Born Broke: Our pension debt problem
by J. Scott Moody and Wendy P. Warcholik, Ph.D.
For Public Policy
Connecticut’s public pension system is one of the most expensive in the nation – which may explain why it is drowning in debt.
A new analysis of Connecticut’s unfunded pension liability shows it is much, much greater than the $24.5 billion reported by the state, and has increased signiﬁcantly since our last study was published in 2010.
Pension and other retiree liabilities are being dramatically underestimated because the state’s estimates are based on unrealistic assumptions about discount rates and rates of return, and because the state does not include its retiree healthcare and other costs in its ﬁgures.
This new study ﬁnds that the real unfunded pension liability is $76.8 billion, or 213 percent higher than current forecasts, with other retiree beneﬁt liabilities coming in at $22.7 billion. Add the two obligations to retirees together and Connecticut’s total unfunded retiree (pension plus OPEB) liability clocks in at $100 billion. For comparison, that ﬁgure is ﬁve times the amount the state collects in revenues per year.
Additionally, as of 2009, the City of Hartford has a $700 million unfunded pension liability.
Connecticut’s state government administers retirement beneﬁts for state employees, teachers, and those in the judicial system. These three groups include 174,300 working or retired people. Of those, 76,420 drew pension beneﬁts in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012.
Did you know?
The largest teacher pension in the state of Connecticut goes to someone who hasn’t even retired yet! Bruce Douglas, head of the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC), receives a $198,000 yearly pension in addition to the $130,000 annual salary he earns for running CREC. Douglas, 66, started collecting his pension in November 2011. Before his “retirement,” CREC paid Douglas a little less than $250,000 per year. But state law allows Douglas to collect both his pension and salary only as long as his salary was cut to 45 percent of the maximum level for the assigned position. Just by retiring and taking a voluntary “pay cut,” Douglas actually increased his pay from $250,000 to $328,000. Between his 33 year tenure in the state education system and his time at CREC, Douglas’ pension payments have peaked: After 37.5 years, teachers earn a pension equal to 75 percent of their salary, the maximum allowed.
One state lawmaker transformed an election loss into an opportunity to collect both a pension and a salary! After losing the 2008 election, Rep. Al Adinolﬁ, R-Cheshire, retired and began collecting his legislative pension of about $450 a month. When he was reelected in 2010, he started receiving his legislative salary again – along with his pension!
It is not surprising that New Haven’s recently-elected mayor, Toni Harp (a Democrat and former state senator) said she supports pension reform!
New Haven spends more on employee pensions, as a percentage of its budget, than any other major city in Connecticut. In fact, New Haven is ranked 27th out of 173 cities nationwide for its pension spending, which eats up about 10.2 percent ofthe city’s annual revenues, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research. If that’s not enough, the city has about $500 million in pension liabilities, too.
By state estimations, pension obligations for active and retired state employees, teachers and judges total $48.2 billion in FY 2012. Yet, the state has only set aside $23.7 billion in assets to pay for these obligations. The pension system reports an unfunded liability of $24.5 billion. But our study shows the liability is more than three times that amount.
And that’s just the pension liability. On top of that is Connecticut’s Other Post-Employment Beneﬁts (OPEB) system, such as healthcare and life insurance, which is in even worse shape. In FY 2013, the OPEB system has nearly zero assets ($144 million) set aside to pay for $22.7 billion in obligations. Without oﬀsetting assets, the OPEB system operates on a “pay-as-you-go” basis, which maximizes the tax burden on the shoulders of Connecticut’s taxpayers.
In 2013, 657 of Connecticut’s state employees collected pensions over $100,000 a year. That means they received more – as taxpayer-subsidized retirees – than 80 percent of American households earned working that year! The big winner among state employees for 2013 was former UConn Professor John Veiga, who received $283,273. Three of the top ten highest pension earners were former UConn professors; another ﬁve were former employees of the UConn Health Center. Rounding out the top ten were former employees from Corrections and Central Connecticut State University. In total, the top ten pension collectors took home about $2.3 million last year.
This year, two 66-year-olds were appointed to the bench. In just under four years, those two new judges will reach mandatory retirement at age 70.
That’s when they’ll become instantly eligible for lifetime pensions exceeding $100,000 each year, complete with annual cost-of-living increases and lifelong state health beneﬁts. Legislation passed this year seemed to alter the law so that judges serving less than ten years would get only a fraction of the $100,000 pension based on length of service – but an amendment passed as part of the budget implementation bill will allow judges to count years of other state service along with their years on the bench to reach the ten years necessary to collect their $100,000 pensions.
The public retiree problem is so bad that Connecticut’s state government, in FY 2008, resorted to issuing $2 billion in General Obligation Bonds (GO) for the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) to make up for lost ground. However, this gamble has not paid oﬀ and such risk arbitrage is simply not a sustainable way to deal with this unfunded pension liability.
Overall, there are two basic options available to policy makers to solve Connecticut’s massive pension and OPEB crisis. One option is for policymakers to dramatically raise taxes. However, raising taxes would weaken Connecticut’s economy and jeopardize the state’s ability to ever meet its pension and OPEB obligations.
