Policy Documents

The Gathering Pension Storm

George Passantino and Adam Summers –
June 16, 2005

An ominous storm cloud is gathering across the horizon as American governments try to pay for the lucrative pension promises made to their employees. And these clouds are not just over a few skies. They are virtually everywhere. Government employee pension systems across the nation are in crisis.

The city of San Diego is now embroiled in its worst financial crisis ever with more than $2 billion in unfunded pensions and retiree healthcare costs. The financial mismanagement led TIME Magazine to name Mayor Dick Murphy one of the nation’s three worst mayors, and eventually resulted in Murphy’s resignation less than five months into his second term. In Illinois, taxpayers face a $35 billion pension deficit—the worst in the nation. The state of West Virginia faces a $5.5 billion pension deficit and an additional $3.3 billion in unfunded workers’ compensation liabilities—a deficit nearly three times the state’s annual $3.1 billion general fund budget. And in California, where government pension funds have become synonymous with investment activism, the California teachers’ retirement system faces a $24 billion shortfall and the state pays more than $3 billion each year to keep its retirement funds afloat.

For each government pension system in crisis, another dozen could be listed, as this is clearly a national, systemic problem. Combined, taxpayers are exposed to more than $350 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.

The recent downturn in the stock market is often blamed for these shortfalls. After all, the market suffered a sharp decline beginning in 2000. But is this a fair defense or is it an incomplete answer provided by government officials hoping to rationalize the major run-up of government debt? This report will explore that question.
While market losses certainly played a role, the declines only unveiled the weaknesses in government pension systems—weaknesses previously masked by the historic investment gains of the late 1990s. The fact that a retirement system could turn so quickly from investment nirvana to debt nightmares should give taxpayers and lawmakers cause for major concern. Moreover, blaming the market ignores the many policy decisions that have created the crisis.

At the heart of the pension crisis is a set of incentives that encourages policymakers to make decisions for which they do not have to bear the consequences. Since corporate executives, lawmakers, and union officials will not bear the costs of the benefit increases they preside over, there is no incentive for them to show fiscal restraint.

The “defined-benefit” pension plan, also referred to as the “traditional” plan, guarantees employees a pre-set benefit upon retirement that can easily be changed by lawmakers. The amount of the benefit is calculated by multiplying a fixed percentage by the number of years that the employee worked for the firm or government agency by the employee’s final compensation (or some average of the employee’s highest earnings). The employer invests money to ensure that these promises can be kept. If the investment returns do not match up, taxpayers are obligated to make up the difference. Alarmingly, once benefits are bestowed via a definedbenefit plan, the courts have ruled they cannot be taken away.

Because of this reality, taxpayers have been abused to promote political agendas that promise extravagant retirement benefits to government workers—even as the taxpayers themselves must work longer to prepare for their own retirement. Significant benefit increases, such as “3 percent at 50” plans, have proven themselves unsustainable. These excessive benefit levels and a variety of government policies have encouraged premature retirement and pension spiking, driving up costs even further. And as courts have ruled, they cannot be rescinded.

The mistake of offering greater benefits that governments cannot afford is regularly compounded by poor financial planning. The lack of long-term averaging of investment returns leaves governments susceptible to volatile swings in pension contribution payments. The issuance of pension obligation bonds is little more than an expensive gamble that will saddle taxpayers for years to come. And the very assumptions on which these pension promises are theoretically built can easily be manipulated to the taxpayers’ demise. For instance, if a pension fund assumes an overly generous rate of return on its investments or understates the full actuarial costs of benefits, the taxpayers are exposed to a significantly greater risk.

Over the past several decades, the private sector has rapidly shifted away from defined-benefit plans and toward defined-contribution plans for good reason—traditional plans are expensive, unpredictable, and unsustainable in the long run.

The government has been slow to follow the private sector’s lead. But this is not only a reasonable course of action for governments—it also represents significant benefits to workers too.

As the name implies, the main difference between defined-contribution pension plans and defined-benefit plans is that defined-contribution plans spell out the level of contributions employers and employees will make to the retirement system—not the level of benefit they will receive at retirement. Instead, the level of benefit the employee receives upon retirement depends on the performance of his or her investment portfolio, as well as his or her level of participation. Employees bear the risk of their investments but also get to maintain control of these investments.

One of the greatest benefits of a defined-contribution plan, from a government employer’s perspective, is that it provides a great deal of stability since contribution levels are known in advance and do not change much from year to year. This is a sharp contrast to the volatility in contribution levels experienced under defined-benefit plans.

While the stability/predictability argument offers one of the strongest practical benefits of definedcontribution plans, perhaps the greatest moral benefit is that it allows employees the freedom to manage their own retirement accounts and invest their own money as they see fit.

Defined-contribution participants have the freedom to invest their money as they choose and the critical ability to take that entire investment with them from job to job—something defined-benefit plans lack. This portability is extremely appealing to employees in an age where the average worker switches jobs numerous times during his or her career.

Moreover, risk levels and investment strategies change with age and defined-benefit plans do not allow for that. Defined-contribution plans allow employees to choose more aggressive investments when they are young and switch to more conservative investments as they approach retirement.

Under a defined-contribution plan, lawmakers can still make very appealing retirement packages, including attractive matching options. The defined-contribution plan structure simply requires that these costs be recognized and dealt with in the current year as one of the government’s many priorities. Definedcontribution plans prevent lawmakers from creating actuarial liabilities by pushing hidden costs off into the future. This should be reason enough for taxpayers to embrace such a reform.

In addition, there are numerous other steps governments must take to address the pension deficit problem and improve overall financial management of the state to ensure that the current pension crisis does not have a spillover effect. This study presents opportunities for reform within the current pension fund environment.

It is time that governments learn what the private sector concluded decades ago: that defined-benefit plans, typified by exorbitant benefit levels, are simply unsustainable. They should adopt the private-sector model and switch to defined-contribution systems for all future government workers to ensure more responsible fiscal management that rightly places a focus on providing high quality services. While few governments have made the leap, a number are moving in that direction.

This report explores that shift and offers new insights on how it can benefit taxpayers, government agencies, and government employees alike.