What is the meaning of a budget number?

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Oct 7, 2011

With all the argument in Washington about how to balance the budget, a reminder is worthwhile that none of these numbers make any sense at all!  What “should” be the meaning of the government budget?  And, does any number provided by anybody actually have that meaning?

In general, a budget deficit is supposed to mean that one’s current consumption exceeds income, which would indicate a decrease in wealth.  Indeed, that’s the problem with a deficit – drawing down our wealth (which could even turn from positive to negative!).  The U.S. Federal budget numbers fail to provide such a meaning, for several reasons.

First, the Federal budget includes ALL spending, not just consumption.  Some of that spending is actually investment, such as new spending on buildings, bridges, roads, airplanes, and any long-lived military equipment.  The budget does not show the breakdown between what we really use up this year, and what spending is really investing in the future.

Second, Social Security is “off-budget”, unless you are looking at a unified budget.  Okay, I said that in a way that is intentionally confusing!  The basic problem here is that social security is SUPPOSED to run a surplus, so that we can set aside some funds from those now working to pay them when they are retired.  If it does not run a surplus to save for the retirement of the baby boom generation, then we’ll be in big trouble when the baby boom generation retires!  The current social security surplus is too small for that.  Then, however, the big problem is that the unified budget mixes the social security budget with the rest of federal spending.  So when you see a deficit in that account, it’s really worse than it looks, because it includes the small social security SURPLUS that’s already not a big enough surplus for social security to break even!

Third, the U.S. Federal Budget is confusing about what is a “Tax Expenditure” and what is government “Spending”.  A tax expenditure is really ‘spending via tax break’, as when a taxpayer gets a special credit or deduction for doing some particular activity.  The Congress could instead have accomplished the exact same thing by an ACTUAL spending program, providing subsidy to the same set of eligible individuals for doing the exact same activity.  So it really does not make much sense to say you want to cut spending and not raise taxes, because eliminating one of those tax breaks is really the same as eliminating an equivalent spending program.

Fourth, a Federal “mandate” might require a certain kind of spending by a firm.  To take a simple example, suppose some safety regulation requires construction firms to provide a hard hat to all workers.  That’s really equivalent to a tax on that firm, equal to the amount they have to spend on hard hats, where the revenue of that “tax” is spend by government on the provision of hard hats.  But then the problem is that mandates are so pervasive.  Some ‘true’ measure of the size of government would be HUGE, if we counted the dollar cost of all mandates as a “tax”, as if it were in the government budget.

Proposed GASB Pension Discounting Standards: Even Worse than Before?

Filed Under (Finance, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Oct 2, 2011

I have written on this blog before about the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) rules that allow public pension plans to discount their liabilities using the expected return on plan assets.  This is no small technical matter … discounting in this way has the effect of dramatically understating the true economic value of the unfunded liabilities of public pension liabilities.  This single accounting issue may understate the magnitude of the public pension funding problem by trillions of dollars!

GASB has issued proposed new standards and are in the process of accepting comments from the public.  I submitted my comments last week, and thought I would post a few excerpts here.

“As members of the GASB Board may already know, I have been critical of existing GASB guidelines for the computation of public pension liabilities.  I have a paper in the May 2009 American Economic Review (co-authored with David Wilcox of the Federal Reserve Board) in which we explain the basic economic rationale for the appropriate choice of a discount rate.  Economic and financial theory is very clear that the choice of a discount rate depends on the risk of the cash flows being discounted

This is true regardless of whether those cash flows are positive or negative, and whether they are being generated by public institutions, private institutions, or individuals.  There is absolutely no economic or financial basis for discounting one set of cash flows based on the risk of a completely different set of cash flows.  In other words, there is no logic whatsoever for discounting pension liabilities based on the risk of the pension plan assets

A simple analogy illustrates this point.  Suppose that at 9 a.m. on January 1, I borrow $100,000 for one year from a bank at an interest rate of 5 percent.  I immediately invest the full amount in a diversified portfolio of risky assets (such as stocks and bonds) that has an “expected return” of 8 percent.  By the time I have completed this transaction at 9:05 a.m. on January 1, how much do I owe the bank?  Naturally, I still owe them $100,000 (ignoring the 5 minutes’ worth of interest).  At this point, I have not changed by net worth at all.  All I have changed is my risk exposure. 

