Friday, October 14, 2016

Pat Pumps PERS

Hotdiggitydamn!!! The Executive Director of PERS must have had a conniption when Bloomberg said Mississippi had the tenth worst-funded public employees retirement system in the country.  She defended her administration of PERS in a  column published Sunday in the Clarion-Ledger.  The Kingfish posted her column below with some additional color commentary by yours truly.  Ms. Robertson wrote:

Our business is about the future. Every investment transacted, contribution received, benefit paid, law changed, regulation amended, decision acted on, and thought given is about meeting the promises we have made to the hundreds of thousands of people depending on us for their retirement.

We take this very seriously. And we know you do, too.

We also know that you might feel unsure about the future when you read headlines, articles, blog posts, and reports that come from sources other than the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi (PERS) that assert that Mississippi is in the midst of a pension crisis.

Unfortunately, Clarion-Ledger readers won't know what she is talking about since the "state newspaper" hasn't published this Bill Crawford columnBloomberg's reporting that PERS ranks in the bottom ten, or any of the information reported in these JJ posts.  No one has claimed PERS is broke or is about to blow up.  What has happened is some people (such as this correspondent) have read the financials and questioned whether PERS is on the right path.  However, such questions are discouraged.  The Executive Director continues:

Sensational as those headlines may be, there is truth to the fact that we have unfunded liabilities. We report these unfunded liabilities clearly every year in our annual reports, in our newsletters, in e-mail updates, and online. Our current funded status has hovered around 60 percent since 2011. And it may continue to do so for years to come as we work through one of the country’s most difficult financial times since the 1930s. The Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 was the biggest recession PERS has ever seen since it was established in 1952, but it was not the first. We also weathered the dot-com bust (1999-2001).

That said, I cannot agree that we are in a pension crisis.

There is just one problem with the assertion that PERS is still recovering from the Great Recession of 2007- it is simply not true . PERS has enjoyed some great market returns since the recession*:

2008: -8.2%
2009: -19.4%
2010: 14.1%
2011: 25%

2012: 0.6%
2013: 13.4%
2014: 18.3%

2015: 3.5%

PERS investments also achieved a double digit rate of return four out of six years since the "Great Recession" and did not go into negative territory after 2009.  There was even a five year rate of return of 14.8%.  How many JJ readers would love to have an average rate of return of 14.8%?

The market came back but left PERS in the dust just as it did when it recovered from the "dot com recession".  Remember, Ms. Robertson said PERS came back from that storm.  The actual data shows otherwise:

The PERS market returns after the 2001-2002 recession were:
2001: -7.1%
2002: -6.6%
2003: 3.5%
2004: 14.6%
2005: 9.8%
2006: 10.7%
2007: 18.9%

 The market came back but the PERS funding level fell from 87.4% in 2002 to 73.7% in 2007.  PERS sharpest declines took place after the recession and while it enjoyed double digit returns.  However, Ms. Robertson didn't exactly mention those facts in her column. 

We pay in excess of $150 million in benefits every month to more than 100,000 people. And we know that there are thousands of others who are expecting to receive their benefits when they retire. We work to ensure their monthly benefits will be paid, too. And they will be paid.

Our funded status means we presently have approximately 60 percent of the funds needed to pay not only all current benefits, but all projected and future benefits. Having an unfunded liability is analogous to having a mortgage and making mortgage payments faithfully every month while 60 percent of all the funds needed to pay the entire mortgage is in savings. Paying off the mortgage might be a desired or even preferred course of action, but having the mortgage is not a crisis. However, to ensure the long-term solvency of PERS and to ensure that we can pay benefits for years to come, the Board of Trustees, under the guidance of our consulting actuaries, manages the plan and monitors the funded status; the effects of which will be seen over time, albeit incrementally and very gradually.

 Ms. Robertson loves to use this mortgage comparison when she defends PERS.  PERS is indeed 60% funded.  No serious person c;laims PERS is broke.  PERS has $25 billion in assets but those assets, substantial as they are, can fund only 60% of the obligations to retirees.  However, retirement plans don't exactly cash out so PERS will indeed be stable for years to come.  However, the key to a successful pension plan is to ensure there is enough investment income to cover benefit payments without dipping into the assets so that assets may grow and generate even more investment income. 

Suppose you quit your job but have $100,000 in the bank.  Your monthly house note is $1,500 per month.  You can pay that house note with your savings for years without getting a job.  However, the day will come when you will be forced to either lose the house or generate some income.  The longer you delay getting a job, the easier it is going to be to lose that house.

