When Measurement Gets Politicized: The Case of Public Pension Liabilities

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Apr 13, 2011

Many academic economists, including me, often weigh-in on public policy issues.  One of the things we quickly learn is that academic discourse and political debate can be quite different.  One example of this is that academics are quite good at isolating specific questions (e.g., “holding all else constant”), while political debates often combine issues in an attempt to “spin” the discussion for or against a certain idea.

The public pension debate is a prime example.  There are at least four very important – but conceptually distinct – issues that often get discussed.  Three of these are areas where there are legitimate grounds for disagreement.  The fourth, however, is a pure issue of measurement over which there is virtually no disagreement among academic economists (regardless of ideology).  But others have succeeded in politicizing the issue, and the implications of this are important and unfortunate. 

What are the four issues?

Question 1:  Should public sector workers continue to be offered Defined Benefit plans, or should they be offered Defined Contribution plans instead? 

Question 2: If we continue to offer DB plans, should we fully pre-fund them?

Question 3: Assuming we do at least some pre-funding, how should the assets be invested?

Question 4: What is the value – in today’s dollars – of the future pension benefits that we owe?

These are all distinct questions.  Two people could completely disagree on whether public workers should be offered DB or DC plans, but they might still agree that if a DB is offered, it ought to be fully funded.  Or they could agree that they both like DB plans, but then disagree on the optimal portfolio allocation.  Indeed, for each of the first three questions, there are a number of intellectually defensible answers, and smart, well-educated, good-intentioned individuals can disagree simply because they place different weights on different factors.   Fair enough.

But question 4 is unlike the other three.  Question 4 is not a question about values or weights or the perception of pros and cons.  Question 4 is a measurement issue, pure and simple.  Financial economic theory – and centuries of experience with financial markets – provide clear principles on the right way to discount future pension liabilities.  Namely, you pick a discount rate that reflects the risk of the liabilities themselves.  Every academic financial economist I have ever asked (and there are many, including several Nobel Laureates) agrees on this point (and this is true regardless of their personal political ideology).  Furthermore, they agree that the right answer to this question is *completely* unrelated to how a plan invests its assets (question 3), or whether the plan pre-funds (question 2), or whether the individual prefers a DB or a DC plan (question 1).  They agree that it is a simple measurement issue.   Just like 1+1=2, and this is true for both liberals and conservatives.

Unfortunately, a large number of non-academics – ranging from the Government Accounting Standards Board to some plan administrators to some ideologically-motivated “think tanks” – have managed to turn a clear measurement issue into a muddled ideological and political issue.  In essence, they have begun to argue that 1+1 is actually equal to 1.5, not 2.  And they further imply that those who say 1+1 is equal to 2 are just out to destroy DB plans. 

They do this by saying that those who would discount public pension liabilities the correct way (using a risk-adjusted discount rate -which results in an estimate of about $3 trillion of under-funding in public plans – rather than the intellectually vacuous but “official” estimates of about $1 trillion) are just out to make DB plans look “more expensive.”  They accuse scholars of trying to inflate the costs of DB pensions for some political reason, such as a desire to privatize the system.    

All of this is nonsense.  Many of these same economists disagree on the answers to questions 1, 2 and 3, but we all agree that we ought to at least start with an accurate measurement of the size of the pension liability. Whether one believes DB plans are the greatest human invention of all time, or the worst sin ever committed, should have no bearing whatsoever on how we calculate the present value of our future pension liabilities.  It is also true that how we invest our assets has no bearing on the size of the liability (after all, a dollar invested in stocks today is still worth the same as a dollar invested in bonds today). 

Unfortunately, this politicization of a fundamental economic principle is not merely an intellectual frustration to academic financial economists.  Understating the true economic costs of future pension promises has real consequences.  It distorts decision-making.  It artificially stacks the debate in favor of some reform options and against others.  It promotes excessive risk-taking.  And, perhaps worst of all, it disguises the true cost of government to current taxpayers.

Why Taxpayers, and Not Just Public Workers, Likely Contribute to Public Worker Pensions

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Mar 15, 2011

David Cay Johnston of Tax.com wrote a piece that appears to have gone viral on Facebook.  In it, he makes a well-reasoned case that public workers in Wisconsin have paid for their own benefits by accepting lower wages.