Suppose, however, that I follow GASB-like accounting rules to calculate my net worth.  Because the expected return on my portfolio is 8 percent, I can use this to discount the $105,000 (principal plus 5 percent interest) that I will owe in one year (December 31).  By this calculation, I would now only value the future liability as $97,222.22 (=$105,000 / 1.08), making it appear as if I have created $2,777.78 of wealth out of thin air.    

Of course, if I tried to tell my lender at 9:05 a.m. on January 1 – just 5 minutes after closing the loan – that they should allow me to give them $97,222.22 and cancel my $100,000 debt, they would look at me with great puzzlement!  And for good reason – I owe them $100,000 now, or $105,000 in one year, regardless of what I do with the funds in the interim!  The transaction just described is absurd from the financial perspective.  But as illogical as it seems, this approach closely mirrors the approach that has been taken by GASB in the past and that is still embedded in the proposed new public pension accounting guidelines.

The fundamental problem is that the use of “expected returns” as a discount rate is a largely a meaningless concept unless it is also accompanied by a discussion of, and accounting for, the accompanying risk.  

The most straightforward way to do this is to discount pension liabilities based on the risk characteristics of the pension cash flows.  For example, for the accumulated pension obligation (ABO) for a public pension in a state with strong constitutional guarantees against the impairment of retirement benefits, it would be appropriate to use a rate close to the risk-free rate.  In other cases – such as states where pension benefits can be easily changed by the legislature and where the likelihood of change is correlated with broader economic activity – a higher discount rate should be used.  In either case, what must determine the discount rate is the risk profile of the liabilities and NOT the expected return on plan assets.

In the exposure draft for the new rules, GASB seeks to replace the “expected return on plan assets” discount rate with a “blended rate.”  This blended rate is a combination of the expected return on plan assets for the funded portion of the liability and a muni-bond index for the unfunded portion.  Unfortunately, there is no theoretically coherent rationale for the proposed approach.  Indeed, though this approach could be viewed by some as a “compromise,” the result produces an even less coherent outcome than existing policy. 

There are several fatal flaws to the proposed approach, including:

1. There is no clear question to which the proposed measure is the right answer.  Indeed, it is difficult to think of any outcome of interest that is meaningfully described by the output of a cash flow discounting exercise that uses the blended rate as described in the proposed rules.

2. Funded status is not a sufficient measure of the risk of pension liabilities.  To be sure, it may be one such factor – at least insofar as one believes that participants in underfunded pensions are more likely to experience future benefit reductions – but it is far from a sufficient statistic.  Therefore, it is an insufficient basis on which to evaluate the risk of the liabilities. 

3. Even if funded status were a sufficient measure of risk (which it is not), the proposed GASB rules have blended the discount rates in the wrong proportions.  If funded benefits are less risky than unfunded benefits, then the funded benefits should be discounted at a lower rate, and the unfunded ones that should be discounted at a higher rate.  The proposed GASB rules turn this logic on its head, and the result is inconsistent with accepted procedures for risk adjustment.

 4. Even if one wished to calculated a blended rate to account for differential risk based on funding status, the “expected return on plan assets” is not the right rate to use for the “risky” portion of benefits — unless the risk of the liabilities just so happens to correspond exactly to the risk of the asset portfolio, which is highly unlikely.  For example, if  liabilities are discounted using the expected return on a 60/40 equity/bond portfolio, this is equivalent to saying that the distribution of benefit payments to DB pension participants is just as risky as investing in a 60/40 portfolio.  I suspect that few DB plan sponsors intend for their plans to be so risky, and fewer participants believe that their public pension is intended to be so uncertain.

