It’s no secret that Illinois, New Jersey, and numerous other states have massively underfunded pension plans. The problem is far worse than it looks because of ridiculous assumptions like 8% or higher returns.

Moreover, states like Illinois, Texas, Rhode Island, and Ohio have gone one step further by recently adopting actuarially unsound methods specifically designed to disguise the mess.

The New York Times tackles the issue in The Illusion of Pension Savings

Earlier this year, Illinois said it had found a way to save billions of dollars. It would slash the pensions of workers it had not yet hired. The real-world savings would not materialize for decades, of course, but thanks to an actuarial trick, the state could start counting the savings this year and use it to help balance its budget.

Texas saved millions of dollars this year after raising its retirement age for future hires and barring them from counting unused sick leave in their pensions. More savings will appear in coming years. Rhode Island also raised its retirement age for future retirees last year, after being told it could save $90 million in the first year alone.

The technique is fairly innocuous in normal times, allowing governments to smooth out their labor costs over many years. But it becomes much riskier when pension funds have big shortfalls, when they need several decades to pay down their losses and when they are cutting benefits for future workers — precisely the conditions that exist today.

“In a plan that is not well funded, I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Norm Jones, chief actuary for Gabriel Roeder Smith & Company, an actuarial firm that helps Illinois and a number of other states that have adopted the method. He said the firm’s actuaries informed officials of the risks and it was the officials’ decision to use the technique.

Cuts for workers not yet hired do not save much money in the present — but that’s where actuaries can work their magic. They capture the future savings for use today by assuming, in essence, that 100 percent of today’s work force is already earning tomorrow’s skimpier benefits. When used in actuarial calculations, that assumption has a powerful effect. It reduces the amount a government must put into its workers’ pension fund every year.

“Responsible funding methods do not work this way,” said Jeremy Gold, an independent actuary in New York who has been outspoken about the distortions built into pension numbers. He said the technique was much like the mortgages with very low teaser rates that proliferated during the housing bubble.

Dubious pension numbers in Illinois are not easily shrugged off after a warning shot fired by the Securities and Exchange Commission in August. The S.E.C. accused New Jersey of securities fraud, saying the state had manipulated its pension numbers to look like a better credit risk, while selling some $26 billion worth of bonds.

Problem is Now

The problem is now. The only way to have savings now is to reduce benefits now.

Three states have acted now, at least in small ways. Colorado, South Dakota, and Minnesota all recently reduced pension benefits. All three states face legal battles.

Please see Uncharted Territory” in WA; Calpers Bargains with Schwarzenegger; “Fairy-Tale Promises” in NJ; “No Choice” in NY; Lawsuits in CO, SD, MN over Pensions for a partial list of the big mess we are in, and what a few states are doing about it.

Illinois, along with Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Arkansas, and for that matter every state but those three, are at best dealing with the current problem by making small changes that will matter 30 years from now.

The math does not work.

$3 Trillion Deficit

According to a report by the American Enterprise Institute, public pensions are underfunded by more than $3 trillion. Please see Interactive Map of Public Pension Plans; How Badly Underfunded are the Plans in Your State? for details.

Changing rules for new pension plan participants is a small step in the right direction, but even getting rid of them entirely would not cure the $3 trillion deficit today.

As always, Illinois refuses to tackle this massive issue, instead seeking solutions to hide the severity of its problems. Texas, New York, California, and New Jersey are not much better.

Hopefully the SEC will have something more to say about never-ending foolishness to mask the huge and growing public pension problems. Whether that stirs any brain waves in Springfield, Illinois or any other state capitols is unfortunately another matter.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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