The key to his argument is this statement:

“The fact is that all of the money going into these plans belongs to the workers because it is part of the compensation of the state workers. The fact is that the state workers negotiate their total compensation, which they then divvy up between cash wages, paid vacations, health insurance and, yes, pensions. Since the Wisconsin government workers collectively bargained for their compensation, all of the compensation they have bargained for is part of their pay and thus only the workers contribute to the pension plan. This is an indisputable fact.”

This argument is one that economists clearly understand.  In fact, I agree that this view is the right starting point for analysis.  But that does not mean it is the right ending point.  In this case, I think Mr. Johnston has over-played his hand.  Indeed, there are compelling reasons to think that taxpayers do pay for part of these pensions – although not for the naïve reasons that Mr. Johnston blasts the press and politicians for touting.

As background, let me explain how economists like me tend to think about these things by starting with the case of a simple per-unit tax on a good.  One of the first lessons of public finance is that it generally does not matter whether this tax is levied on the buyers of the good or the sellers.  Why?  Because in a competitive market, prices will adjust so that the net-of-tax prices paid by the buyer and received by the seller are the same under either scenario.  We refer to this as the “economic incidence” of the tax (i.e., who really pays the tax in the sense of bearing the economic burden of the tax).  This is separate from the “statutory incidence” of the tax (i.e., who is responsible for writing the check to pay the tax authorities).  This is a key lesson from the economics of taxation and it has broad implications.

An example of this is the Social Security payroll tax.  Up to a cap, individuals pay a 6.2% tax to support Social Security, and their employer pays another 6.2%.  But most economists who have studied the issue believe that, given the characteristics of the labor market in the U.S., it is likely the workers who bear most of (perhaps the entire) 12.4% payroll tax burden.

An example helps.  Suppose you earn $100,000 and you and your employer each pay $6,200 to the government.  If the entire 12.4% tax was shifted onto the worker, and the employer did not have to pay any at all, the idea is that in a competitive market, your salary would rise so that your after-tax income would be unchanged.

In a similar vein, Mr. Johnston is making the observation that public employees negotiate over pension benefits as part of an overall compensation package, and that, therefore, every dollar (in present value) of future pension benefits requires that an individual worker give up a dollar of salary today.

As I noted above, this is the natural starting place for any economist when thinking about labor markets.  Indeed, I have made similar points myself in this blog when discussing changes to the Illinois pension system.

Thus, if Mr. Johnston wrote this piece for my undergraduate economics class, he would receive an A.  However, if Mr. Johnston wrote this piece for an advanced course in economics, he would probably get a C for massively overstating his case and extrapolating beyond what evidence suggests.

My main concern is his claim that “only the workers contribute to the pension plan. This is an indisputable fact.”  Because despite everything I have said so far, this claim IS disputable.


The theory above works well in a competitive labor market in which all of the actors are operating with perfect information.  It implicitly assumes that public workers value the pension benefit at its full cost, and that politicians and union leaders are negotiating a deal that approximates a market outcome.

There are many problems with this.

For starters, there IS evidence that workers tend to under-value future pension benefits (or at least discount future benefits at a rate far surpassing market rates, which has the same effect: see, for example, Warner and Pleeter 2001).  Indeed a recent study by Fitzpatrick (2011) using the DB plan of Illinois teachers provides evidence that teachers value future pension benefits (at least on the margin) at only about 18 cents on the dollar of present value!  How can this be?

For one thing, the federal tax preference for pensions relative to wages creates an incentive to provide compensation in the form of tax-preferred pension benefits even if they are valued less than dollar-for-dollar.  If someone is in, say, a 25% marginal tax bracket, they might prefer pensions over wages even if they value the pension at only 80 cents on the dollar.

But even this cannot explain the entire discrepancy.  More likely, we are observing the fact that union leaders and legislators are not operating in a perfectly competitive market environment.  This is not a case of employees negotiating with employers over a pool of profits, in which the employers are accountable to shareholders through the board.  This is a case in which unions help elect the officials with whom they are negotiating.  And they are not bargaining over profits, they are bargaining over tax revenue, which the government can require a third party – the taxpayer – to pay.  Now, of course, the non-public-employee taxpayers can theoretically hold the legislature accountable, but this is easy to circumvent by a) pushing the real cost of the increased pensions onto future taxpayers and b) hiding behind government accounting rules that disguise the true cost of providing the pensions.  So Mr. Johnston is holding the size of the overall compensation package fixed in his analysis – when in reality the size of the compensation package may be inflated by the bargaining process that is partially protected from market forces.

In sum, there are legitimate reasons to think that public employees may not have paid for their entire pension.  If so, then in Mr. Johnston’s own words, this could be considered a “serious crime” because it is “the gift of public funds rather than payment for services.”

