Warnings of looming pension bankruptcy aren’t just overblown. They’re politically dangerous.
From the summary:
A new case study examines the impacts of the actions of the Town of Palm Beach when substantial changes were made to the retirement plans offered to the town’s employees. The case study details the 2012 decision by the Palm Beach Town Council to close its existing defined benefit (DB) pension systems for its employees, including police officers and firefighters. Retirement Reform Lessons: The Experience of Palm Beach Public Safety Pensions outlines how the “combined” retirement plans offered dramatically lower DB pension benefits and new individual 401(k)-style defined contribution (DC) retirement accounts. Following a large, swift exodus of public safety employees to neighboring employers that increased costs in human resource areas, the town reconsidered the changes. In 2016, the Town Council voted to abandon the DC plans and to improve the pension plan.
While many current retirees are reasonably comfortable because they have pensions, the future does not look bright for those yet to retire.
Traditional defined-benefit pensions are rapidly disappearing in the private sector—less than 15 percent of workers have them. Most public sector workers still have them—more than 20 million are either now receiving or looking forward to a pension. However, public sector pensions are coming under attack from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other right-wing groups.
Over the last four decades employers have been anxious to convert the traditional defined-benefit pensions into defined-contribution 401(k) plans.
The difference is that with a defined benefit, the worker is secure while the employer does not know exactly how much it will have to pay in. Workers are guaranteed a lifetime benefit based on their salary and years of service; the employer’s bill depends on the worker’s longevity and on stock market performance.
With a defined-contribution plan, the employer knows just how much it will pay each year, and the worker shoulders all the uncertainty. This means that workers face the risk that the market will plunge just after they retire—and they may quite possibly outlive their savings.
By getting rid of defined-benefit plans, employers are transferring risk to workers. In addition, they often contribute less to a defined-contribution plan than to the defined-benefit plans they replaced, in effect cutting workers’ pay. ….
Source: Moody’s, December 19, 2017
This cross-sector rating methodology replaces the Adjustments to US State and Local Government Reported Pension Data methodology published in April 2013. We have updated the description of our standard balance sheet adjustment and included a description of our standard income statement adjustment. Both of these reflect the implementation of Governmental Accounting Standards Board Statement 68 accounting standards, which requires adjustments that were not previously necessary. We have retired the concept of amortizing adjusted net pension liabilities on a level dollar basis over 20 years, a cost metric not included in any scorecards of primary rating methodologies. We have also added a description of how we calculate the “tread water” indicator….
Source: Moody’s, Sector In-Depth, December 14, 2017
Adjusted net pension liabilities (ANPLs) rose in fiscal 2016 for 42 of the 50 largest local governments, ranked by debt outstanding. Pension pressures will remain elevated due to coming ANPL spikes in 2017, even with moderate declines expected to follow in fiscal 2018. Most governments are contributing insufficient amounts to contain growth in net liabilities, and some are exposed to sizeable investment losses in the event of a market downturn. Retiree healthcare and other post-employment benefit (OPEB) liabilities are also significant for a handful of governments, and will likely increase due to lower discount rates under new accounting….
From the summary:
This issue brief examines whether state and local borrowing costs have become more sensitive to pensions since the financial crisis.
The brief’s key findings include:
Rating agencies have begun to explicitly account for pensions in their methodologies;
Several governments have experienced downgrades attributable, in part, to their pension challenges;
Pension funded status can have a meaningful impact on the borrowing costs for a municipality; and
Adequate funding, monitoring, and management of public pensions should be an important component of state and local governments’ fiscal management.
From the press release:
State and local pension plans have consistently been able to meet their benefit and other payment obligations over the past quarter century, according to a data analysis published November 16 by the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems.
Between 1993 and 2016, contributions and investment earnings by 6,000 public pension plans exceeded benefit obligations in all but four years. And during those four years – 2002, 2008, 2009, and 2012 – all plans met their obligations in the aftermath of recessions because they had built up cushions during normal times, according to the analysis conducted by Michael Kahn, director of research for NCPERS.
The findings offer a striking counterpoint to initiatives under way in some states and municipalities to dismantle public pensions because they are considered under-funded, said Hank H. Kim, NCPERS’ executive director and counsel. ….
Critics of public pensions often cite funding ratios of less than 100% as evidence of pressing financial problems, but this is faulty logic, Kim said. Contributions and earnings continue to flow into plans even as benefits are being paid out, he noted. ….
Kahn found that individual states – regardless of whether their pension plans were underfunded or fully funded – had between five and eight years in which income fell short of obligations, and had to draw on their cushion to pay benefits. Far from being a cause for concern, “this is exactly what public pensions are designed to do – to provide a steady income over the long haul,” Kahn noted. “Pension assets typically are invested over a 30-year time horizon, so plans aren’t blown off course by short-term market shifts.”
NCPERS offered four recommendations for public pension plans:
– Stop dismantling plans on grounds that they are not fully funded.
– Improve funding by determining the appropriate levels of required employer contributions.
– Establish a pension stabilization fund that can set aside money from a certain revenue stream to be used in special circumstances such as a recession.
– Implement a mechanism to ensure that full employer contributions are made on a timely basis, perhaps by making employer contributions a nondiscretionary part of the budget.
From the introduction:
Unlike in the private sector, nearly all employees of state and local government are required to share in the cost of their retirement benefit. Employee contributions typically are set as a percentage of salary by statute or by the retirement board. Although investment earnings and employer contributions account for a larger portion of total public pension fund revenues, by providing a consistent and predictable stream of revenue to public pension funds, contributions from employees fill a vital role in financing pension benefits. Reforms made in the wake of the 2008-09 market decline included higher employee contribution rates in many states. This issue brief examines employee contribution plan designs, policies and recent trends.
From the abstract:
California public pension plans are funded on the basis of policies and assumptions that can delay recognition of their true cost. Even with this delay, local and state governments are facing increasingly higher pension costs—costs that are certain to continue their rise over the next one to two decades, even under assumptions that critics regard as optimistic. As budgets are squeezed, what are state and local governments cutting? Core services, including higher education, social services, public assistance, welfare, recreation and libraries, health, public works, and in some cases, public safety.
From the tip sheet:
This survey provides national summary data on the revenues, expenditures and composition of assets of the largest defined benefit public employee pension systems for state and local governments. The report produces three tables: Tables 1 and 3 include data on cash and security holdings, and Table 2 provides data on earnings on investments, contributions and payments.