The Next Crisis: Public Pension Funds

The New York Times, 6/25/10.

By Roger Lowenstein

Ever since the Wall Street crash, there has been a bull market in Google hits for “public pensions” and “crisis.” Horror stories abound, like the one in Yonkers, where policemen in their 40s are retiring on $100,000 pensions (more than their top salaries), or in California, where payments to Calpers, the biggest state pension fund, have soared while financing for higher education has been cut. Then there is New York City, where annual pension contributions (up sixfold in a decade) would be enough to finance entire new police and fire departments.

Chicken Little pension stories have always been a staple of the political right, but in California, David Crane, the special adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, says it is time for liberals to rally to the cause.

“I have a special word for my fellow Democrats,” Crane told a public hearing. “One cannot both be a progressive and be opposed to pension reform.” The budgetary math is irrefutable: generous pensions end up draining money from schools, social services and other programs that progressives naturally applaud.

In California, which is in a $19 billion budget hole, Calpers is forcing hard-pressed localities to cough up an extra $700 million in contributions. New York State, more creatively, has suggested that municipalities simply borrow from the state pension fund the money they owe to that very fund.

Such transparent maneuvers will not conceal the obvious: for years, localities and states have been skimping on what they owe. Public pension funds are now massively short of the money to pay future claims — depending on how their liabilities are valued, the deficit ranges from $1 trillion to $3 trillion.

Pension funds subsist on three revenue streams: contributions from employees; contributions from the employer; and investment earnings. But public employers have often contributed less than the actuarially determined share, in effect borrowing against retirement plans to avoid having to cut budgets or raise taxes.

They also assumed, conveniently enough, that they could count on high annual returns, typically 8 percent, on their investments. In the past, many funds did earn that much, but not lately. Thanks to high assumed returns, governments projected that they could afford to both ratchet up benefits and minimize contributions. What a lovely political algorithm: payoffs to powerful, unionized constituents at minimal cost.

Except, of course, returns were not guaranteed. Optimistic benchmarks actually heightened the risk, because they forced fund managers to overreach. At the Massachusetts pension board, the target was 8.25 percent. “That was the starting point for all of our investment decisions,” Michael Travaglini, until recently its executive director, says. “There is no way a conservative strategy is going to meet that.”

Travaglini put a third of the state’s money into hedge funds, private equity, real estate and timber. In 2008, assets fell 29 percent. New York State’s fund, which is run by the comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, a former state assemblyman with no previous investment experience, lost $40 billion in 2008. Most funds rebounded when the market turned, but they remain deep in the hole. The Teachers’ Retirement System of Illinois lost 22 percent inthe 2009 fiscal year. Alexandra Harris, a graduate journalism student at Northwestern University who investigated the pension fund, reported that it invested in credit-default swaps on A.I.G., the State of California, Germany, Brazil and “a ton” of subprime-mortgage securities.

The financial crash provoked a few states to lower their assumed returns. This will better reflect reality, but it will not repair the present crisis. Before the crash, retirement systems were underfinanced (they did not have sufficient funds to pay promised benefits), but the day of reckoning was distant. Moreover, the pain was indirect. Taxpayers were not aware that pension debts caused teachers to be laid off — only that schools had fewer teachers.

Postcrash, the horizon has condensed. According to Joshua Rauh of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, assuming states make contributions at recent rates and assuming they do earn 8 percent, 20 state funds will run out of cash by 2025; Illinois, the first, will run dry in 2018.

What might budgets look like then? Pension obligations are a form of off-balance-sheet debt. As funds approach exhaustion, states will be forced to borrow to replenish them. Some have already done so. Thus, pension obligations will be converted into explicit liabilities (think of a family’s obligation to pay for grandma’s retirement being added to its mortgage). According to Rauh, if the unfinanced portion of all public pension obligations were converted to debt, total state indebtedness would soar from $1 trillion to $4.3 trillion.

Such an explosion of debt would threaten desperate governments with bankruptcy. Alternately, states could try to defray pension costs from their operating budgets. Illinois, once its funds were depleted, would be forced to devote a third of its budget to retirees; Ohio, fully half. This would impoverish every social (and other) program; it would invert the basic mission of government, which is, after all, to serve constituents’ needs.

States really have no choice but to further cut spending and raise taxes. They also need to cut pension benefits. About half have made modest trims, but only for future workers. Reforming pensions is painfully slow, because pensions of existing workers are legally protected. There is, of course, no argument for canceling a pension already earned. But public employees benefit from a unique notion that, once they have worked a single day, their pension arrangement going forward can never be altered. No other Americans enjoy such protections. Private companies often negotiate (or force upon their workers) pension adjustments. But in the world of public employment, even discussion of cuts is taboo.

Recently, states have begun to test the legal boundary. Minnesota and Colorado cut cost-of-living adjustments for existing workers’ pensions; each faces a lawsuit. But legislatures need to push the boundaries of reform. That will mean challenging the unions and their political might.

The market forced private employers like General Motors to restructure retirement plans or suffer bankruptcy. Government’s greater ability to borrow enables it to defer hard choices but, as Greece discovered, not even governments can borrow forever. The days when state officials may shield their workers while subjecting all other constituents to hardship are fast at an end.

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