 5. The proposed rules provide an unattractive and dangerous incentive for plan sponsors to take on more investment risk than is optimal.  If plan sponsors invest in a risker portfolio, they will then be able to “justify” a higher expected return under GASB rules.  Indeed when they are permitted to use a higher expected return, they can show a larger share of their liabilities as being “funded.”  This, in turn, also reduces the fraction of their liabilities that will then be discounted using the muni-bond index.  In short, public pensions may be tempted to invest in a riskier asset portfolio in an attempt to shrink the reported size of their unfunded liabilities.    

6. There is a good conceptual argument for using state or municipality’s bond returns as a discount rate for a public entity’s pension liabilities, at least to the extent that pension obligations and bond obligations bear comparable credit risk.  However, this rate should reflect the risk of that particular state or municipality, rather than some aggregate index.  More generally, different states and municipalities should use different discount rates when the risks of their pension obligations differ.      

Because of these and other flaws, I believe it would be a mistake to adopt GASB’s the new proposed discounting rules.  Instead, GASB should adopt standards that based discount rates on the risk of the liabilities.”


An Amusing Analysis of the Pension Discount Rate Controversty from a Nobel Laureate in Economics

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Aug 22, 2011

Readers of this blog know that I have written several posts over the past 2 years about the mis-use of “expected returns” as a discount rate for public pension liabilities.  It turns out, this issue even has risen to the attention of Bill Sharpe, Stanford Professor and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics for his contributions to financial economics.   Don’t worry – this is not a difficult technical piece.  It is a cartoon – and I highly recommend it.  You can watch it by clicking here.   It shows the absurdity of acting like future liabilities are smaller just because the assets are invested in a diversified portfolio.  Enjoy!

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.

Misleading Accounting and Illinois’ Pension Perils

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, Uncategorized) by Jeffrey Brown on May 3, 2010

My good friend Douglas Elliott, who is now a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, just issued a new paper “The Financial Crisis’ Effects on the Alternatives for Public Pensions. The paper is yet one more in a growing chorus of voices pointing out the significant fiscal woes facing our state and local pensions in the U.S.  And, as I have pointed out before, Illinois is the poster-child for everything that is wrong with the funding status of our public pensions.  

After reviewing the net losses on pension assets, Doug makes the following simple but astute observation:

“The situation is even worse than those figures show on the surface, because pension funds are essentially walking on a treadmill. They need to earn an expected return each year in order to stay standing in place, since the value in today’s dollars of the pensions they have promised to pay goes up each year as those payouts come closer in time. The situation is analogous to inflation. The public pension funds may have lost 15% over two years on a “nominal” basis, but, if their target return was 8% a year , they lost 31% compared to their targeted level of investment value, excluding the effects of contributions and pension payments.”

I have previously noted in this blog that the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) allows public pensions to discount future liabilities using the expected return on plan assets.  This approach has no basis whatsoever in financial market theory – indeed, I have yet to meet anyone with a PhD in economics or finance who believes such an approach is correct or sensible.  Actuaries and plan administrators often defend it, but when you dig below the surface, their defense is often rooted in the political or P.R. ramifications of reporting the true nature of the liabilities, rather than in any good economic reasoning.

Let’s bring this home to Illinois.  Specifically, let’s bring this home to the State Universities Retirement System, or SURS.

According to the SURS Investment Update (see page 3 here), the average annual return on the SURS Total Fund over the 10 years ending February 2010 was dismal 3.4%.  But SURS, in accordance with GASB, uses an expected return on assets that is more than double this amount.  Even worse, SURS credits participants in the old Money Purchase option with an investment return that is far greater than this.  Doing so amounts to an implicit transfer from Illinois taxpayers to Illinois pensioners that is above-and-beyond the standard pension formula. 

As we discuss pension reform in Illinois and other states, here are three related points that are worth considering:

  1. We should start with truth in accounting.  Stop hiding behind high discount rates and let’s at least define the size of the problem honestly.  A starting point would be disclosing the size of the public pension liabilities discounted using something more akin to a risk-free rate.  (See here for discussion).
  2. Let’s stop pretending that we can achieve higher returns without taking on higher risk.
  3. Let’s stop making irrevocable transfers from taxpayers to pension participants on the basis of “average” or “expected” returns.  In SURS, that means bringing the Effective Rate of Interest way, way down from historical levels.   

