Desperate times call for desperate measures, or so the saying goes. Staring down a financial crisis, Illinois is considering a fiscal Hail Mary: a massive fire sale on public debt. On Tuesday, the State Universities Annuitants Association (SUAA) proposed to the Illinois legislature a plan to fund the state’s pension system by selling a 27-year, $107 billion bond. In essence, the state would be betting they could earn more from the stock market over this period than they would pay toward the bond. While Illinois’s finances certainly are in real trouble, issuing the largest public bond in history may do more harm than good.
There are a number of reasons that selling a pension obligation bond (POB), particularly one of this size, is a perilous path for Illinois.
1. It’s a gamble that state investments earn large returns. In the past, states that made this bet have often lost. For the POB to work out in the state’s favor, the portion of the bond the state invests must generate greater returns than the interest on the original bond owed to investors. This strategy could pay out, but it also could not. Remember, consistently over-estimating returns is part of the reason pension funds like Illinois’ accrued so much debt in the first place.
2. Timing matters. The moment when a stressed pension plan needs to acquire additional funds to meet its obligations is not necessarily the best time to invest in the market. The $10 billion POB Illinois issued in 2003 performed well until the market crashed in 2008. Without a significant return, a pension obligation bond can end up actually increasing debt obligations. With the stock market currently at or near all-time highs, now may not be the best time to make this sort of gamble.
3. Beggars can’t be choosers. Illinois’s finances are in shambles. The state is in desperate need of resources to meet its pension obligations and it is constitutionally prohibited from saving money by slashing benefits. The state also has a record of political turmoil and financial strife. Investors know this. It is likely, then, that potential investors will demand a sizeable premium to purchase the state’s bonds. This will further squeeze the gap between the returns Illinois earn and what it pays on the bond. In short, it’s a seller’s market, and Illinois is in a poor position to negotiate favorable terms.
4. A debt swap still leaves debt. Issuing a $107 billion POB doesn’t really change Illinois’ financial woes; it simply moves it around. The state will still carry $130 billion in pension-related debts. One issue with this strategy is that the debt tied to the POB is more rigid, and cannot be kicked down the road as states so often do with their pension obligations. Unlike the pension debt, the bond would force the state must make regular payments to creditors or risk legal action.
5.The pension system will continue to accrue debt. Perhaps the most significant failing of this strategy is that it will do nothing to slow down the rapid pace at which Illinois is adding to its pension debts. Taking out a loan to pay down current obligations – even if successful – won’t stop new debts from piling up. This strategy, indeed any approach to help Illinois deal with its burgeoning pension debts should be paired with broader retirement reforms.
Given these serious concerns, issuing over $100 billion in public bonds likely is not the most prudent course for Illinois. That said, the magnitude of Illinois pension debts is such that doing nothing is not really an option. As we’ve written elsewhere, there are other strategies that states facing untenable unfunded pension liabilities can take. For example, the state could offer a pension buyout to reduce long term costs. States could also – and probably should – seek out new revenues. While I understand the urge to swing for the fences and to try and address their fiscal problems all at once, Illinois should instead seek out gradual and sustained reforms both to fund their existing pension liabilities, and to restructure their public retirement system. The state is in a deep fiscal hole, and part of getting out is to stop digging.
No one disputes the question of whether today's teacher pension plans are expensive to operate; they are. Many people assume that an "expensive" retirement plans must obviously translate into generous benefits for workers, but that's not always true.
If an employer contributes more money to a 401k plan, that money goes directly into workers' accounts. But that's not how most teacher retirement plans work. Under the defined benefit pension plans that cover 90 percent of public school teachers, benefits are delivered through formulas tied to the worker's years of experience and salary. Actuaries make some assumptions about how much those benefits will be worth in the future and how much is needed to save today in order to pay for those benfits, and then employers contribute the amount that's needed. That's the theory, at least, but in practice, states have accumulated $500 billion in unfunded teacher pension benefits, and so the contributions made into teacher pension plans have become more and more divorced from the actual benefits delivered to teachers.
Just how divorced have contributions and benefits become in teacher pension plans? A lot! Consider the following graphs.* The first graph below shows total retirement contributions into teacher pension plans, as a percentage of teacher salaries, by state. It includes the teacher's own contributions, plus the contributions made on her behalf from her district and state (which I group together as the "employer" contribution). As the graph shows, total contributions are quite high. The horizontal red lines are pegged to experts' recommendations that workers save at least 10-15 percent of their income (in addition to Social Security). Teachers in 46 states are meeting the minimum suggested threshold, and teachers in 37 states are meeting the higher savings threshold.
