The media has fallen in love with the ongoing controversy over public pensions. In the last few weeks, article after article has appeared in major print and electronic media mostly discussing how poorly funded the majority of public pension funds are and placing blame everywhere they can. This is not to say that there are not problems and it's also not to say that there's not plenty of blame to go around, but as in most any controversy, there's more than one side to this issue.
Before delving into it, let me provide some background for those who may not be particularly familiar with public pensions.
Virtually all public pension plans are traditional defined benefit (DB) pension plans in which most, if not all, of the benefit is provided through contributions from the sponsoring governmental entity (some do require significant participant contributions in order to get that benefit). The benefit is typically related to final year's (or the average of the last three or five years) compensation. As a result, spikes in compensation in the final year or years of a career produce much larger pensions. And, when overtime pay is included in those amounts, workers are smart enough to know that their pensions can easily be boosted by getting as much overtime as possible.
As I said, most of these pensions are funded largely through contributions from the governmental entities. Where do those contributions come from? Well, for most of those entities, the very large majority of their budgets come from tax dollars. So, if the recommended, or even legally mandated contributions get too large, there are only two choices -- ignore those requirements or raise taxes (of course in most jurisdictions, future benefits can be reduced prospectively, but that's a different story for a different day).
The current debate centers on public plans in California. What we have recently learned is that the California Public Employers Retirement System (CalPers) values pension liabilities in two ways -- one using what the New York Times referred to as the actuarial value and another referring to it as a market value.
The next two paragraphs briefly discuss a rationale for each basis. For the sake of both simplicity and brevity, both are oversimplified and should not be taken as a precise rationale for either.
The actuarial value discounts obligations using a discount rate at the expected long-term rate of return on plan assets. Proponents argue that this is correct because plans are expected to have a degree of permanence and as assets are invested for the long haul, the obligations that they support should be discounted on that same basis.
Market value discounts obligations using a current settlement rate; roughly speaking, that is the rate at which you could go out to the insurance market to settle those obligations. Proponents argue that in an efficient market, there is no risk premium in investments and therefore, this is the only appropriate basis on which to discount.
What we have read about in the news is that governments that thought that the plans that they sponsor were well funded and that wanted to pull out of the system are learning that to do so will cost them money that they will likely never have.
So, which method is correct? I suppose I could argue that it depends upon which media piece you read. You see, what is happening is that most of the articles have interviewed experts (or self-proclaimed experts) on only one side of the debate. So, they present that side.
The reality is that neither side is correct. It's not as simple a question as the strong proponents on either side would have you believe.
So, here's my take (you knew I would get to it eventually).
Public plan trustees need to understand the true costs of the plans they sponsor. On average, when an employee retires, their pension should be fully funded. This is often not happening. In years when investment returns are good, they use them to reduce contribution requirements. In years when investment returns are poor, they say they can't afford to make the appropriate contributions. It doesn't take an experienced actuary to tell you this is a problem.
I would urge that governments embark on prudent funding policies that build up surpluses in strong years in order to pay for shortfalls in lean years. Doing so will have only minimal effect on the tax base. Studies to understand these issues should be par for the course.
I also urge the popular media to realize that this is not a one-sided issue. While it may make for a great read to tell of the sad tale of a small Citrus District pension plan that is woefully underfunded, it's a small part of the story.
Within the Conference of Consulting Actuaries (yes, I am biased, I serve on the Board of Directors), there is a Public Plans Community that regularly discusses issues such as this. For those who are interested in a view of the problem from people who understand the issues, it's an excellent read.