Unfortunately, we really do not know the extent of this “crime” because we lack a careful empirical study of the Wisconsin situation.  But if I were a betting man, I think the odds are quite good that taxpayers have borne (or perhaps more accurately, future taxpayers will bear) at least a sizable part of the cost of public pensions.

Why the Government Should Not Issue Annuities

Filed Under (Retirement Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Mar 1, 2011

In Sunday’s New York Times, Professors Hu and Odean published an op-ed entitled “Paying for Old Age.” After reading it, I concluded that it needs a response, as I am afraid that the authors have misdiagnosed the main problem.

First, let me say that I am a big fan of Odean’s academic work, including that which uses proprietary brokerage data to provide insights into individual investor behavior.  And Henry Hu is also a highly respected law and finance scholar who is well-known for his work on financial risk.  I am delighted to have more super smart academics taking an interest in the important issue of guaranteed lifetime income (and I don’t mean to imply by “more super smart academics” that I consider myself super smart!  Rather, this is a topic that has been researched by some of the brightest economic minds of the last 25 years, including Nobel Laureates Peter Diamond and Franco Modigliani, as well as other leading economists such as Jim Poterba, Doug Bernheim, Amy Finkelstein, Olivia Mitchell, and many others.)

In essence, Hu and Odean are suggesting that the U.S. government should issue inflation indexed life annuities directly to the public.  They are not the first to propose this – the Aspen Institute had a similar proposal several years ago.

I understand the motivation of their proposal.  After all, we know that counter-party risk is one reason that individuals may be concerned about entering into long-term annuity contracts with insurers, and this is especially true after the recent financial crisis that witnessed the disappearance of venerable financial institutions.  Perhaps even more importantly, we know that many 401(k) plan sponsors have concerns about fiduciary liability when it comes to choosing an annuity provider.  Having the government provide the annuities directly is meant to address this concern.  So it is fairly straightforward to write down a simple economic model in which I can show that optimally structured government intervention appears to make people better off.

Even so, I think the proposal is off base, for several reasons.

First, I think they have misdiagnosed the reason people do not buy annuities.  While concerns about counter-party risk are certainly heightened today, the demand for annuities was ridiculously low even a decade ago when most consumers were not even thinking about the issue.  Nor is there much evidence that the lack of inflation protection or high prices are the primary reasons for limited demand.  While these probably contribute a bit on the margin, they are only three items on a very long list of reasons that demand for annuities is limited, which I have discussed at length elsewhere.

Second, I have no confidence in the government’s ability to run this program effectively.  The same holds true for the idea of the government providing a government backstop for private annuity providers.  Last year I published a book (a collection of papers from an AEI conference that I organized two years ago) that includes analyses of 6 major government insurance or reinsurance programs, including programs to insure DB pensions (PBGC), bank deposits (FDIC), crops, terrorism, floods and natural catastrophes.  As I discuss in my intro chapter to that book, one of the themes that came out of these analyses is that the U.S. government simply does not seem to be capable of structuring insurance programs in a manner consistent with basic economic principles.  They almost universally fail to charge appropriate prices for the insurance (in two ways – premiums are too low on average, and they are not properly risk-adjusted), which distorts incentives and leads in some cases to excessive risk-taking (a form of moral hazard).  They tend to create large unfunded liabilities that put taxpayer funds at risk.  There are other problems as well (which you can read about if you read the book!)

So while an optimally-designed government backstop would have real value, the U.S. government has an abysmal record of optimally designing such systems.  So we are immediately thrust into the world of “second best” policies where it becomes difficult to ascertain whether a poorly designed program is really better than none at all.  I am extremely reluctant to run the “experiment” because, to paraphrase Milton Friedman, “there is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.”

Third, despite the authors’ attempt to sell this as an “everybody wins” idea, I think it is pretty clear that this would crowd-out private annuity provision, and all the future innovation that may come out of it.  (Disclosure: I am a trustee for TIAA, one of the world’s largest annuity providers.  I have also done work over the years for many other life insurance companies. )

Finally, I believe that other market-based solutions are emerging.  There has recently been a lot of discussion, and some activity, of “multi-insurer solutions,” in which a plan sponsor enters into an agreement with multiple insurers who essentially each agree to kick in to cover one another in the event that one provider experiences financial distress (of course, this does not help if the whole industry goes down.)  The idea is still young and new, and I would hate to kill the innovation by starting yet another government program.

