MuniLand

Detroit’s pension math

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:

Detroit’s largest unsecured creditors are its two pension funds, which have claims totaling nearly $3.5 billion in unfunded liabilities, according to a city estimate included in a bankruptcy filing. Pension funds and unions dispute the estimate, claiming Orr has overstated the underfunding.

Orr has said he based the city estimate on ‘more realistic assumptions’ than previously used. His figure is five times more than the $644 million gap the pension funds reported based on 2011 actuarial valuations.

Orr has said many times that Detroit’s two pension funds have overstated their funding levels and used inappropriate assumptions in their valuations. But guess what? The state of Michigan uses almost identical assumptions as Detroit. Michigan’s Employee Retirement System is funded at a 10 percent lower level than Detroit’s General Retirement System (the lesser funded of the two systems).

Orr’s hired actuary, Milliman, has recommended the use of a 6.3-6.5 percent return rate. This varies from the 7.9-8.0 percent rate that is used by Detroit and the State of Michigan. Using the lower rate inflates the unfunded liabilities that Detroit’s pensions face. But curiously, in an advisory to its corporate pension clients, Milliman cites a 7.5 percent rate for estimating median investment returns. It would be interesting to hear Milliman’s explanation for this discrepancy.

The real history of public pensions in bankruptcy

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.

Attorneys Kenneth E. Noble and Kevin M. Baum describe Prichard, Alabama:

Prichard, Alabama, which experienced a population decline of approximately 50 percent over the past 50 years, filed for bankruptcy in 1999 after it was unable to pay approximately $3.9 million in delinquent bills. In addition to the unpaid bills, Prichard also admitted to not making payments to its employees’ pension funds and, even though the city had withheld taxes from employees’ paychecks, the city failed to submit such withholdings to the state and federal governments.

While in bankruptcy, the city successfully revised its budget so that it no longer operated at a deficit. However, Prichard was still unable to meet its pension obligations. In 2009, Prichard filed for bankruptcy for the second time in order to stay a pending suit brought by its pensioners after it failed to make pension payments for six months. In its chapter 9 petition, the city claimed that during the previous year it had operated a $600,000 deficit on its $10.7 million budget. Further, Prichard had failed to make a $16.5 million payment to its pension fund under its previous plan of adjustment.

How ratings agencies will approach pension liabilities

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.

Here is the rationale that pension funds have used for decades, according to the Times:

Much of the theoretical argument for retaining current methods is based on the belief that states and cities, unlike companies, cannot go out of business. That means public pension systems have an infinite investment horizon and can pull out of down markets if given enough time.

Has Detroit over-inflated its pension liabilities?

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:

How much does the city owe? Orr says Detroit has nearly $20 billion in debt and long-term obligations. Pension funds and bondholders have said in the past he’s inflating the numbers. Why would Orr do that? Because the more dire the city’s finances seem, the more aggressive he can be in pushing for concessions. Also, to be eligible for bankruptcy protection, the city must prove that it’s insolvent, meaning it has no way to pay its debts.

In 2004 and 2005, Detroit issued two sets of pension obligation bonds (Certificates of Participation) to fully fund the city’s pensions with an additional $1.5 billion. This is why, when I started looking at Detroit about 18 months ago, the pensions were surprisingly well-funded. Those pension bonds have now been lumped with general obligation bond debt, pension shortfalls (unfunded liabilities) and retiree health care as unsecured debt, which Orr intends to haircut.

Muniland spends 12 percent of U.S. GDP, but not on creating jobs

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:

State and local governments together spend more on directly consumed public goods and services (excluding grants and national defense) than the federal government does, said Tracy Gordon, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. The economic impact of that spending is significant—state and local governments account for approximately $1.8 trillion, or about 12 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, she added.

The Fed chart above shows data for the southeast states, but it mirrors national trends. State and local governments are not increasing employment. What is increasing is the amount of employee wages that is going to benefits. The Bureau of Labor Statistics wrote:

Pensions: Looking at the big picture

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?

The U.S. Census collects this data about state and local government pension plans on a delayed basis. The most recent is for 2011. I thought it might be a good exercise to compare 2011 data with 2008 data. With the financial crash, 2008 was a tough year for public pensions.

The data shows everything moving in the right direction, including increased contributions made by governments and employees. In 2011, combined investment earnings and contributions of $616 billion far outstripped the pension payment outflow of $231 billion.

Chicago’s fiscal headache

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:

In a rare mayoral visit to Springfield, Rahm Emanuel today told lawmakers that they need to act now on pension reform for government workers, and he laid out some specifics as to what he wants.

Testifying before a House committee, Mr. Emanuel called for a 10-year holiday on paying cost-of-living increases in Chicago’s four pension funds and other government retirement systems around the state. That freeze would apply to both current workers and those who already have retired.

Moody’s flawed estimate on public pension liabilities

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.

The shortfall numbers in these studies, to put it simply, are all over the place. There are many variables that go into these models, but the main factor that causes variation is the expected rate of return on the assets in the plans. The official assumed return on the assets that are held in trust to pay pension liabilities is 8 percent, according to the Public Fund Survey. Fiddling with this projected rate of return can cause swings in the amount of unfunded liabilities. The Moody’s study uses an unconventional assumption. According to the Adjustments to state pension liabilities document:

Accrued actuarial liabilities will be adjusted based on a high-grade long-term taxable bond index discount rate as of the date of valuation (of the fund).

Municipalities try to throw off pension plans

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.

Ted Nesi, reporting for WPRI, details Coventry, Rhode Island officials who are trying to walk away from a non-teacher school worker pension plan:

Elected officials in Coventry have taken an apparently unprecedented step by washing their hands of responsibility for one of their employee pension plans, saying taxpayers have no obligation to come up with enough money to stop it from running out of cash within 12 years.

Pensions, retiree health costs and municipal debt

Bloomberg Link recently hosted a panel on the costs of healthcare for public retirees, pensions and public debt. Panel members included Richard Ravitch, who helped manage the New York City fiscal crisis in the 1970s when the bond market stopped lending to the city, and Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania. These men are two of muniland’s strongest war horses who have fought big governance battles. Bloomberg provided background for the discussion:

These so-called OPEB promises made by the 15 biggest cities alone total $115 billion, with an average burden of $2,300 for every man, woman and child, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. How will local governments manage to make good on their pledges without becoming insolvent? Will we see governments reduce benefits and raise their cost for current workers, as has been the case in several cities and states?

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