities are forecast to rise to $1.3 trillion in 2022

Link: https://reason.org/data-visualization/2022-public-pension-forecaster/

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According to forecasting by Reason Foundation’s Pension Integrity Project, when the fiscal year 2022 pension financial reports roll in, the unfunded liabilities of the 118 state public pension plans are expected to again exceed $1 trillion in 2022. After a record-breaking year of investment returns in 2021, which helped reduce a lot of longstanding pension debt, the experience of public pension assets has swung drastically in the other direction over the last 12 months. Early indicators point to investment returns averaging around -6% for the 2022 fiscal year, which ended on June 30, 2022, for many public pension systems.

Based on a -6% return for fiscal 2022, the aggregate unfunded liability of state-run public pension plans will be $1.3 trillion, up from $783 billion in 2021, the Pension Integrity Project finds. With a -6% return in 2022, the aggregate funded ratio for these state pension plans would fall from 85% funded in 2021 to 75% funded in 2022. 

Author(s): Truong Bui, Jordan Campbell, Zachary Christensen

Publication Date: 14 July 2022

Publication Site: Reason

A chance to enter a new era of financial transparency and awareness for public pension plans

Link: https://reason.org/commentary/a-chance-to-enter-a-new-era-of-financial-transparency-and-awareness-for-public-pension-plans/

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Excerpt:

On Feb. 11, the Actuarial Standards Board issued a revised Actuarial Standard of Practice No. 4, effective February 15, 2023. The rollout has been low-key. The announcement says:

“Notable changes made to the existing 2013 version include expanding the scope to clarify the application of the standard when the actuary selects an output smoothing method and when an assumption or method is not selected by the actuary.”

But this description obscures a significant new required disclosure, one which follows years of controversy and acrimony within and among actuaries and the public pension plan community at large.  The requirement was the overwhelming focus during the drafting and comment period.     

The new required disclosure reflects economic reality better than any currently required number.

Author(s): Larry Pollack

Publication Date: 25 Mar 2022

Publication Site: Reason

Proxy battles are usually an inefficient use of public pension systems’ resources

Link: https://reason.org/commentary/proxy-battles-are-usually-an-inefficient-use-of-public-pension-systems-resources/

Excerpt:

Viewers of Berkshire Hathaway’s 2022 Annual Meeting recently learned that some public pension funds feel strongly about how the corporations they own stock in should be governed. At the Berkshire meeting, a group of three pension systems offered a series of shareholder resolutions, all of which were rejected. While there may be instances where it is reasonable for public pension funds to try to influence corporate decision-making, the pension funds should determine whether proxy fights can appreciably enhance the value of their assets before picking a fight.

….

Pension funds and other institutional investors sometimes withhold their support for corporate-endorsed board candidates and submit resolutions. But changing the outcome of corporate elections is typically an uphill battle. According to ProxyPulse, only 2.2% of corporate board candidates failed to obtain majorities during the 2021 proxy season. Sullivan & Cromwell found that only 9% of shareholder proposals submitted were ultimately ratified. 

In comparison, the prospects for shareholder resolutions being adopted appear to be improving. ProxyPulse found that the mean share of votes for shareholder proposals increased from 34% in 2017 to 40% in 2021. The threat of a shareholder proposal passing may also be encouraging boards to go ahead and adopt some recommended policies. 

Between January 1, 2020, and April 30, 2022, pension funds filed 81 forms with the Securities and Exchange Commission in which they disclosed shareholder solicitations, accounting for over 10% of all such disclosures filed during this period. Shareholders who send letters to other shareholders asking them to vote against recommendations of management in their proxy statements disclose the fact that they have done so on SEC Form PX14A6G

Author(s): Marc Joffe

Publication Date: 27 May 2022

Publication Site: Reason

When a Tax Break Is Actually a Tax Penalty

Link: https://reason.com/2022/06/08/when-a-tax-break-is-actually-a-tax-penalty/

Excerpt:

When is a tax break actually a tax penalty? When it’s the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance. 

That’s what Michael Cannon, Cato Institute’s director of health policy studies, convincingly argues in his recent paperEnd the Tax Exclusion for Employer-Sponsored Health Insurance. His paper is a compact lesson in the ways that some supposed tax breaks can effectively function as tax penalties, not only distorting markets, but invisibly penalizing people for their choices. And it’s a reminder of the ways that seemingly minor, offhanded policy decisions, made with little thought to long-term consequences, can exert a haunting influence long after they are made.

The tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance is exactly what it sounds like: a carve-out for health coverage offered through the workplace. 

…..

But he argues that, in practical terms, this tax break actually acts as a stealth penalty on workers who want to make their own health insurance choices. Typically even a generous employer only offers a handful of health plans, and those plans are unlikely to take the exact form an employee would otherwise choose on his or her own. If an employee wants to purchase any other plan, however, he or she would have to do it with money first received—and taxed—as cash compensation. Thanks to taxation, it would be worth a lot less. Thus the tax exclusion acts as a tax penalty on any employee who wants to choose their own health insurance. 

Author(s): Peter Suderman

Publication Date: 8 Jun 2022

Publication Site: Reason

Debtor Nation

Link: https://reason.org/debtor-nation/

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Organizations incur long-term financial obligations in forms other than bonds and the U.S. federal government is no exception. Some common types of financial obligations include pension and retiree health care costs for veterans, civilian federal employees, and the general public (through Social Security and Medicare benefit commitments). Looking at the federal government’s balance sheet as of 2021, public holdings of U.S. Treasury securities make up less than one-quarter of total federal liabilities. Unfunded entitlements, like Medicare and Social Security, account for the most at 59% of obligations.

Overall federal obligations have now surpassed $300,000 per American. While substantial in their own right, the debt obligations of state and local governments across the country are dwarfed by the various categories of federal debt.

Author(s): Jordan Campbell, Marc Joffe

Publication Date: 16 May 2022

Publication Site: Reason