JT and I talked many times about pensions and the unfortunate arithmetic behind most defined-benefit pensions. We keep seeing issues arise with the pensions in places like Detroit, or now Illinois. To reiterate, I have no issue with the defined-benefit pension plan in theory. The issues I have focus on the management, or should I say mismanagement, of the pension plan. The mismanagement really falls into two categories: investment of pension fund assets bordering on fraud and, a seemingly willful ignorance about the changes in life spans for people (in this case plan recipients).
This is something of a followup to the discussions from the radio last week. I did some looking at the “Comprehensive Annual Financial Report” from the North Dakota Retirement and Investment Office to see what I could find related to the position of the pensions in North Dakota. For those not aware, pensions are a huge issue across the country these days. They came under fire in the case of Detroit; unfairly blamed in my opinion for the eventual bankruptcy of the city. Recently the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution prevented a renegotiation of the retirement benefits. We will see how that proceeds as Illinois is in a dire fiscal situation.
With the semester drawing to a close and the summer session getting ready to start soon my thoughts turned towards population issues. (I teach a population analysis class in the summer for the graduate students.) One of topic coming up in that class on a regular basis is pensions, particularly the math behind pensions. I thought a little post about the issues surrounding defined benefit pensions in order. JT also asked about alternative uses of the $3 billion available in the legacy fund when it becomes available in the future. So let’s start with this issue.
At least that is the case for the healthcare obligations of most states and local areas, though Robert Pozen points out that this is likely to change soon (available here). This is something I discussed when Detroit went through bankruptcy proceedings. Pension and healthcare obligations of the city made a contribution to the bankruptcy, but only because the broader electorate allow it. If we get accurate accounting and compel elected officials to use realistic discount rates there would be a better sense of the amount of these obligations. The proposed accounting changes are a step in the right direction, requiring more transparency and better assumptions.
For anybody paying even a modicum of attention pension math has been a source of significant debate in the last decade. There are many aspects of pension math worthy of discussion and this recent New York Times article points out many of these issues in light of the Detroit bankruptcy filing and the public sector employee pensions. To put it bluntly, most pensions assume their result.