Total unfunded liabilities in state and local pensions have
in the last
Economics via Federal Reserve and Bloomberg
You read that
right—not doubled, tripled, or
quadrupled—quintupled. That’s nice when it
happens on a slot machine, not so nice when it’s money you owe.
You will also notice in the chart that much of that change
happened in 2008.
Why was that?
According to a 2014 Pew study, only 15 states follow policies
that have funded at least 100% of their pension needs. And that
estimate is based on the aggressive assumptions of pension funds
that they will get their predicted rate of returns (the “discount
Kentucky, for instance, has unfunded pension liabilities of $40
billion or more. This month the state budget director notified
local governments that pension
costs could jump 50–60% next year.
That’s due to a proposed reduction in the system’s assumed rate
of return from 7.5% to 6.25%—a step in the right direction but
not nearly enough.
Think about this as an investor: How can you guarantee
6–7% returns these days?
Do you know a way to guarantee yourself even
6.25% average annual returns for the next 10–20 years? Of course
you don’t. Yes, some strategies have a good shot at doing it, but
there’s no guarantee.
And if you believe Jeremy Grantham’s seven-year forecasts (I do:
His 2009 growth forecast was spot on), then those pension funds
have very little hope of getting their average 7% predicted rate
of return, at least for the next seven years.
GMO via Mauldin Economics
Now, here is the truth about pension liabilities. Let’s assume
you have $1 billion in funding today. If you assume a 7% compound
return—about the average for most pension funds—then that means
in 30 years that $1 million will have grown to $8 billion
Now, what if it’s a 4% return? Using the Rule of 72, the $1
billion grows to around $3.5 billion, or less than half the
future assets in 30 years if you assume 7%.
Remember that every dollar that is not funded today means that
somewhere between four dollars and eight dollars will not be
there in 30 years when somebody who is on a pension is expecting
to get it.
Worse, without proper funding, as the fund starts going negative,
the funding ratio actually gets worse, sending it into a death
spiral. The only
way to bring it out of the spiral is huge cuts to other needed
services or with massive tax cuts to pension benefits.
The situation is dire even in the
best-case scenario. But what if…
The State of Kentucky’s unusually frank report regarding
the state’s public pension liability sums up that state’s plight
in one chart:
State of Kentucky via Mauldin
The news for Kentucky retirees is quite dire, especially
considering what returns on investments are realistically likely
to be. But there’s a make or break point somewhere.
What if pension plans must either hit that 6% average annual
return for 2018–2028 or declare bankruptcy and lose it all?
That’s a much greater problem, and it’s a rough equivalent of
what state pension trustees have to do. Failing to generate the
target returns doesn’t reduce the liability. It just means
taxpayers must make up the difference.
But wait, it gets worse.
The graph we showed earlier stated that unfunded pension
liabilities for state and local governments were $2 trillion. But
that assumes an average 7% compound return. What if we assume 4%
Now the admitted unfunded pension liability is $4 trillion.
But what if we have a recession and the stock market goes down by
the past average of more than 40%? Now
you have an unfunded liability in the range of $7–8
We throw the words a trillion dollars around,
not realizing how much that actually is. Combined state and local
revenues for the US total around $2.6 trillion.
After the next recession (whenever that is), the unfunded pension
liabilities for state and local governments will be roughly three
times the revenue they are collecting today, and that’s before a
recession reduces their revenues.
Can you see the taxpayer stuck between a rock and a hard place?
Two immovable objects meeting? The math just doesn’t work.
We are starting to see cities filing for bankruptcy. That small
ripple will be a tsunami within 7–10 years.
It goes beyond a financial crisis. It’s a social,
Many state and local governments have actually 100% funded their
pension plans. Some states and local governments have even
What that really means is that the unfunded liabilities are more
concentrated, and they show up in unlikely places. You think
Texas is doing well? Look at some of our cities and weep.
Look, too, at other seemingly semi-prosperous cities all over the
country. Do you think the suburbs of Dallas will want to see
their taxes increased to help out the city? If you do, I may have
a bridge to sell you – unless you would rather have oceanfront
properties in Arizona.
This issue is going to set neighbor against neighbor and retirees
against taxpayers. It will become one of the most heated battles
of my lifetime. It will make the Trump-Clinton campaigns look
like a school kids’ tiddlywinks smackdown.
I was heavily involved in politics at both the national and local
levels in the 80s and 90s and much of the 2000s. Trust me, local
politics is far nastier and more
vicious. And there
is nothing more local than police and fire fighters and teachers
seeing their pensions cut because the money isn’t
there. Tax increases of up to 100% are
going to become commonplace.
But even these new revenues won’t be enough… because we will be
acting with too little, too late.
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