In essence, I do not think that direct government provision of annuities is necessary or desirable.  The problem in the private market is not that the products do not exist, it is that people do not buy them.  Nothing in this proposal will change that.  We would be better off focusing our efforts on policies such as reducing fiduciary risk to plan sponsors that would like to provide annuity options to employees.  Or reforming our minimum distribution requirements so that they no longer discourage annuities.

Bottomline – rather than having the government provide annuities, I would like to see the government stop discouraging the use of annuities that private providers would be happy to make available.

Pensions: Not a Pretty Picture

Filed Under (Uncategorized) by Keven Waspi on Jun 25, 2010

While all eyes were on the public flogging of Tony Hayward on June 17, you may have overlooked something.  A small story in the Wall Street journal titled, “Pension Bombs Need Spotlight”.  It’s the Governmental Accounting Standards Board ”Preliminary Views on Potential Improvements to Pension Standards”.   When you couple this with the excellent article, “Pension Roulette?” by Alexandra Harris at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism (a MUST READ) you’ll be able to paint a not so pretty picture. 

First brush stroke; watch the state’s lobbyists try to keep GASB from requiring these changes, for as the first paragraph of the public notice states in part, “The purpose of the document is to obtain comments from constituents on those views before developing more detailed proposals for changes to existing accounting and financial reporting standards”

 Second brush stroke; watch so many exceptions get into the final standards that it becomes (like most financial regulation) a burden for those who play by the rules and a gaping hole that lets the largest violators flow right through. 

Third brush stroke; the State of Illinois’ financial statements become too embarrassing for even S&P, Moody’s, Fitch, et.al.to maintain the current rating. 

The Laws of Arithmetic and Illinois Pensions

Filed Under (Retirement Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on May 17, 2010

An article on Saturday in the Tribune pointed out the obvious – that there are no easy solutions to Illinois state budget woes.  Lawmakers are not even thinking about how to backfill the enormous pension funding gap that already exists.  Rather, they are spending all their energy trying to figure out how to deal with one piece of it – namely, the $4 billion or so that is due this year.

It reminds me, once again, of former Fed Chairman Greenspan’s remark about Social Security options, and how we only have three options – raise taxes, reduce benefits, or repeal the laws of arithmetic.

The same three options are the only ones on the table for Illinois.  Our ability to reduce benefits is limited.  And as many have pointed out in comments on my prior posts, one can hardly lay the blame for this problem at the feet of the pension participants who paid their share along the way.  That leaves tax increase or borrowing.  But I would hasten to add that borrowing is just a tax increase on future generations of taxpayers.  This being gubernatorial election year in Illinois, I suspect that lawmakers will once again kick this fiscal can down the road …

Spreading the Blame and Spreading the Pain of Illinois Pensions

Filed Under (Retirement Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on May 11, 2010

Last week I made a post indicating that the Illinois pension problem was much worse than it appears due to faulty accounting that is sanctioned by the Government Accounting Standards Board. It was one of the most read posts ever made on this blog, and it received quite a few comments along the lines of “blame the politicians.”

This week, I thought I would make a few observations both about who is to blame as well as who should share in the pain of filling the yawning fiscal chasm that faces the State of Illinois as a result of its enormous structural deficits (an issue that is broader than just pensions – but clearly the pensions play a role).

So, who is to blame?

First on the list – the politicians. Indeed, it is almost too easy to blame the politicians – doing so is like shooting fish in a barrel. But it is easy precisely because it is largely true. For many decades, governors and legislators from both parties found it all too easy to ignore pension funding in order to address more “immediate needs” (or, shall we say, “more politically expedient wants”?)

As I have pointed out in a previous blog, my colleague Fred Giertz did some back-of-the-envelope calculations that showed that – in a world in which (a) past governors and legislatures had made the required funding contributions, and (b) these same politicians had refrained from the temptation to use the better funding levels to promise more benefits to state workers – then our pensions would be ever-so-slightly over-funded. Of course, believing either point (a) or (b) is a bit like believing in unicorns – pleasant to think about, but totally unrealistic.

I could stop this blog right here and have most of the readers of this blog cheer for more. But I don’t think it is entirely fair to stop here, because others are also to blame.

Second on the list – the “keepers of the statistics.” This was the focus of last week’s post – namely, to blame the actuaries and accountants who provide political cover to the politicians by the use of inappropriate assumptions for calculating the liabilities. Roughly speaking, the liabilities in Illinois are roughly double the official reports.  (To be precise, the analysis by Novy-Marx and Rauh indicates that in 2008, Illinois total public pension liabilities were $151 billion when valued using GASB rules, and $288 billion when using a treasury discount rate.  Assets were only $65 billion at the time).  

