As Dropout Nation readers know, Friday’s analysis of Philadelphia’s virtually-insolvent district’s fiscal condition also previewed this magazine’s evaluation of the financial state of Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees Retirement System. What has become clear from the latest analysis is that the Keystone State must take decisive action to address the defined-benefit pension’s woeful financial state — and that starts with demanding accurate accounting that reflects the dire reality.
Within the last week alone, state legislators have taken some steps toward addressing the woes of PSERS and Pennsylvania’s pension for state employees. This past Tuesday, the Keystone State’s House of Representatives held a hearing on a plan offered up by Rep. Warren Kampf, a pension reform hawk, to close participation in state pensions to new employees and require new hires to save money in defined-contribution plans. On the senate side, Majority Leader Jake Corman is putting together his own plan, which would follow along Kampf’s proposed move as well as essentially roll back Act 10, the state pension law passed in 2010 that boosted annuities collected by teachers to equal 75 percent of final year’s salary.
If Kampf and Corman can get their legislation passed any possible opposition within their own caucuses — a reason why former Gov. Tom Corbett’s pension reform plan was defeated last year — this would be one clear sign that legislators are finally taking the state’s pension crisis seriously.
Standing opposed to any reform plan is Gov. Tom Wolf, who successfully defeated Corbett for the state’s chief executive spot with the help of $732,400 in donations (along with other spending) by the American Federation of Teachers and its state affiliate there. Mindful of the debt he owes to AFT as well as to other public-sector unions, Wolf has made clear that he would not agree to any reductions in pension annuities. But given that Corman and his fellow Republicans control both houses of the state legislature and want to tie pension reform to the passage of next year’s state budget, Wolf may have to give something in order to get legislators to pass other aspects of his agenda.
But in order for Kampf, Corman, and Wolf to undertake any meaningful and substantive pension reform, it must have accurate data on the fiscal state of PSERS and the state employee retirement plan. Based on Dropout Nation‘s analysis of the teachers’ pension’s comprehensive annual financial report, the pension isn’t dealing honestly with its condition.
PSERS officially reports that its was underfunded to the tune of $33 billion in 2012-2013, a 10 percent increase over the previous year. But as you all know by now, those numbers aren’t real. As your editor detailed in last year’s analysis, one reason why lies with Act 120, the law passed by state legislators five years ago which senselessly hiked annuities when PSERS was already virtually-insolvent. Under the law, PSERS recognizes gains and losses over a 10-year period, instead of an already-ridiculous five years. This even more-aggressive-than-usual form of smoothing — which allows the pension to effectively hide investment gains and losses under the guise of keeping investment volatility from wreaking havoc on state and district budgets — gives gives the false impression that its financial condition is in good shape.
The bigger problem lies with the PSERS’ assumed investment rate of return of 7.5 percent. Given that the pension’s assets declined in value by 3.7 percent between 2008-2009 and 2012-2013, there’s no way it could even meet such an overly-optimistic rate of return. Using overly-inflated assumed rates of return are problematic because pensions can report insolvencies as being lower than they actually are. This can result in politicians abandoning any fiscal prudence, handing out annuity raises based on inaccurate data. What PSERS should do is base its rate of return on an average such as the Citibank Pension Liability Index (which is based on the yield for AA-rated corporate bonds) or at least assume a more-realistic return rate such as 5.5 percent.
To get to the heart of matters, Dropout Nation uses a version of a method developed by Moody’s Investors Service that uses a more-realistic 5.5 percent rate of return on investments. The result? PSERS is virtually insolvent to the tune of $41.3 billion for 2013-2014, or 27 percent higher than officially reported. Using last year’s analysis, the pension’s insolvency increased by 11.6 percent over 2011-2012. Based on a 17-year amortization rate, taxpayers would have to shell out an additional $2.4 billion in contributions just to get the pension back into solvency; that’s 82 percent more than the $2.9 billion in contributions made in 2013-2014.
Districts such as Philadelphia have already seen double-digit increases in contributions over the past few years. The impact of any effort on hiking contributions to finally address the insolvency would be tremendous.