An Idea for Safeguarding Pensioners and Taxpayers

Filed Under (Retirement Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Dec 10, 2009

In at least one previous post, as well as in other research papers and articles, I have discussed the enormous problems facing the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), the government corporation that insures private defined benefit pension plans.  This week, a very talented MBA student at Illinois – Gagan Bhatia – reminded me of a terrific idea that would go a very long way toward providing plan sponsors with economically appropriate incentives for funding their plans.  Right now, plan sponsors lack appropriate and sufficient incentives to fully fund their plan or to choose a portfolio that immunizes the plan funding from market risk.  Sure, the government imposes funding requirements, but they have proven woefully inadequate.

In fairness, while Gagan Bhatia came up with this idea on his own and independently, it is an idea that has been out there, including in some work by Doug Elliot of the Center on Federal Financial Institutions.  Regardless of who gets credit, I think it is a terrific idea.

In a nutshell, the idea is to increase the seniority of pension claims in the event of a bankruptcy.  When a company files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the company’s creditors and claimants fall into different pools as per their priority over the company’s assets. PBGC’s obligations fall into the Unsecured Creditors pool which are paid after the Secured Creditors.   

Under this proposal, the PBGC would be moved up the line and be considered a senior, secured claim.  In essence, it would allow the PBGC to get paid first (or at least earlier than under current law) from any assets that the plan sponsor has remaining.

Why does this help?  Currently, creditors have insufficient incentive to consider the funding status of a firm’s pension plan when the firm is issuing debt.  If creditors knew that the PBGC’s claim on the firm’s assets was senior to that of the creditors, then creditors and potential creditors would become powerful enforcers of economically appropriate funding behavior.  Plan sponsors that failed to adequately fund their pension or plan sponsors who failed to engage in asset-liability matching would be considered – appropriately – to be a higher credit risk.  Thus, the firm would have to pay more to borrow.  Firms that funded their pensions and invested them in a manner that mitigated future funding risk would benefit from lower borrowing rates. 

In essence, this approach would harness market forces to achieve a worthwhile public policy goal.  Along the way, both pensioners and taxpayers would benefit. 




Why the Illinois Pension Funding Hole is Even Deeper than You Think

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Oct 13, 2009

It is well-known that Illinois has one of the worst track records of funding its public pension plans of any state in the nation.  What is less well-known is that the problem is far, far worse than the official statistics would indicate: indeed, the extent of under-funding may be 2.5 times larger than what is typically reported!


To be clear, this is not because anyone in Illinois state government is doing anything unethical – those responsible for calculating the pension liabilities are presumably doing so in accordance with Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) procedures.  Even so, there is near unanimity among economists (and yes, unanimity among economists is rare) that GASB rules themselves are deeply misguided. 

This is a complex topic, but I am going to over-simplify for brevity’s sake.  As noted in at least two prior posts, the Illinois state constitution provides a rock-solid guarantee that pension benefits will not be reduced or impaired in any way.  That makes the benefits that participants have accrued virtually risk-free.  It also means that it makes the liability to the State of Illinois risk-free.


Simple (and also advanced) finance theory is unambiguously clear that the appropriate way to discount a risk-free stream of cash flows is to use a risk-free interest rate.  While there is not a perfect risk-free asset available for this purpose, municipal bonds and U.S. treasury securities offer reasonable proxies.  (I have written on this subject in more depth in a paper with David Wilcox published in the American Economic Review, and I will simply refer readers there for a more in-depth discussion).


Instead of using this clear and rigorously grounded approach, GASB allows public pension plans to discount their liabilities using the expected rate of return on plan assets. There is not a shred of logic to this as an approach for valuing liabilities unless one believes that the liabilities share the exact same risk characteristics as the portfolio in which one is investing (and that is certainly not the case in Illinois.  We have riskless liabilities but invest in diversified portfolios of risky assets).