So even if unicorns existed – that is, even if our past legislatures had funded according to Fred’s calculations and resisted the temptation to increase benefits – the State of Illinois would still only have about half the money it needed to be funded according to an economically sound calculation!

Third on the list – a pension governance system that allowed key parameters of the benefit formula – such as the Effective Rate of Interest (ERI) – to be set by a board (e.g., the SURS Board) whose members have a fiduciary obligation to act only in the interest of pension participants, and thus give no voice whatsoever to taxpayers. I can’t help but think that this is one of the reasons that the (ERI) was set as such a high rate for the past 30 years, leading to a situation in which the majority of retirees under SURS got a higher benefit under the money purchase option than through the traditional benefit formula.

Fourth on the list – participants themselves. Yes, I realize that my readership will not like this. But let’s be honest – during good economic times, public employee unions fought hard – and successfully – for pension benefit increases. Increases that could not subsequently be “undone” due to the non-impairment clause in the Illinois constitution. Despite the fact that, at the time when these increases were enacted, pensions were already underfunded. One cannot really fault the unions for looking out for their self-interest (that is what all economic actors are supposed to do in a market-driven system.)  But I think taxpayers have a legitimate reason to be irked by the fact that the unions and the legislature “negotiated” higher benefits that are locked-in by a constitutional guarantee without considering the full impact and long-term cost of doing so.  Having said this, let me be clear that much of the anti-public-employee and anti-pension rhetoric that we have been hearing lately is misplaced – the vast majority of public employees are simply doing their jobs and want to be paid what they have been promised. But I also think that public employees (yes, I am one too) cannot totally escape our collective responsibility for pushing for more guaranteed benefits without fully accounting for the long-term costs.

So enough of the blame-game. The fact is that our pensions are underfunded. There is a hole that needs filled, and somebody has to share in the pain of filling that hole.

Because many generations of state taxpayers have shared in the gains from our pension deferral, it makes sense that most of the pain should be shared by as broad a base as possible. Thus, fixing this problem through spending cuts and tax increases will have to be the primary solution. But does that mean that participants in our public pension plans should have no responsibility above-and-beyond paying their own taxes? Not necessarily. There is no question that benefits earned-to-date (i.e., accrued benefits) are protected by the constitution. So we don’t need to have that conversation.  For those of you already retired, this means you are totally protected – nobody can or will touch your pension benefits (although health care is another story). 

And we already know that the state plans to cut benefits for future employees that have not yet been hired.  What about benefits not-yet-earned by current employees? I will leave it to the lawyers to sort the interpretation of the impairment clause. But from an economic policy (not a legal) perspective, it seems this is a legitimate issue to have on the table. After all, Social Security benefits (even accrued ones) can be changed by Congress. Defined Benefit pensions in the private sector are exposed to risk (and not fully insured by the PBGC). Why should one particular subset of the nation’s workforce – state and local workers – be immune from sharing in the collective painful decisions we have to make about the size and scope of government?

Having said this, it is equally important to realize that we cannot simply cut future benefits without consequences. Cutting pensions is cutting compensation, and many of our public employers (such as universities) operate in an exceedingly competitive labor market. If we want to continue to attract and retain the very best, we have to compensate them. So cuts in pensions may require spending more money elsewhere (e.g., salaries) in order to be competitive. As I have noted before, I am pretty skeptical of the claims of how much savings such changes can create.  But that does not mean they are not a legitimate policy option to consider.  Sorry, colleagues.

I’m sure this post will generate a lot of discussion. I’d encourage you to post your comments – I always learn from reader responses. But please, let’s keep the dialogue respectful.

Misguided Reform Rhetoric Around Illinois Pensions

Filed Under (Retirement Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Mar 31, 2010

Illinois pensions are in the news yet again.  Last month, the Pew Center on the States reported that Illinois was once again the poster child for everything wrong with the funding of state pensions, noting that we had the worst funding ratio of any state in the country.


Last week, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan decided – finally – to take some action.  He secured a House vote to change pension benefits for future Illinois state workers.  Specifically, this proposal would raise the full benefit age to 67, cap the maximum pension income at a bit over $100,000, limit cost-of-living increases, and so on.  In short, the package amounts to benefit reductions for not-yet-hired future state workers.  


