Some very simplistic math from Moody's helps to shed some light on just how inevitable a public pension crisis is in the United States. Analyzing a basket of 56 public plans with net liabilities of $778 billion, Moody's found that just a modest downside return scenario over the next three years (2017: +7.2%, 2018: -5.0%, 2019: 0%) would result in a 59% surge in new unfunded liabilities. Moreover, given that total unfunded public pension liabilities are roughly $5 trillion in aggregate, this implies that a simple 5% drop in assets in 2018 could trigger a devastating ~$3 trillion increase in net liabilities.
Meanwhile, Moody's found that even if the funds return 19% over the next three years then net liabilities would still increase by 15%. Per Pensions & Investments:
In its report, Moody's ran a sample of 56 plans with $778 billion in aggregate reported net pension liabilities through three different investment return scenarios. Due to reporting lags, most 2019 pension results appear in governments' 2020 financial reporting, Moody's noted. The plans had $1.977 trillion in trillion assets.
Under the first scenario with a cumulative investment return of 25% for 2017-'19, aggregate net pension liabilities for the 56 plans fell by just 1%. Under the second scenario with a cumulative investment return of 19% for 2017-2019, net pension liabilities rose by 15%. Under the third scenario with a 7.2% return in 2017, -5% return in 2018 and zero return in 2019, net pension liabilities rose by 59%.
In 2016, the 56 plans returned roughly 1% on average and would have needed collective returns of 10.7% to prevent reported net pension liabilities from growing.
Of course, as we pointed out before, the problem is that the pending doom surrounding these massive public pension obligations often get clouded over by complicated actuarial math with a plan's funded status heavily influenced by discount rates applied to future liability streams. Translation, they can "kick the can down the road" for a very long time before having to actually admit there's a problem.
Take Chicago's largest pension fund, the Municipal Employees Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago (MEABF), as an example. Most people focus on a funds 'net funded status', which for the MEABF is a paltry 20.3%. But the problem with focusing on 'funded status' is that it can be easily manipulated by pension administrators who get to simply pick the rate at which they discount future liabilities out of thin air.
So, rather than lend any credence to some made up pension math, we prefer to focus on actual pension cash flows which can't be manipulated quite so easily.
And a quick look at MEABF's cash flows quickly reveals the ponzi-ish nature of the fund. In both 2015 and 2014, the fund didn't even come close to generating enough cash flow from investment returns and contributions to cover it's $800mm in annual benefit payments...which basically means they're slowing liquidating assets to pay out liabilities.
Of course, like all ponzi schemes, liquidating assets to pay current claims can only go on for so long before you simply run out of assets.
So we decided, as Moody's did above, to take a look at the impact of a couple of return scenarios. But, rather than looking at "funding status" which can be maniupulated to say pretty much whatever pension administrators want, we focused on calculating when Chicago's largest pension fund would actually run out of money.
On the expense side, annual benefit payments are currently just over $800 million and are growing at a fairly consistent pace due to an increasing number of retirees and inflation adjustments guaranteed to workers. Assuming payouts continue to grow at the same pace observed over the past 15 years, the fund will be making annual cash payments to retirees of around $1.3 billion by 2023.
Investment returns, on the other hand, are much more volatile but have averaged 5.5% over the past 15 years. That said, the fund took big hits in 2002 (-9.3%) and 2008 (-27.1%) following the dotcom and housing bubble crashes.
And while we hate to be pessimistic, lets just take a look at what happens if, by some small chance, today's market gets exposed as a massive bubble and we have another big correction in 2018.
Such a correction would force the fund to liquidate over $1.5 billion in assets in 2018 alone....
....and the system would run out of cash completely within 4 years.
The risk associated with America's pension ponzi schemes have largely been overlooked by investors to date because so long as they can meet annual benefit payments then plan administrators can just continue to 'kick the can down the road' and pretend that nothing is wrong.
Of course, that strategy ceases to work when the pensions actually run out of cash...which could happen sooner than you think...and when it does, America's retirees will suddenly find themselves about $5-8 trillion poorer than they thought they were.