How big of a difference does this make?  A relatively new paper by Robert Novy-Marx (University of Chicago) and Joshua Rauh (Northwestern University) estimates the size of the liabilities when calculated using appropriate discount rates.  (Read their paper here) What do they find?


In 2008, the four large public pension plans in Illinois had combined assets of $65.7 billion.  The combined liabilities of these four plans (calculated under flawed GASB rules) were $151.1 billion, for a shortfall of $85.4 billion.  

If one uses a more theoretically appropriate rate on treasury yields, the present value of the liabilities is $284.8 billion, for a shortfall of $219.1 billion!  That is more than 2.5 times greater than the official statistics indicate!


What do these numbers really mean?  If the state of Illinois wanted to be certain it had enough money set aside today so that it could meet all public pension benefit obligations that have already been accrued, it would need to set aside an additional $219.1 billion.  For perspective, that is about 1/3 of Illinois GDP, about 1/3 of state revenues, and about four times the outstanding state debt.   

Any amount less than this means that the state would have invest in riskier assets in order to fund the benefits, a strategy that might work … or might make the problem worse. 

We’ve all heard to old adage that the first thing to do when you find yourself in a deep hole is to stop digging.  In this case, we also need to stop denying just how deep the hole is. 

The Real Risk to Illinois Public Pension Participants: Retiree Health Care

Filed Under (Health Care, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Oct 6, 2009

I’ve noted in prior postings that public pensioners in Illinois have very little to worry about with regard to their pension benefits.  But now the bad news – they do have reason to be concerned about retiree health insurance.


As I stated in a previous post, Article XIII, Section 5 of the Illinois state constitution protects pension benefits.  Specifically, it states:


“Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”


That is about as strong of a guarantee as anyone could hope for in this day and age.  Indeed, Social Security offers no such guarantees.  The Supreme Court of the United States has previously (in 1960) ruled that individuals have no inherent “right” to their Social Security benefits (see Fleming v. Nestor).  Congress can alter them at anytime. 


But, the above guarantee is limited to the benefits from the retirement system, such as the Statue Universities Retirement System (SURS) or the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS).  As much as participants might hope that retiree health insurance is a benefit of the retirement system, I (and, more importantly, most of the lawyers to whom I have posed this question) don’t think this argument would stand much of a chance in the courts. 


Of course, even in states that do not have explicit constitutional guarantees, retirement benefits are often protected by a contract clause.  And, yes, Illinois has one of those too.  Specifically, the Illinois constitution states:


“No ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts or making an irrevocable grant of special privileges or immunities, shall be passed.”


I have asked a few knowledgeable legal experts about whether this would apply in the case of retiree health care.  The responses are typically consistent – that while contract impairment provisions are sometimes successful with regard to the terms of a retirement system contract, nobody could point to a case where this provision was successfully applied to benefits under an employment contract because employment contracts, by their nature, are temporary.  If you doubt this, just consider the fact that the University of Illinois changed our contracts for the current year to allow the University to require involuntary, unpaid furloughs!


Of course, I am an economist, not a lawyer – and I am certainly no judge.  So this is not to say that retired Illinois public servants don’t have a case worthy of court if the state were to eliminate or substantially reduce their retiree health care benefits.  As has been pointed out to me by others, such a case is certainly likely to be given “an attentive listen” by the courts.  But whether that translates into any actual protection of benefits is anybody’s guess.  If I were a betting man (I’m not), then I would best against it.


So should retirees panic?  Of course not.  We should never forget that we live in a democracy, and most politicians know that the surest way to lose the next election is to do something that makes a large voting bloc – especially seniors – angry, motivated and mobilized.  Politically, I doubt the state will do anything so drastic as to eliminate retiree health benefits for existing retirees or those close to retirement.  But even if drastic changes are out, the reality of the dire long-run budget picture in Illinois would seem to dictate that retiree health care will be an area that legislators look to for future savings. 


So, I would much rather that retired public servants enjoy their retirement worry-free.  But for those who want something to worry about, then retiree health benefits are worth a lot more worry than pension benefits.

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.