State Pension Funds are only temporarily Underfunded

This summarizes the finding of a recent paper (found cited in the New York Times blog of Paul Krugman) and was prepared by Center for Economic and Policy Research that demonstrates that at the state level the pension problems come from the recent stock market decline, and will come back as the market grows over time.

The data in this report show that the Florida state pension fund is on solid ground and much better than many other states.  The Wisconsin state retirement fund is fully funded!

Most of the pension shortfall using the current methodology is attributable to the plunge in the stock market in the years 2007-2009. If pension funds had earned returns just equal to the interest rate on 30-year Treasury bonds in the three years since 2007, their assets would be more than $850 billion greater than they are today. This is by far the major cause of pension funding shortfalls. While there are certainly cases of pensions that had been under-funded even before the market plunge, prior years of under-funding is not the main reason that pensions face difficulties now. Another $80 billion of the shortfall is the result of the fact that states have cutback their contributions as a result of the downturn.

• The argument that pension funds should only assume a risk-free rate of return in assessing pension fund adequacy ignores the distinction between governmental units, which need be little concerned over the timing of market fluctuations, and individual investors, who must be very sensitive to market timing.

This argument also fails to recognize the fact that over a long period, future stock returns are inversely related to current price-to-earnings (PE) ratios. If the current PE ratio is relatively low, as is now the case, then the assumption that the market will provide below average returns implies a further decline in the PE ratio, given the generally accepted growth projections for the economy. As a practical matter, the stock market has provided an average real return of more than 8 percent for 30-year periods when the PE ratio at the start was under 15 to 1.

It is worth noting that if pension funds stop investing in equities, as some have advocated, this would imply higher taxes and/or lower benefits for public employees. It would also mean that other investors could expect to see higher future returns on their stock holdings.

The size of the projected state and local government shortfalls measured as a share of future gross state products appear manageable. The total shortfall for the pension funds is less than 0.2 percent of projected gross state product over the next 30 years for most states. Even in the cases of the states with the largest shortfalls, the gap is less than 0.5 percent of projected state product.

It is also worth noting that some of this shortfall has likely already disappeared as a result of the recent rise in the stock market. If this rise is not subsequently reversed, then a substantial portion of the funding shortfall has already been eliminated.CEPR The Origins and Severity of the Public Pension Crisis 􏰁 2

In sum, most states face pension shortfalls that are manageable, especially if the stock market does not face another sudden reversal. The major reason that shortfalls exist at all was the downturn in the stock market following the collapse of the housing bubble, not inadequate contributions to pension funds.

About Stephen E. McGaughey
International consultant in economic development programs and projects

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