A better option is to reform the pension and OPEB system. As we recommended in our ﬁrst study in 2010, Connecticut should replace its traditional deﬁned beneﬁt system with a deﬁned contribution system for new employees. As such, normal turnover in the workforce will begin to bring down the unfunded pension liability to more manageable levels.
UNDERSTANDING THE UNFUNDED RETIREE LIABILITY
Since the last study we published in 2010, when we examined the pension ﬁgures for FY 2008, public pension health has eroded.
The funded ratio for the pension system in FY 2012 was a dismal 42.3 percent for SERS, compared to 51.9 percent in FY 2008, 55.2 percent for TRS in FY 2012 compared to 70 percent in FY 2008, and 54.7 percent for JRS in FY 2012 compared to 71.8 percent in FY 2008.
Despite our earlier recommendations, Connecticut is still using a “deﬁned beneﬁt” system for its public employees, which is designed so that a member, such as a state employee, is paid a ﬁxed level of income upon retirement. The level of income is based on such factors as length of service and average level of compensation. The private sector has largely turned to a “deﬁned contribution” system, in which the employer and employee contribute a set amount of funds into a retirement plan, usually based on a percentage of income. In this system, the employee makes her own investment decisions and chooses how much to take out during retirement.
Connecticut’s deﬁned beneﬁt pension system consists of three separate retirement systems: the State Employees Retirement System (SERS); the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS); and the Judicial Retirement System (JRS). They will hereafer be referred to as the “Connecticut pension system.” As of June 30, 2012, SERS had 91,755 active and retiree members, TRS had 82,102 active and retiree members and JRS had 443 active and retiree members, for a total of 174,300 people.
Of those, 76,420 drew pension beneﬁts in FY 2012, up from 71,781 in FY 2008.
Under SERS, 43,887 retired members received annual beneﬁts of $1,424,477,046, or an average of $32,458 per retiree. In FY 2008, annual beneﬁts were $1,047,479,000. Under TRS, there were 32,294 retired members drawing annual beneﬁts of $1,531,493,000, an average of $47,423 per retiree. In FY 2008, annual beneﬁts under TRS were $1,231,069,368. Under JRS, there were 239 retired members drawing annual beneﬁts of $20,519,302, or an average of $85,855 per retiree, up from $17,789,740 in FY 2008.
Additionally, there are the State Employee OPEB Plan (SEOPEBP) and the Retired Teacher Healthcare Plan (RTHP) that both deal with Other Post Employment Beneﬁts (OPEB), such as healthcare and life insurance, and will hereafer be referred to as the “Connecticut OPEB system.”
The health of Connecticut’s pension and OPEB system is based on two elements—assets held versus liabilities accrued:
Assets: The market value of stocks, bonds and other investments that are held by the pension system. Each year assets grow in one of two ways. First, the value of the assets change and, second, the Connecticut state government pays an annual contribution.
Liabilities: The present value of pension beneﬁts to be paid out to current and future retirees. Each year liabilities grow based on a number of assumptions such as expected salary increases, mortality, turnover and other factors.
For the pension and OPEB system to be considered “fully funded,” assets must equal liabilities. Unfortunately, the pension and OPEB system is far from being fully funded and is currently running a large deﬁcit called the unfunded pension liability. For example, in FY 2012, the SERS system had assets worth an estimated $9.7 billion while liabilities are estimated to be $23 billion. This leaves an unfunded pension liability (liabilities minus assets) of $13.3 billion.
A common way to show the unfunded pension liability is the “funded ratio” which is assets divided by liabilities. Table 1 and Chart 1 show the funded ratio for the pension system while Table 3 and Chart 2 show the funded ratio for the OPEB system. The funded ratio for the pension system in FY 2012 was a dismal 42.3 percent for SERS, 55.2 percent for TRS and 54.7 percent for JRS.
More disturbingly, the OPEB funded ratio in FY 2013 was 0.6 percent. The state has set aside virtually nothing ($144 million) while facing a staggering liability of $22.7 billion.
The state government’s contribution to the pension and OPEB system is already quite sizable. As shown in Table 2, the annual required contribution to the state retirement system was $1.7 billion in FY 2012, compared to $1.248 billion in FY 2008. As shown in Table 4, the annual required contribution to the state OPEB system was $1.405 billion. To put this into perspective, the FY 2012 state pension and OPEB contribution combined ($3.103 billion) would consume most of the sales tax revenue ($3.8 billion in FY 2012).
Unfortunately, the state government has not been living up to the annual required contributions. If the state had been making its full contribution, then the funding ratios would not be nearly as bad as they are. For instance, the TRS was underfunded by $249.2 million between FY 1999 and FY 2007. This shortfall is actually much larger considering the foregone compounding of the investment.
ARBITRAGE: GAMBLING USING GENERAL OBLIGATION BONDS TO FUND THE PENSION SYSTEM
Due to this underfunding, the state government decided in FY 2008 to issue $2 billion in General Obligation Bonds (GO) for the TRS to make up for the contribution shortfall.
