Over the past several months, we’ve taken a keen interest in the deteriorating condition of state and local government finances in America.
Moody’s move to downgrade the city of Chicago to junk in May put fiscal mismanagement in the national spotlight and indeed, the Illinois Supreme Court ruling that triggered the downgrade (in combination with a subsequent ruling by a Cook County court which struck down a bid to reform the city’s pensions), effectively set a precedent for other states and localities, meaning that now, solving the growing underfunded pension liability problem will be that much more difficult.
Just how big of a problem is this you ask? Well, pretty big, according to Moody’s which, as we noted last month, contends that the largest 25 public pensions are underfunded by some $2 trillion.
It’s against that backdrop that we present the following graphic and color from Goldman which together demonstrate the amount by which state and local governments would need to raise contributions to "bring plans into balance over time."
Unfunded pension liabilities have grown substantially. There are several factors behind this, led by lower than expected investment returns and insufficient contributions from state and local governments to the plans. The two issues are related. The assumed investment return is used as a discount rate to determine the present value of liabilities. The higher the discount rate, the lower the estimated liability, and the lower the periodic payment into the fund a state or local employer is expected to make. There is, of course, no clear answer about what the discount rate ought to be, though the fact that the average assumption used by private plans has continuously declined for more than a decade suggests that the rates have probably been too high and that the current average assumption of 7.7% may come down further.
Contributions have also generally been lower than necessary to stabilize or reduce unfunded liabilities because of the rules around how those unfunded liabilities are amortized. Payments into pension plans are generally meant to account for the future cost of benefits accrued during the current year, as well as catch-up payments equal to some fraction of the unfunded liability left from prior years. Many plans target payment amounts that would work off this underfunding over 30 years, though some use shorter periods. However, the amounts of these payments are often backloaded, with the result that even if the “required” payment is made in full the unfunded liability often grows.
A separate but related issue is that some states have simply declined to make even the “required” contribution, which is probably lower than it should be in any case due to the factors just noted. For example, over the last few years New Jersey has made on average only around 40% of the expected payment. New accounting rules promulgated by the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) will penalize underfunded plans with a lower discount rate, but the change is fairly minor and, in any case, affects only the accounting; it will not impose any new legal requirements to make the contributions.
If state and local governments are ultimately forced to devote more resources to these obligations, the effect on state and local spending would be noticeable. Exhibit 8 shows the states’ pension contributions, as a share of gross state product, with two potential additions. The first is the level that would be required to simply meet the “actuarially required contribution.” To bring the plans back into balance over time, further contributions would be necessary. In aggregate this would raise government pension contributions by something like $100bn per year (0.6% of GDP), lowering spending in other areas (or raising taxes) by a similar amount. In theory, OPEB costs could push this adjustment a bit higher.