Why this option?  To put it simply, there are only two options for fixing the funding problem. 


Option one is increase revenue to the system.  In other words, make additional contributions.  But this would require that Illinois lawmakers raise taxes or cut other state spending, neither of which is politically popular.  


Option two is to reduce the liabilities.  But as I have written before, the impairment clause in the state constitution prohibits benefit reductions to existing retirees and existing employees.  So the only way to reduce liabilities is to cut benefits for future workers – those that have not yet joined the system.  And that is precisely what Madigan pushed through the House.


[By the way, the only “option three” is to, in the words of Alan Greenspan when discussing Social Security, is to “repeal the laws of arithmetic.”  I am pretty sure that most state governments would choose this option if they could!]    


As a fiscal conservative, I have no real objection to the decision to reduce future liabilities in the way that the House has chosen to do.  But two issues that have come up in the debate that I think are worth a bit of analytical clarity.  


First, estimates of future savings are almost surely inflated.  There are two reasons for this.  One is that some of the estimates appear to have simply looked at undiscounted dollar flows, which implicitly assumes a dollar saved in 2050 is the same as a dollar saved in 2020.  This is obviously not the case, since a dollar saved earlier has a much higher present value.  A second reasons is that – as I have written before – pensions are part of the overall compensation package.  If we reduce future retirement benefits, our ability to attract top faculty members, for example, will be reduced unless we increase compensation in some other way.  None of the cost savings estimates account for this.    


Second, there is clear confusion about the source of the funding problem.  Much of the rhetoric around this legislation focused on the level of benefits.  The Champaign News-Gazette is a typical example, stating:

“A big part of Illinois’ horrendous budget problems can be traced to the high costs for the lavish pensions many public employees enjoy. They are far more generous than those available to workers in the private sector, and that’s a big reason why state public pensions are underfunded to the tune of an estimated $80 billion.”

This is wrong for several reasons.

First, the real source of the funding problem is not level of benefits.  It is the fact the Illinois legislature has consistently failed to make the annual contributions that are called for under standard funding formulas.  My colleague Fred Giertz has done some calculations suggesting that if the legislature had made its required contributions every year, the Illinois system would be slightly over-funded, not under-funded.  In short, don’t blame the pensioners for the lack of fiscal discipline on the part of our politicians.

Second, the comparison of public pensions to private pensions is misleading.  One reason is that the public pension replaces both Social Security and a private pension.  Social Security costs roughly 12% of payroll today.  Private employers who offer pensions typically contribute several percent more.  On that basis, Illinois public pensions are not “lavish.”  A second reason is that – yes, I am repeating myself – this is part of an overall compensation package.  So any comparison needs to account for the value of all salary and benefits, not just a single piece of it.




Annuitizing 401(k) Plans: Class Warfare, or Just Good Economics?

Filed Under (Uncategorized) by Jeffrey Brown on Mar 16, 2010

Last month the Departments of Labor and Treasury issued a Request for Information in order to solicit public comment on ideas related to converting 401(k) account balances into annuities or other guaranteed retirement income streams.  This is a topic about which I have given a lot of thought – indeed, I even wrote a paper recommending that annuities become the “default option” for distributing from 401(k) plans.  (Click HERE to see the paper).

 As I see it, there is a good case to be made for thinking about guaranteed lifelong income as the default distribution option.  My primary motivation is to ensure that individuals have the private sector financial tools available to optimally manage their retirement portfolios in the presence of uncertainty about how long they will live.  Annuities solve this problem by allow one to trade a lump sum of wealth for an income stream that will last as long as you (and possibly a spouse) live.  There are mountains of academic research suggesting that annuities can make people better off by offering a higher level of sustainable consumption, insuring against longevity risk, and so on.

Enter stage right, Newt Gingrich and Peter Ferrara.  In a piece on Investor Business Daily’s website (read it here), they wrote an article entitled “Class Warfare’s Next Target: 401(k) Saving.”  In it, they essentially argue that treating annuities as the default distribution option is somehow a left-wing conspiracy to tax your retirement, force people to buy government bonds, and do other evil things in the name of “class warfare.”  (You can also find it on the AEI webpage and a related post on the conservative blog watch.)