This is how most people see teacher pension plans, because they equate "teacher pension contributions" with "teacher retirement benefits."
But this story is incomplete. Pension plans today are expensive, but the bulk of the costs are going to pay down unfunded liabilities, not for actual benefits for teachers. Once we take out the debt costs that states and districts are paying, the total retirement savings start to look worse. The next graph is the same as the first, but this time I've stripped out the contributions used to pay for debt. All that's left is the contributions going toward actual teacher benefits.
As before, the horizontal red lines represent the suggested contribution rates for workers to earn adequate retirement security. Looked at this way, teachers in 25 states meet the minimum threshold, but in only five states do they meet the higher target.
Now, I'll pause here to note another trend. In the private sector, all employees are automatically enrolled in Social Security, but in the public sector that's been left as a choice to the states. Notice that almost all of the states meeting the savings targets are enrolling their teachers in Social Security. Nationally, there are about 1.2 million teachers who lack Social Security coverage, and this graph helps illustrate that Social Security provides a steady, guaranteed base of benefits that states struggle to provide on their own.
There's one more wrinkle to this discussion, which is the distribution of contributions between workers and their employers. So far, I've included all contributions from any source, but what if we limit it to employers only? State legislatures set the contribution rates for both teachers and employers, and the average state is forcing teachers to contribute about 7.8 percent of their salary toward retirement. This is perhaps a good thing--workers should save for retirement, and they wouldn't all do it on their own--but it's also relevant to know how much teachers today are being asked to pay for their own benefits.
The graph below looks only at the employer's share of retirement benefits. Here, I've tweaked the red lines representing the savings targets to assume that teachers and employers should evenly split retirement contributions. As the graph shows, states by and large are not holding up their end of the bargain. Only 15 states are meeting the lower-end threshold, and only seven are meeting the higher target. To put it another way, most teachers are getting less from their employer than if they worked for a private-sector company where workers got Social Security and a 5 percent match on 401k contributions.
Now, some people might quibble with savings thresholds I've used, or note the findings presented here hinge on states' own investment assumptions--if we assume that states are not likely to hit their aggressive investment targets, their guaranteed benefits start to look more generous. Those are both fair critiques. But it's also worth noting that what I've used here are averages across all employees in a given state. Some workers will earn benefits that much higher than the statewide averages, while most teachers will get even less.
Regardless, if states were to adopt more conservative investment targets, their liabilities would also increase, and contributions would also have to rise, and the divide between contributions and benefits would only increase. Even under current assumptions, there's no disputing that teacher pension plans are expensive, and the majority of today's teachers are not receiving the benefits of those contributions.
*Note: The data for these graphs comes from the National Council on Teacher Quality.
This afternoon, I spotted a tweet from a San Diego parent:
There's something particularly wrenching about being asked what services should be cut at your kid's school to pay for increased employee pension & healthcare costs, when most working parents don't have pensions. https://t.co/Vs6uMojuSt cc @sdschools— Ashley Lewis (@AshleyJPL) January 12, 2018
I followed the link to the survey, and a message from the San Diego Unified School District said it was seeking input on how to resolve a growing budget shortfall due to "increases in costs outside of the district’s immediate control, such as healthcare costs, utilities expenses, and state retirement contributions that are all expected to rise for the foreseeable future."
In the pension world we call this "crowd out." Benefit costs are slowly crowding out the discretionary money available for states, districts, and schools to spend on other priorities. San Diego is now seeking input on what to prioritize in its cuts. Here's it's proposed list:
- Reduce centrally funded professional development opportunities not related to mandated activities. ($1-$5M) Explanation: If a professional development service is legally required, it would not be reduced.
- Reduce substitute and hourly costs by optimizing staff schedules, training, and professional development. ($1-$500k) For example, reducing professional development offered during school hours when substitutes may be required.
- Reduce some central office funded positions from 12-month to 11-month and/or 11-month to 10-month. ($1-$500K)
- Reduce custodial services. ($1-$7M)
- Reduce landscape services to schools. ($1-$500k)
- Reduce non-mandated health services in areas where alternative services can be provided. ($1-$9m)
- Reduce centralized support of parent education and outreach. ($1-$2M)
- Reduce/eliminate non-mandated transportation. ($1-$2M) Example: If a child is transported as part of their special education services or other federal mandates, their service would be maintained.
