COLAs for Social Security’s OASDI have had an additional significant fiscal effect. Until recently, the payroll taxes paid for Social Security each year have usually exceeded the cost of benefits paid in that year. This balance was transferred to the general fund of the U.S. Treasury, which in turn issued special Treasury bonds to the Social Security Trust Fund to be redeemed later when taxes collected were less than the benefits paid. The fund balance reached $2.9 trillion at the end of 2020. Then in 2021, the Social Security Trust Fund had to redeem $56.3 billion of those bonds to pay OASDI benefits. Social Security actuaries have calculated that increasingly larger withdrawals will continue until the Trust Fund is fully depleted in early 2035.36 Under current law, once the Trust Fund balance is fully depleted, payments to beneficiaries must be reduced to the level supported by current Social Security taxes.
If Social Security COLAs had been calculated using the combination of C‑CPI‑U and PCEPI, then the Trust Fund balance in 2020 would have been $3.5 trillion, and full depletion of the Trust Fund would have been delayed two more years to 2037. If the price indexes had also been improved to minimize new‐item bias (the best‐practices index), the balance in 2020 would have been $4.4 trillion, and full depletion of the fund would have been delayed until 2039 (see Figure 1).
The $242.3 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund has committed $1.3 billion to two funds as part of its Sustainable Investments and Climate Solutions program. It also earmarked more than $600 million to alternative investments in February.
The pension program committed $1 billion to funds tracking the MSCI World ex USA Climate Change Index, which overweights companies expected to benefit from the transition to a low-carbon economy and underweights companies facing greater climate change risks. A company’s carbon intensity, climate risk management, potential stranded assets, physical risk exposure and development of climate solution products and services are the key factors assessing these rankings.
Finally, within the pension fund’s emerging manager program, which invests in newer, smaller and diverse firms, $15 million was allocated to the Empire GCM RE Anchor Fund, which will focus on creating and acquiring industrial outdoor storage in the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden.
The National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems recently released a report entitled “Measuring Public Pension Health: New Metrics, New Approaches” that introduces new mechanisms to account and judge the sustainability of pension plans.
To create these, the report’s author, Tom Sgouros, fellow and co-chair at The Policy Lab at Brown University, formed and hosted the Pension Accounting Working Group, a group made up of actuaries and public pension experts. The group assembled to measure the health of plans, and create new metrics to generate greater insights into a pension’s sustainability, so that trustees and policymakers could make better and more informed decisions.
The working group came up with three new metrics. The first is “scaled liability,” a measurement of pension liabilities against the size of the underlying supporting economy. The second is “unfunded actuarial liability (UAL) stabilization payment,” an objectively defined cash-flow policy standard comparable to the funding ratio. And last is “risk-weighting asset values,” a method to assess the value of a plan’s assets that accounts for a plan’s capacity to endure the downside risk it has taken through the allocation of its assets.
The scaled liability measurement uses economic strength as a proxy for tax capacity. This measurement helps decisionmakers get a read on a plan’s sustainability by providing a comparison between a pension plan and the economic strength of its sponsor. The Federal Reserve includes a comparison of net pension liability with measures of GDP and state revenues in the “Enhanced Financial Accounts” component of its “Financial Accounts of the United States” report.
Decisions made more than 30 years ago drive challenges. The seeds of the City’s pension problems were sown more than three decades ago when the City promised unsustainable benefit increases to members of the retirement system without funding the associated annual Actuarily Determined Contribution (ADC).2
The severity of the situation makes Providence an outlier. The City of Providence’s Employee Retirement System (ERS) is among the lowest funded pension plans in the nation. Since 1991, the City’s unfunded pension liability increased by more than $1 billion. In addition to the pension liabilities, and over and above the pension shortfall, the City’s retiree health benefits are underfunded by approximately $1.1 billion.3 The unfunded liability of the ERS drives costs to City that outpace revenue growth, limiting investments in other priorities. As of June 30, 2020, the ERS was only 22.2 percent funded.4 Total pension liabilities equated to $8,518 per resident – of which $6,629 is not funded.5 In the last twenty years, the City’s unfunded liability per capita increased by $4,000 per resident.
Chicago once again earned a failing grade from Truth in Accounting in their latest Financial State of the Citiesreport thanks to over $38 billion in debt – $43,100 for each taxpayer.
Every Chicagoan would have to send the city that amount just for Chicago to pay the bills it owes. Chicago has just $9.9 billion available to pay $48.6 billion in bills. The Windy City came in 74th out of 75 cities studied in the report, only besting New York City’s massive $204 billion debt with a per-taxpayer burden of $71,400.
The city’s financial failings stem from pension promises the city cannot afford to keep. “Chicago’s financial problems stem mostly from unfunded retirement obligations that have accumulated over the years. The city had set aside only 23 cents for every dollar of promised pension benefits and no money for promised retiree health care benefits,” the report notes.
Andrew Biggs prepared a report for The Garden State Initiative that focused on the impact of more retirees than employees.
Nationally, unfunded state and local government pension liabilities remained roughly stable at about $1 billion from 1975 through 1999, but accelerated rapidly in the following two decades, reaching $4.0 trillion in 2020. The combined unfunded liabilities of New Jersey public plans have increased significantly as well, from $58 billion in 2000 to $186 billion in 2019. (page 4)
In summary, federal government figures demonstrate that New Jersey lawmakers promised benefits to employees that were larger than lawmakers were willing or able to fully fund. The New Jersey pension systems instead relied upon returns on risky investments to make up the gap. But, as New Jersey’s investment experience shows, risky investments pay higher expected returns than safe investments precisely because they are risky, even over long periods of time. This leaves only more conventional solutions available, which are both financially and political difficult. All New Jersey pension stakeholders — including lawmakers, public employees and retirees, and taxpayers — must carefully consider how the costs and benefits of pension reforms will be borne. (page 33)
The New York State Common Retirement Fund (Fund) will invest $2 billion in an index focused on reducing the risks of climate change and capitalizing on the opportunities arising from the transition to a low-carbon economy, State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, trustee of the fund, announced today. This is part of the Comptroller’s Climate Action Plan announced in 2019 and his goal for the Fund of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.
The Fund will allocate $2 billion within its internally managed public equity portfolio to FTSE Russell’s Russell 1000 TPI Climate Transition Index (CTI) in connection with the Fund’s Sustainable Investment & Climate Solutions (SICS) program.
Author(s): Thomas DiNapoli
Publication Date: 9 Dec 2021
Publication Site: Office of the NY State Comptroller
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.