I am extremely puzzled by their hostility towards the general idea.  But before I point out what I do not like, let me point out some valid points they raise:


First, they correctly point out one longer-term risk of a government program that starts out as optional – which is that they can, through the political process, end up paving the way toward a mandate.  There is no question that mandated annuitization would be a bad thing on many levels – it would interfere with individual liberty and choice, it would effectively redistribute resources from the poor (who don’t live as long) to the rich (who tend to live longer), and so on.  So they are right to be concerned about where an optional program will ultimately lead in a political environment – a point that academic economists too often overlook when thinking about optimal policy designs.

 Second, I completely agree with their general dislike of the Ghilarducci proposal to invest in a guaranteed retirement account administered by the Social Security Administration.  Indeed, I could write 20 blogs on all the things I dislike about this proposal, whether it be the absurdly high return that Ghilarducci proposes to guarantee at taxpayer expense (without appropriately accounting for the true economic cost) or the very idea that the under-resourced, overly-bureaucratic Social Security Administration should be expanded into an area that the private sector can run perfectly fine.  

 Third, I certainly cannot quibble with their general ideological distaste for policies that keep “punishing responsibility and rewarding failure.”  As readers of this blog can probably tell, I am an advocate of free market capitalism, and I generally distrust over-reaching government regulation.  

Given all of this, why do I support annuities as a default option?  And why do I disagree with the Gingrich/Ferrara critique?  Here are a few reasons.  I will keep it short so this post does not grow monstrous in size, but perhaps I will return later:

Part of the goal here is to do what conservatives like me generally like – to provide people with more choice, not less.  The idea is to get more plan sponsors to offer annuities as a distribution option from their 401(k) and other DC plans.  Right now, few do so, and so individual participants who want annuity income are forced into the individual market where they don’t get as good of a deal (due to concerns about adverse selection, etc.)

  1. We already have a default distribution option from 401(k) plans – in most cases it is to take a lump-sum distribution.  The question is about what type of default option makes the most sense for the most people.  I think the research is pretty clear that most individuals do not have adequate sources of guaranteed retirement income, and that a product that provides guaranteed lifetime income would make them better off.  A lump-sum strikes me as precisely the wrong default option for a retirement plan.
  2. What I favor is an optional program.  As I have outlined in my proposal, people would have plenty of opportunity to take an alternative distribution if they want it.  Those who (like me) place a high premium on individual liberty should take comfort in the fact that my proposal would place no restrictions on an individual’s ability to opt out of the annuity if they want.
  3. There is nothing in my proposal that forces people to hold treasury bonds or subject themselves to inflation risk, as implied by Gingrich and Ferrara.  Indeed, I am a big advocate of inflation-indexed annuities and/or variable payout life annuities in which the lifetime payouts are linked to an underlying portfolio like those offered by TIAA CREF (disclosure: I am a Trustee for TIAA.)  Plus, an annuity provides what some call a “mortality premium,” which is an extra rate of return in exchange for making the benefits life-contingent.
  4. Under my proposal – and under most of the serious proposals I have heard so far – the government (whether it be Social Security Administration or some other agency) would NOT be the administrator of this program.  Rather, plan sponsors could contract with private sector annuity providers – and there is a nice, active, competitive market for such products.

Yes, I am a big fan of free markets.  But only a fool would think that the existing 401(k) system looks like it does because of pure free market forces.  The complicated system we have in place today is as much a creature of government regulation as any program we have.  Indeed, the name “401(k)” itself refers to a section in the Internal Revenue Code! 

As long as we are operating in a world in which government rules largely drive plan sponsor decisions about what kind of retirement plan to offer – and as long as plan design influences participant behavior – and as long as participant behavior drives how well off these participants will be when they retire – then does it not at least make sense to ensure that the basic set of rules be ones that make people’s retirement more secure rather than less?  Especially if we can do it in a way that preserves individual choice?

I respect Gingrich/Ferrara’s healthy skepticism of government.  But sometimes ideology can get in the way of a good idea.  

Do Illinois Pensioners and Taxpayers Know the True Value of Public Pensions?

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Sep 28, 2009

Last week I wrote about the (often misguided) debate over the generosity of public pensions in the state of Illinois.  I ended by noting that it was important to further examine how my previous analysis would change once we account for two under-appreciated facts about the Illinois pension system.    


The first under-appreciated fact is that Illinois is one of a small number of states that provides an explicit constitutional guarantee against the impairment of pension benefits.  Specifically, Article XIII section 5 of the Illinois State constitution states that: “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State … shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”


While Illinois is not alone in providing this guarantee – similar language is included in the constitutions of Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan and New York – it should be noted that not all states provide such a guarantee.  In Indiana, for example, the Indiana Court of Appeals (in Haverstock v. State Public Employees Retirement Fund” stated that “pensions are mere gratuities springing from the appreciation and graciousness of the state.”


In a paper that I wrote with David Wilcox in the May 2009 American Economic Review, we discuss just how powerful these guarantees have proven to be over the years.  On the basis of that analysis, I am highly confident that Illinois pensioners will receive their benefits.  Unfortunately, with Illinois having one of the worst records of effective governance in the U.S., most other pensioners and participants are not quite so confident.  One way or another, most of them think, the politicians in this state will find some way to renege (at least partially) on these benefits.  (As an aside, what public servants really have reason to be afraid of is that retiree health benefits will disappear – those are not covered by the impairment clause.) 


The second underappreciated fact is that the public defined benefit pension plans in Illinois are far too complex for the average (or even the highly sophisticated) participant, taxpayer or legislator to properly value.  There are many reasons for this, but mainly it boils down to the fact that the ultimate benefit depends on a lot of variables that will only be known with certainty many years in the future, such as one’s final average salary.  If that were not complex enough, the legislature has made it even more complicated by having multiple benefit formulas in place.  For example, in the “Traditional” defined benefit plan under the State Universities Retirement System (SURS), participants who joined the system prior to July 2005 received a benefit that was the higher of two approaches.  The first was the standard formula (2.2% times years of service times final average compensation).  The second was a “money purchase” option that essentially kept track of the individual’s contributions, matched them with a state match (at least on paper – we already know the state did not really provide the money), and then credited them with an “Effective Rate of Interest,” or ERI.  Then, at retirement, the “balance” in this largely fictitious account was converted to an annuity using an annuity table that used a rate quite close to the ERI.  If the resulting number was higher than the standard formula, the annuitant gets this higher amount instead. 


Confused yet?  If you answered “yes,” don’t feel bad.  Most participants don’t understand all these details.  It is complex stuff that requires a high degree of financial sophistication to truly follow.  If you answer “no,” then let me ask a few extra credit questions.  First, do you know what mean, standard deviation and range the ERI has been in for the last 25 years?  And do you know how the annuity conversion factor compares to market rates?


By this point, I suspect very few people know the answer.  Again, don’t feel bad.  I study pensions for a living, and it took me a lot of time and research to find these answers (and, alas, it was too late – by the time I understood all the details, I had already made a sub-optimal pension choice – and it was unfortunately a lifetime irrevocable one!) 


Without boring you with details, let me give you a flavor of what I have since learned.  The way the SURS board has historically set the ERI, participants in the DB plan were getting an enormously high return (roughly 8-9%) relative to the risk (as measured by the standard deviation in the ERI, which was tiny over the past 25 years), and this high return was being implicitly guaranteed by the taxpayer.  And the annuity rate?  It is substantially more favorable than even the most attractive private market annuity prices – I’m talking in the range of 50% or more benefits per dollar in the “account,” and in some cases, far more.  These two factors explain why most people retiring from SURS in recent years actually received a higher benefit from the money purchase calculation than the basic formula.


What do these two points – the constitutional guarantee and the complexity of the benefit formula – have to do with each other?  Put simply, they have conspired to put an enormous pension funding burden on taxpayers without providing commensurate perceived value to state workers!


Let me explain.  As a result of a complex benefit formula that hides the true value of the pensions – combined with the fact that most participants view the DB pension promises as being at some risk of not being honored – means that most public pension participants do not value the pensions at their full economic value.  This fact partially mitigates the point I made last time because this means the “compensating wage differential” will not be dollar-for-dollar. 


However, the fact that participants discount their benefits in this way does NOT mean that the state is not actually incurring the full economic costs.  Indeed, the constitutional guarantee means that the states’ taxpayers ARE on the hook for the full economic cost of these benefits.


In essence, we have the worst of both worlds.  Public employees are earning a valuable benefit, but because our legislators have (i) created a needlessly complex system, (ii) created a complete lack of confidence in the security of these promises, and (iii) have provided us with a constitutional guarantee that the benefits will be paid, the participants don’t fully value the benefits even though the state bears the full costs.


If any private company did this – providing a costly benefit that was valued by employees at less than the true cost to the employer – that company would soon be bankrupt.  But this is Illinois state government.  So, instead, we continue to build up enormous funding liabilities that will simply be passed on to the next generation of Illinois taxpayers.  It may be “business as usual” in Illinois.  But it’s also a real shame.


Public servants and taxpayers of Illinois deserve better.