- Realign school bell schedules to maximize efficiencies within transportation. ($1-$250k)
- Reduce central support of career technical education programs. ($1-$1M)
- Reduce school police support services to schools, classrooms, staff, and the community. ($1-$1M)
- Reduce non-mandated mental health services in areas where alternative services can be provided to students. ($1-$4M)
- Reduce support for non-mandated services within special education programs. ($1-$5M)
- Reduce central office IT support to services to schools, classrooms, staff, and the community. ($1-$200k)
- Reduce/eliminate early childhood education (preschool) in areas where alternative services can be provided to students. ($1-$8M)
- Reduce or eliminate music and art in schools. ($1-$4.5M)
- Reduce library hours or close libraries. ($0-$1M)
- Reduce centrally funded counseling services. ($1-$2M)
We've written before about how this is a national trend, how rising pension costs are only just beginning to hit California schools, and how these trends are projected to affect Los Angeles. Our sober policy analyses have attemped to raise the alarm about how rising pension costs are affecting teachers and students, but perhaps nothing presents it in starker fashion than seeing the potential cuts to school district services. Unless policymakers act, these sorts of difficult discussions are likely to play out all over the country.Taxonomy:
So much of the pension debate today is filled with "if only" statements. It reminds me of this quote from the Federalist No. 51:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
In the famous essay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were arguing that we should recognize our failings in how we think about designing government. That acceptance of human nature, however, is rarely embraced in the pension world, where arguments tend to break down over what should happen versus what actually does happen when pension plans are governed by fallible humans. So in honor of Madison and Hamilton, here's my top 10 list of things that would only be true if pension plans were governed by angels:
- If pension plans were governed by angels, they would allow teachers to immediately qualify for retirement benefits, rather than making them wait up to ten years.
- If pension plans were governed by angels, they would provide all teachers with adequate retirement benefits for every year they work, rather than punishing those who stay less than a full career.
- If pension plans were governed by angels, they would encourage veteran workers to retire when it made sense for them, rather than setting one pre-determined age and then nudging them out after that.
- If pension plans were governed by angels, they would offer workers complete portability and reciprocity, rather than imposing stiff penalties on mobility.
- If pension plans were governed by angels, they would provide Social Security to all workers to ensure national portability and progressivity, rather than making them solely dependent on the state-run plan.
- If pension plans were governed by angels, they would make convervative investment assumptions to ensure the plans were fiscally sound and to plan for potential volatility.
- If pension plans were governed by angels, they would invest in low-cost, plain-vanilla investments, rather than chasing after hedge funds and private equity.
- If pension plans were governed by angels, they would invest with their fiduciary responsibility in mind, rather than using their investments to advance political goals.
- If pension plans were governed by angels, they would always make their annual payments, rather than deferring costs to the future.
- If pension plans were governed by angels, they would be fully transparent, rather than hiding the true cost of fees and how benefits work for teachers.
Obviously, none of these things are true, because pension plans are NOT governed by angels. And yet, pension debates proceed as if they are, or as if they could be in the future if somehow our future politicians could act like angels. But that will never be. We should heed Madison and Hamilton's advice, and create ways to avoid these very common human frailties.Taxonomy:
2017 was a busy year for teacher pension reform. Pennsylvania passed a new pension law that moves most government employees, including teachers, into a hybrid pension plan, Michigan followed suit with a reform that automatically enrolls new teachers into a 401k plan over the summer, and Florida began "nudging" teachers into a portable retirement plan. And in Illinois, as part of an upgrade to its school funding formula, the state will help Chicago cover the district’s teacher pension costs.
We’ve been busy here, too. To recap the last year in pension blogging and analysis, I’ve collected some of our most popular and significant work from 2017.
1.Why Do Private School Teachers Have Such High Turnover Rates? Perhaps surprisingly, teachers leave private schools at twice the rate of teachers in public schools. It is unlikely that teacher pensions are a factor in this difference since evidence shows that they do not act as a meaningful retention incentive outside of a small effect for teachers nearing retirement.
2.Retirement Reality Check: Grading State Teacher Pension Plans. Not all state pension plans are created the same. We evaluated the state pension systems in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Overall, we found that states have expensive, debt-ridden retirement systems in which most teachers fail to qualify for a decent retirement benefit.
