Five Trillion Dollars! Doomed US Pensions' Shortfall Now The Size Of Japan's Economy

Scores of public pensions across the United States are so massively underfunded that the shortfall is roughly equal to Japan's GDP - the world's third-largest economy, according to Moody's Investors Service.

State and local pension plans in the U.S. now have less than three- quarters of the money they need to meet their promised payouts, their lowest level since at least 2001, according to Public Plans Database figures weighted by plan size. In dollar terms the hole for state and local pensions is now $5 trillion, according to Moody’s Investors Service. -WSJ

If governments don't increase taxes, convince pensioners to take less than they were promised or divert funds from elsewhere, an increasing number of funds face insolvency, reports the Wall Street Journal

In Kentucky, for example, a major pension for state employees had around 16% of what it needs to fulfill its obligations based on 2017 fiscal year figures, according to the Public Plans database which tracks state and local pension funds. A Chicago municipal employee fund had less than 30% of what it needed during the same fiscal year, while New Jersey's state pension is so underfunded it faces insolvency in 12 years according to a Pew Charitable Trusts Study.

For an example of what happens when a pension hits a brick wall, look no further than Central Falls, Rhode Island - a city of 19,359 which was forced to cut monthly checks to retired police and firefighters by as much as 55% as the entire town tried to stave off bankruptcy. Alas, the town still filed in 2011 - and while its financial situation has improved, retired city employees aren't getting their full pensions back.

Paul Grenon

“It’s not only a financial thing,” said 73-year-old retired Central Falls firefighter Paul Grenon, who retired after a falling wall punctured his lung, broke his back and five ribs, and left him unable to perform basic tasks required for the job like climbing ladders. “It really gets you sick mentally and physically to go through something like this. It’s a betrayal, as far as I’m concerned.

After the 2011 bankruptcy, an event that received national attention amid predictions of widespread municipal failures, retirees agreed to 55% cuts because they feared facing even deeper cuts later.

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The concessions helped Central Falls emerge from bankruptcy in 2012 and create a “rainy day fund” that now holds $2 million.

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Mr. Grenon, the firefighter who retired after he was injured, says the pension reduction left him without enough money each month to cover a $300 prescription lung medication. He has medical coverage but said the medication is beyond what is covered. -WSJ

The Journal notes what we've been pointing out for years - namely that when times are good, politicians make overly generous promises, while public-employee unions make unrealistic demands that elected officials acquiesce to.

As a result, former lifeguards in Laguna Beach, CA enjoy $200K pensions, while retired bigwigs rake in even more - such as former Penn State president Rodney Erickson who receives $477,950 per year from the state. 

Former Penn State University President Rodney Erickson

That's all compounded by longevity, while the risk of the next financial crisis stands to crush already-distressed pensions. 

Extended lifespans caused costs to soar, as did increasingly expensive medical care, which unions put at the center of contract negotiations, among other benefits.

A technology-led stock market boom in the late 1990s produced a brief period of surpluses in pensions, according to figures from Pew, before deficits began to creep higher in the mid 2000s. Deficits accelerated following the 2008 financial crisis, which caused steep losses for many funds just as large numbers of baby boomers began to retire. -WSJ

For a taste of what may be to come, State and local pensions lost around $35 billion between 2008 and 2009, according to Pew, while liabilities jumped by over $100 billion per year. And as the Journal points out, "not even a nine-year bull market in stocks could close that gap."

Government officials, taxpayers and public-sector employees are not on the same page when it comes to solutions. Puerto Rico's pension board, for example, which filed for the largest-ever US muni bankruptcy in 2017, certified an average 10% pension cut for certain retirees as part of a plan to bring the island back to solvency. Meanwhile, the governor has promised not to implement it - portending a lengthy court battle. 

In Kentucky, a judge ruled in June that a reduction in pensioner benefits championed by the governor was unconstitutional because of the way the law governing the payouts was passed. Meanwhile a state's attorney general vehemently opposed the legislation - yet another battle that could end up with the state Supreme Court deciding the outcome. 

And in California, a handful of cases before the state's Supreme Court are putting an influential 1955 law to the test that prevents public employee benefits from being cut - something Governor Jerry Brown predicts will occur during the next recession if the rule is loosened. If California relaxes the legislation, it would set precedent that other states may follow to accomplish deeper benefit cuts. 

The prospect of lower benefits is particularly daunting for pensioners in their 60s. Those older are likely to die before a large reckoning, while those younger have years left in their careers to make new plans. But many in their 60s have spent four decades assuming a financial promise that is no longer guaranteed.

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Retirees in other cash-strapped states said they expect to lose some of what they have been promised. “It may sustain itself before I die,” Len Shepard, 68, a retired teacher in Pennsylvania said of the pension system in his state. “But I don’t see how it can continue to do so.” -WSJ