The goal was to boost the funded ratio and reduce the long-term cost of the TRS. In the short-run, Table 1 shows that the funded ratio did improve from 59.5 percent in FY 2006 to 70 percent in FY 2008—due to a 50 percent increase in assets to $15.3 billion in FY 2008 from $10.2 billion in FY 2006.
However, whether or not the GO bonds will reduce the long-term costs of the TRS is an open question. In fact, the state government is playing a game of chance that could leave taxpayer’s facing an even larger pension burden. Put simply, the returns earned on investing the borrowed money must exceed the costs of borrowing the money, commonly referred to as “risk arbitrage.” This is the equivalent of homeowners taking a second mortgage on their houses to invest in the stock market in the hope that the investments pay more than the cost of the mortgage.
The GO bonds were issued with a favorable average interest rate of 5.85 percent for the majority of the issuance. If the assumed rate of return, at the time of the GO bond issuance, of 8.5 percent under TRS comes to fruition, then the pension system will have netted 2.65 percentage points. However, that is a big “if.” Recent economic conditions remind us that one never knows when the economy might take a nosedive, or how long it may take to recover.
Economist James B. Burnham, the Murrin Professor of Global Competitiveness at Duquesne University, in an article about risk arbitrage summed up the political situation by saying, “As attractive as this plan [risk arbitrage] may appear from a budgetary perspective, the issuance of pension bonds generally carries signiﬁcant risks that are ofen downplayed in light of immediate ﬁscal pressures and the concerns of pensioners.”
Now that we are 4 years beyond the GO bond issuance, it appears that the state government is losing the bet. Between FY 2008 and FY 2012, the value of assets in the TRS has fallen by 10 percent to $13.7 billion from $15.3 billion. Combined with a growing pension liability, the TRS funded ratio has continued to deteriorate to 55.2 percent in FY 2012 from 70 percent in FY 2008.
CONNECTICUT’S OFFICIAL PENSION AND OPEB LIABILITIES ARE DRAMATICALLY UNDERESTIMATED
Complicating matters is that oﬃcial pension and OPEB liabilities are being dramatically underestimated based on current actuarial methods. Te problem revolves around the “discount rate” or “interest rate” used.
For example, a 5 percent interest rate means that a $100 today grows to $105 a year from now ($100 times 1.05 percent), while a 5 percent discount rate means that $105 a year from now is worth $100 today. In eﬀect, the discount rate is the opposite of the interest rate.
Economists Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh were among the ﬁrst to point out this actuarial ﬁction. They discovered that, using data from FY 2008, the median discount rate used by pension systems was 8 percent, which, conversely, means that these pension systems anticipate earning 8 percent annually. For instance, in FY 2012, Connecticut’s pension system uses discounts rates of 8 percent under SERS and JRS and 8.5 percent under TRS.
A new study by State Budget Solutions that utilizes the methodology of Novy-Marx and Rauh found that nationally, in FY 2012, the unfunded pension liability was $41 trillion—see Table 6.
Connecticut’s $47.9 billion stated pension liability increases to $76.8 billion. Adding insult to injury, Connecticut’s pension funded ratio falls to 25 percent—the 2nd worst ratio in the country. As shown in Table 7, Connecticut’s pension liability on a per capita basis is $21,378 and is the 4th highest in the country. As a percent of Gross Domestic Product it is 33 percent and is the 12th highest in the country.
In addition to the state government pension burden, the City of Hartford has also accrued a signiﬁcant pension burden. Economist Novy-Marx and Rauh have estimated that Hartford’s pension liability is $1.6 billion as of June 2009. With assets of $900 million, Hartford has an unfunded pension liability of $700 million, or $561 per capita.
Unfortunately, there is no study that examines the state of unfunded OPEB liabilities. However, the adjustment to Connecticut’s OPEB liability may not be as extreme as for the unfunded pension liability because the assumed discount rate is already a much lower 5.7 percent for the State Employees OPEB plan and 4.5 percent for Retired Teachers Healthcare Plan.
Rather than raising taxes, more and more states are moving away from the traditional deﬁned beneﬁt pension systems and towards a deﬁned contribution system similar to the 401(k) system that is popular in the private sector.
Overall, this study exposes the true extent of Connecticut’s pension crisis, which is at least $47.9 billion and may be as high as $100.2 billion.
On a per capita basis the pension bill could be as high as $21,378 or up to $21,938 if you live in Hartford. Combined with the OPEB liability, the public retiree bill climbs to $27,668 for every man, woman, and child currently living in Connecticut.
Minor changes to the current deﬁned-beneﬁt system may buy some extra time but will not fundamentally solve this crisis. In the end, only two options are available to policy-makers to solve Connecticut’s public retiree crisis: 1) raise taxes; or 2) fundamental changes to the pension and OPEB systems. Raising taxes would only serve to weaken Connecticut’s economy and jeopardize the state’s ability to ever meet its pension and OPEB obligations. The best option is to reform these systems by switching to a deﬁned contribution program.
The Yankee Institute for Public Policy develops and advocates for free market, limited-government public policy solutions designed to promote economic opportunity, prosperity and freedom throughout Connecticut.