3.Illinois’ Teacher Pension Plans Deepen School Funding Inequities. Statewide teacher pension plans exacerbate school funding disparities. This is largely because pensions are based on teachers’ salaries, which are unevenly distributed among schools. After accounting for pensions, the funding gap between high-and low-poverty schools in Illinois doubles. And race-based gaps increase by more than 250 percent.
4.Bayou Blues: How Louisiana’s Retirement Plan Hurts Teachers and Schools. The state’s teacher pension fund is around $12 billion in debt. To stay afloat, schools must contribute more than 30 percent of teacher salaries. Most of which goes to pay down debt. In this report, we describe four ways Louisiana could revamp their system and offer all teachers a path to a secure and more valuable retirement benefit.
And for a bonus, I’ve included the following four blog posts that year-after-year remain among our most popular pieces.
1.What is the Average Teacher Pension in My State? This post is as straightforward as the title. In it, we catalog three key statistics: the average value of a teacher’s pension, the median value, and the percentage of teachers who qualify for a pension.
2.Why Aren’t All Teachers Covered by Social Security? Around 40 percent of teachers do not participate in Social Security. With over half of teachers not qualifying for any pension, this is a real problem that can threaten teachers’ retirement security. Check out our short video to learn more.
3.Colorado’s Unreal Teacher Retirement Plan. In Colorado, teachers and the state make extremely large contributions to the pension system. In fact, every teacher who started teaching at 25 remains in the classroom would be a millionaire by age 54. So why isn’t Colorado filled with millionaire teachers? Debt. The state has $14 billion in pension debt that eats up a lot of the pension contributions made on behalf of teachers.
4.A Tale of Two Teachers: A Retirement Story. For teacher pensions, where you teach matters. When you start teaching also matters. If you move across state lines, you also can adversely affect your pension value. In short, two teachers who retire at the same age and teacher for the same length of time can end up with very different levels of pension wealth. Check out our short video to learn more.
Nationally, teacher pension funds have amassed more than a trillion dollars in assets. But those funds cannot just sit in a bank somewhere; that money needs to grow. It needs to earn high returns so that pension funds can pay down debts and meet burgeoning financial obligations to their members. In fact, states often base how much they need to save today on ambitious assumptions about the expected rate of return they’ll get on their investments.
Most pension funds engage in a strategy that’s called active investing. Under this approach, money managers make decisions about which company’s stock should be bought and sold, and when. With smart people making such decisions, the idea is that active investing will produce greater financial gains than a “passive” approach of regularly buying an index of equal amounts of all companies in the market.
The evidence, however, tells a different story.
As Ben Carlson, the author of A Wealth of Common Sense, pointed out in a tweet earlier this fall, over the last 15 years “passive” index funds overwhelmingly outperformed traditional, “actively” managed mutual funds. Among the different types of funds analyzed, index funds outperformed the actively managed mutual funds at least 80 percent of the time. In many cases, index funds performed even more strongly. For example, small-cap growth funds were outperformed by their benchmark 99.35 percent of the time.
These data suggest that passive investing could provide a safer and, over the long-term, a more productive investment, for teacher pension funds. Passive investing, such as through an index fund, spreads investments widely. This produces a highly diversified portfolio that covers the entire market, rather than trying to make guesses about which particular companies or sectors will do well at a given time. This strategy insulates investors from more dramatic swings of volatility in individual stocks and, as shown above, can often produce returns that outperform managed accounts.
Taking a more passive investing approach could benefit teacher pension funds in other ways as well. Passive investing also typically incurs lower fees, meaning teacher pension funds can pay less for these returns on their investments. Furthermore, electing to passively invest will severely reduce the need for pension fund employees to pick the right money managers, who in turn will pick the right investments. Studies of this practice suggest that it’s a lose-lose situation, that investors tend to chase after positive performance rather than capturing it themselves, and that states might be better off making passive investments with a leaner team.
As an added bonus, passive investing would help to eliminate some of the politics around pension funds. As my colleague Chad Aldeman previously noted, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) black-listed certain money managers who ran afoul of the union’s priorities. Or conversely, some unions will attempt to make socially conscious investments such as avoiding weapons manufacturers. Passive investing allows pension funds to avoid these political issues.
To be sure, passive funds are not fool-proof. They follow the market, and if the market tanks so will they. A passive investment also won’t produce dramatic returns like someone who bought Amazon stock in the mid-1990s, or Bitcoin in more recent years. But index funds produce a greater than average return when the market is doing well, and can limit losses during a downturn. It is precisely this kind of investing strategy that pension funds need to grow their assets and meet their members’ financial needs.Taxonomy: