A lot of ink has been spilled over the assertions of Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, on the level of funding in Detroit’s pensions (Okay, I might be the leader of that pack). The issue has bearing on the benefits that Detroit’s retirees will receive, as well as how much cash-flow the city will have to service its bonds and other debts. The pension question is a major point in Detroit’s bankruptcy negotiations. Reuters described the situation like this:
There appears to be a frenzy of comments lately that public retirees receive excessive pensions in the current economy and that they need to be reduced. Many in the media have taken a brief look at Detroit and decided that costly pensions were the cause of the city’s bankruptcy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Detroit pays a relatively modest median pension of $19,000 a year to general government retirees and $30,000 to police and fire retirees. Detroit’s pension system was funded at 82 percent in 2011 (and at 99 percent for its police and fire retirement system). That is higher than the national median of 74 percent. But public benefits make easy targets for critics. Let’s take a tour of pensions in bankruptcy through the years.
The New York Times recently ran a piece discussing how new pension valuation methods, put in place by the Government Accounting Standards Board, were far superior to the historical methods of valuing unfunded pension liabilities. They were even endorsed by some academic commentators. I have not heard of any state or local plan using these new methods to increase the funding of their pensions. Governments are not forced to use them, rather only to do the calculations and show the results on their balance sheets. Despite the revisions, governments will likely continue to use the averages of their historical rates of return on their pension investments to make decisions about the size of their annual contributions to their pension funds.
Joshua Pugh, a writer and contributor to the Detroit News Politics Blog, has written about a topic that is a big one among muniland professionals. That is the question of whether Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr inflated pension liabilities to make the city’s debt appear larger, allowing for more aggressive haircuts for bondholders and pension holders. Pugh points out a Bloomberg Businessweek piece on his personal website:
It’s mind-boggling how much of the national economy is held up by state and local governments. From the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta:
There is a lot of debate in muniland about how state and local governments should calculate pension liabilities. But I have not heard much discussion about the asset side of the pension story. It is a generally-accepted assumption that investment earnings are about 60 percent of the annual increase in pension funds. But what about the other 40 percent that represents the contributions made by governments and employees? We’re often told that state and local governments are under-funding their pensions. How much are they really contributing?
Chicago has nearly identical fiscal challenges to its home state of Illinois: pension underfunding, massive school deficits and recurring deficits. But unlike the state, many of the decisions that need to be made in Chicago are out of the control of leaders, especially related to pensions. These decisions are made in the state legislature. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel seems to have had little success lobbying for the city’s interest. Chicago political writer Greg Hinz described it in Crain’s Chicago Business last year:
As the debate continues over public pension funding levels, we have this headline from the Financial Times this week: “US States need $980 billion to fill pension gap, says Moody’s.” This is not exactly news. A number of studies, including ones from the Pew Trust and the Public Fund Survey, have identified a massive shortfall for public pension funds. In fact, the Pew Trust said that the shortfall in 2010 was $1.38 trillion, so perhaps we should be applauding state legislatures for improving the gap since then.
Two California cities, Pacific Grove and Canyon Lake, are trying to end their participation in CalPERS – the statewide public pension plan. The communities are unable to bear the cost increases in their retirement systems, which they are unable to control today. Now we hear news of another community and a non-profit group on the other side of the country that are trying to untangle themselves from established pension plans.