For months, if not years, we've warned that conflicted politicians and union bosses pursue a perverse set of goals in their management of pension funds, most of which have nothing to do with the application of sound financial principles. Here's how we summarized the situation back in the summer (see "An Unsolvable Math Problem: Public Pensions Are Underfunded By As Much As $8 Trillion"):
Defined Benefit Pension Plans are, in many cases, a ponzi scheme. Current assets are used to pay current claims in full in spite of insufficient funding to pay future liabilities... classic Ponzi. But unlike wall street and corporate ponzi schemes no one goes to jail here because the establishment is complicit. Everyone from government officials to union bosses are incentivized to maintain the status quo...public employees get to sleep better at night thinking they have a "retirement plan," public legislators get to be re-elected by union membership while pretending their states are solvent and union bosses get to keep their jobs while hiding the truth from employees.
Then, just a couple of weeks ago, CalPERS confirmed our fears when they chose to lower their discount rate by only 50bps to 7%, nearly a full point above their 6.2% projected annual returns over the next decade. Even more startling was the open admission from Richard Costigan, chairman of the CalPERS finance committee, that the decision was motivated by the board's desire to maintain the ponzi, saying: "this is just a start...municipalities and other government agencies need some breathing room before they absorb the impact."
Apparently we're not the only ones growing increasingly concerned about the lack of financial discipline within these massive pension funds. Lawrence Person's BattleSwarm Blog recently interviewed the Director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, James Quintero, who noted that many of the nation's largest pensions are relying on "fuzzy math to make them work, or at least give the appearance of working."
When it comes to Texas’ public retirement systems, one of my greatest concerns is that there are other ticking time-bombs, like the DPFP, out there getting ready to explode. It’s not just Dallas’ pension plan that’s taken on excessive risk to chase high yield in a low-yield environment.
Setting aside the issue of risk for a moment, the DPFP, like most other public retirement systems around the state, suffers from a fundamental design flaw. That is, it’s based on the defined benefit (DB) system, which guarantees retirees a lifetime of monthly income irrespective of whether the pension fund has the money to make good on its promises or not. This kind of system is akin to an entitlement program, warts and all, and is very much at the heart of pension crises brewing in Texas and across the country.
One of the biggest problems with DB plans is that they rely on a lot of fuzzy math to make them work, or at least give the appearance of working. Take the issue of investment returns, for example. Many systems assume an overly optimistic rate of return when estimating a fund’s future earnings. Baking in these rosy projections is, among other things, a way to understate a plan’s pension debt.
The common element in most, if not all, of these systemic failures is the defined benefit pension plan. Because of the political element as well as the inclusion of inaccurate investment assumptions in the DB model, these plans are almost destined to fail, threatening the taxpayers who support it and the retirees who rely on it. And sadly, that’s what we’re witnessing now across the nation.
Unfortunately, as Quinterro points out, when all those bad assumptions about future returns finally prove to be wildly optimistic it will be taxpayers left holding the bag.
Let me preface this by saying that I’m not a lawyer nor do I ever intend to be one. However, Article XVI, Section 66 of the Texas Constitution plainly states that non-statewide retirement systems, like DPFP, and political subdivisions, like the city of Dallas, “are jointly responsible for ensuring that benefits under this section are not reduced or otherwise impaired” for vested employees. Given that, it’s hard to see how the city of Dallas—or better yet, the Dallas taxpayer—isn’t obligated in some major way when their local retirement system reaches the point of no return, which may be a lot closer than people think given all the lump-sum withdrawals of late.
Asked whether other large pensions in Texas were as bad off as the Dallas Police and Fire Pension, Quinterro said simply, "If you’re a taxpayer or property owner in one of Texas’ major cities, I’d be concerned."
A quick review of where some of Texas' largest pensions stand, after one of the biggest bull market runs in history, helps explain Quinterro's pessimism:
While "fuzzy math" can help these ponzi schemes elude the inevitable for a very long time, at some point they will eventually collapse. And, with $6-8 trillion in outstanding liabilities at U.S. public pensions alone, we suspect the consequences of that collapse will not be pleasant.