For Philly, a $135 million hike in 2013-2014 would have led to a loss of $203 million, or more than the $165 million it lost in 2012-2013. For Pittsburgh Public Schools, which paid $28.3 million into PSERS in 2013-2014, a repayment of the pension’s shortfall would mean an additional $23 million in contributions; this would have meant that the portion of the district’s budget going to pensions would have increased from 5.3 percent to 9.7 percent, and more than doubling its $14 million operating deficit.
This isn’t just a problem for Keystone State districts. After all, Pennsylvania state government reimburses districts for as much as 56 percent of PSERS contributions. This means that the state (you know, taxpayers) would likely have to take on $1.4 billion of the bailout cost, based on Dropout Nation‘s estimates. This would be double than the $1 billion paid out by the state in 2013-2014; the percentage of that year’s state budget dedicated to PSERS would increase from 3.6 percent to 8.5 percent.
Meanwhile the problem is going to get worse thanks to the growing numbers of Baby Boomers heading into retirement. Some 16,404 retired teachers and other traditional district employees were added to the pension rolls in 2012-2103, a 12 percent increase over the previous year; the number of new retirees (before removals) increased by 54.6 percent between 2006-2007 and 2012-2013. With PSERS likely to add likely add 12,438 new annuitants (excluding deaths and other removals) to the rolls ever year for the next decade, the pension’s will add at least $306 million a year in new annuity expenses over that time.
By the way: None of this includes PSERS’s unfunded retired teacher healthcare costs with which the state must also contend. The pension officially reports unfunded liabilities of $1.3 billion for 2012-2013. But unlike most pensions, PSERS uses the same inflated rate of return for the investments used to cover those costs as it uses for the pension. Using the same method applied to the pension, Dropout Nation determines that the true unfunded liability for the healthcare costs is $1.6 billion, or 27 percent more than officially reported. Based on a 17-year amortization rate, taxpayers would have to put down $95.7 million a year over 17 years to pay off that insolvency, 89 percent more than the $108 million contributed in 2012-2013.
Put simply, the Keystone State’s teachers’ pension is busted. Addressing that insolvency requires honest numbers about the true condition of its finances. Corman and Kampf should take steps toward that by passing legislation that ends the 10-year smoothing required by Act 120, as well as force the pension to reduce its assumed investment rate of return from 7.5 percent to a more-realistic 5.5 percent (or an average based on the annual change in Citibank’s pension index). Both moves would lead to accurate data on the PSERS true fiscal condition and force the state (along with districts) to deal honestly with it.
Along with those steps, legislators should pass legislation moving both existing and new employees out of defined-benefit pensions into hybrid approach that features defined-contribution accounts as well as cash-balanced accounts that guarantees an annual savings rate. The existing pension would then be cash-balanced, allowing workers already in the pension to move whatever they have already saved and whatever has been contributed by districts into the new accounts. Such a move would effectively stop PSERS’ insolvency from increasing. At the same time, it would also help younger teachers, who often lose out in most pension reforms, by providing them a portable plan that allows them to fully benefit from their hard work in classrooms.
One likely argument against such a plan from Gov. Wolf will be that such a transition would be too costly to the state. This is because the Government Accounting Standards Board recommends that states closing down pensions should aggressively reduce their insolvencies. But as Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute noted last week in the Wall Street Journal, Pennsylvania could reduce the insolvencies by a longer period than recommended by the accounting transparency organization.
While your editor recommends a 17-year amortization period (as Moody’s uses), the Keystone State could use as long as 20 or 30 years (the latter used by states such as California in far more-modest pension fixes). And if the existing pension is cash-balanced, with existing teachers moving what they are due to receive in a lump-sum payment into the new retirement package, the cost of the transition wouldn’t be all that prohibitive at all.
Ultimately, what matters most is that Pennsylvania officials finally force PSERS to honestly detail its virtual insolvency. Without accurate numbers, even the most-radical pension reform will fall apart.