Your Pension May Be Monetized

Your Pension May Be Monetized BY JOHN MAULDIN for Mauldin Economics

One difficulty in analyzing our economic future is the sheer number of potential crises. When so much couldgo wrong (and really right, when the exponential technologies I foresee get here), it’s hard to isolate, let alone navigate, the real dangers. We are tempted to ignore them all. Ignoring them is usually the right response, too. We can “Muddle Through” almost anything.

But muddling through isn’t the same as smooth sailing. It’s difficult, unpleasant, and often keeps you from looking for better opportunities. Then there are times when you can’t even muddle through. Instead, you find yourself emotionally at a dead stop or even going backwards. When surviving the storm is your focus, taking those “blood in the streets” buying opportunities is hard.

Which leads to this week’s letter. Almost every day I read scores of finance and economic newsletters, websites, articles, and books. A few articles on pensions hit my inbox this week and pursuing them led me to today’s topic.

But dear gods, I can remember writing a decade ago that public pension funds were $2 trillion underfunded and getting worse. More than one person told me that couldn’t be right. They were correct: It was actually much worse. (See, I’m an optimist!)

Two years ago I wrote that Disappearing Pensions are The Crisis We Can’t Muddle Through. Nothing since then has changed my mind. In fact, failure at all levels to even begin solving the problem is making it worse. The latest estimates, as we will see, suggest that it has gotten $2 trillion or more worse in just a few years.

Note we are talking here about a specific kind of pension: defined benefit plans, usually those sponsored by state and local governments, labor unions, and a dwindling number of private businesses. Many sponsors haven’t set aside the assets needed to pay the benefits they’ve promised to current and future retirees. They can delay the inevitable for a long time but not forever. And “forever” is just around the corner.

As we will see below, the numbers are large enough to make this a problem for everyone, even those without affected pensions. The problem is “solvable”… but the solutions will be problems in themselves.

Underfunded Future

Let’s begin with the enormity of the pension funding gap. As with the federal budget deficit, the large numbers are hard for our minds to process. They are also inherently uncertain. Let me explain.

A defined benefit pension plan for, say, a city’s police department, knows it owes a certain number of retirees certain monthly benefits for life. Their lifespans are fairly predictable when the pool is large enough. (I think new biotechnologies will change this soon, but that’s another topic.)

From that, it’s simple math to calculate how much money the plan should have right now in order to pay those benefits when they are due. But then the assumptions start. The plan must presume a future rate of return on the invested portfolio, an inflation rate, and in some cases future health care costs (medical benefits are part of many plans).

So, when we say a plan is “fully funded,” it may not be so if the assumptions are wrong. The amount a plan is underfunded could be much larger than the sponsor and auditors say. In theory, it could be smaller, too, but I have never seen that happen. The accounting rules that govern all this allow (some would say encourage) the sponsoring cities, counties, and states to understate their liabilities. This lets them avoid hard decisions like raising taxes, cutting benefits, or reducing other needed services.

Here’s a Wharton School note to place this huge number in context.

Sanitation workers, firefighters, teachers and other state and local government employees have performed their duties in the public sector for decades with the understanding that their often lackluster salaries were propped up by excellent benefits, including an ironclad pension. But Moody’s Investors Service recently estimated that public pensions are underfunded by $4.4 trillion. That amount, which is equivalent to the economy of Germany, accounts for one-fifth of national debt. It’s a significant concern for public employees who were banking on a fully funded retirement to get them through their golden years. The true number could be much higher. Whatever it is, filling it will be painful for somebody. Pensioners will receive lower-than-expected benefits, taxpayers will get higher-than-expected tax bills, or citizens will see government services cut. Or maybe all the above.

Then again, if you make more realistic assumptions on future returns the unfunded liability becomes $6 trillion according to the American Legislative Exchange Council. Total state and local annual revenues are only $3.1 trillion. Total property taxes are roughly $590 billion.

Here’s more grim news from The Heritage Foundation.

Overall, the American Legislative Exchange Council estimates that pension plans have only about a third of the funds on hand—33.7 percent—that they need to pay promised benefits. Some states have significantly lower funding levels, which means they are at risk of running out of funds in the near future.

Once a state or local pension plan runs out of money, taxpayers have to fund the pension benefits of retirees as well as the contributions of current employees.

Connecticut, Kentucky, and Illinois have the lowest funding ratios, at 20 percent, 21 percent, and 23 percent respectively.

Already, Illinois spends as much on pensions as it does on welfare and public protection (that is, police and firefighters) combined, and nearly half of its education appropriations go toward teacher pensions. If the state’s pension plans reach insolvency, pensions could become its single biggest cost.

These unfunded liability estimates are high because plan assumptions are too optimistic. Almost all public pension funds assume investment returns somewhere around 7% (and some as high as 8%+). A more conservative and realistic approach would force the state and local governments to fund those pension plans at a much higher level by either raising taxes or reducing services. What local politician will volunteer to do that? Better to find a consultant to tell you what you want to hear. There are plenty of them that will, for a reasonable fee, billed to the taxpayers.

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