December 5, 2013

A Reality Check on the Pension Crisis

Eileen Norcross

Senior Research Fellow
Summary

Judge Steven Rhodes’ ruling that Detroit may reduce pensions under Chapter 9 bankruptcy now means that all parties must face a hard mathematical reality with consequences for real people: The city cannot afford to pay the benefits it has promised. Detroit’s unfunded pension liabilities are immense, at over $9 billion on a risk-free (guaranteed-to-be-paid) basis. Unfortunately, they were valued and funded incorrectly.

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The New York Times Room for Debate posted this question:

It’s been a bad week for public workers. On Tuesday, in a ruling that has implications for other cities, a federal judge ruled that Detroit’s public employee pensions are not protected in a federal Chapter 9 bankruptcy. On that same day, the Illinois legislature passed a deal trimming retiree benefits and increasing state contributions, providing a template for other states to follow.

Amid all this, is the continuing refrain that Wall Street fat cats are responsible for “looting the pension funds.” Are government retirees being forced to pay for pension fund problems caused by bad investments? If so, what’s the solution?

Eileen Norcross provided the following response:

Judge Steven Rhodes’ ruling that Detroit may reduce pensions under Chapter 9 bankruptcy now means that all parties must face a hard mathematical reality with consequences for real people: The city cannot afford to pay the benefits it has promised.

Detroit’s unfunded pension liabilities are immense, at over $9 billion on a risk-free (guaranteed-to-be-paid) basis. Unfortunately, they were valued and funded incorrectly. For years, the city assumed it would earn 8 percent annually on plan assets, an uncertain expectation that did not match the certainty of pension payments.

Detroit’s story is a lesson for union leadership and for other cities.

This “asset-liability mismatch” means the plan took a gamble that didn’t pay off. Accounting tricks during boom years made the fund look flush giving the city the impression it could dole out "13th checks" for some employees.

Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick also engaged in “fancy financing” using pension bonds financed with interest rate swaps resulting in a $1.44 billion debt.

How does Detroit restructure public sector retirement in a “fair and equitable” manner for retirees and workers?

1. Stop the bleeding and close the defined-benefit system. Every day the defined-benefit plan is open, the liability grows.

2. Transition younger workers into a defined-contribution or private-annuity plan. They have more time to plan for retirement. Give them ownership over their retirement contributions.

3. Accurately value defined-benefit plans according to the likelihood of payment.

4. Invest the assets in a liability-matching portfolio. Do not rely on uncertain and volatile asset returns.

5. Current workers who have accrued benefits in the defined-benefit system should face higher retirement ages to collect full benefits.

6. Current retirees should bear the smallest burden. If it is necessary to trim their benefits, adjust future payments through cost of living adjustments, rather than cutting current payments.

Detroit’s story is a lesson for union leadership and for other cities. Accounting fiction and financial escapades produce the worst-case scenario for workers, retirees and residents. Toss the political rhetoric and face the real numbers before it’s too late: It’s the only way to ensure economic justice and retirement security for public-sector workers.