Blithely stating that a 60% funding level is not really anything to worry about takes the same approach.  The Executive Director does not acknowledge there is a problem because PERS can meet its obligations for the near future.  What she doesn't mention is that if the funding level woes continue, the ratings agencies will come calling and that will be a problem.  It will also be a problem if the funding level continues to worsen. 

PERS has a real problem and it is ignored in this column.  See the chart below:

This chart shows the deficit between contributions and payments.  More public employees are retiring while fewer are working.  The deficit grew over half a billion dollars since the Great Recession and stood last year at nearly $800 million.  Those great market returns PERS enjoyed after 2009 were eaten alive by this deficit.  Investment income can cover these payments when there are decent market returns.  However, investment income can't cover benefits payments when market returns are small and more than three thousand retirees are added to the system each year.  This deficit is never mentioned by Ms. Robertson nor by the media.  However, one can excuse most of the media as it is like a tree at the end of a runway when it comes to these subjects.  Next comes the gobbledygook.

And as the hands of time slowly turn, taxpayers, media, and leadership begin to nervously tap their toes and allow their waning patience for substantial progress to turn their minds to the question of affordability for public retirement systems like PERS.

But there are two questions of affordability: Can Mississippi afford its public employees’ retirement system? And can Mississippi afford not to have a public employees’ retirement system? The respective answers are yes and no. The question of the affordability of PERS right now is best answered by looking at how much the state pays in contributions annually compared to how much it pays toward the rest of its expenses annually. Over the past 25 years — including the years of the Great Recession and the dot-com bust — the employer contributions paid to PERS by the state have remained less than 5 percent of the state’s overall expenses. Of the state’s $4.2 billion in expenses in 1990, 4.35 percent was paid to PERS. And of the state’s $16.3 billion in expenses in 2015, 4.65 percent was paid to PERS. The dollar amount that goes to PERS has risen over the past 25 years, but PERS’ percentage of the state’s overall spending has remained relatively consistent.

This passage throws out quite a few numbers but ignores the most important one: the deficit between payments and contributions.  Next comes the fear-mongering and blackmail:

So, that leaves the question of the affordability of not having a public employees’ retirement system in Mississippi.  Even being decades away from funding all of PERS’ liabilities and even with PERS being a steady percentage of the state’s annual expenses, the state benefits by about $2.7 billion annually from having a public employees’ retirement system with the creation of jobs and retiree spending, according to the 2016 National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS) Pensionomics study.

NIRS reports that “Each $1 in state and local pension benefits paid to Mississippi residents ultimately supported $1.25 in total output in the state. This ‘multiplier’ incorporates the direct, indirect, and induced impacts of retiree spending, as it ripples through the state economy.” NIRS further reports that “Each $1 in taxpayer (employer) contributions to Mississippi’s state and local pension plans supported $4.63 in total output in the state. This reflects the fact that taxpayer contributions are a minor source of financing for retirement benefits — investment earnings and employee contributions finance the lion’s share.”

But the economic impact of PERS goes beyond helping with job creation and providing economic benefits to even the smallest of communities in the state. These factors work to assist in keeping many individuals off of social services. Furthermore, having a public employees’ retirement system is a key part of the overall compensation package used by state and local governments to recruit the needed workforce to do the jobs that we depend on to keep state and local government, schools, safety systems, utilities, public hospitals, libraries, etc. going.

The message is quite clear: don't look at PERS.  Don't think about PERS.  Leave PERS to us and don't worry your pretty little heads about it.  She cites economic multipliers that rarely hold up to scrutiny. If you tamper with PERS, then you are going to ruin economies and blow up the state budget because everyone will be starving.  The Republicans want to kill your grannie.  Got it. 

Ms. Robertson also states that taxpayer contributions are "minor" but then states that employee contributions constitute a large share of PERS funding.  Um, Ms. Robertson, who exactly pays the salaries and benefits of public employees?   Ms. Robertson then addresses the issue of management fees. 

The relationship between the taxpaying public and the state’s public employees’ retirement system is a symbiotic one. Cost is associated with running a $25.4 billion pension system (2015), but that cost affords the state and her people a strong source of economic activity for each and every community throughout the state, security for a large number of our elderly, and a valuable recruitment tool for drawing in dedicated public servants who keep our state educated, safe, and running smoothly.

Rest assured, the PERS Board of Trustees and staff at PERS are and will continue working to provide secure benefits to our members. We do this to keep our promises, and we do this because we know secure benefits help to keep PERS affordable and are a pivotal part of providing quality public service to the people of Mississippi.
 We have to pay the piper but don't question the piper.  Ms. Robertson has a point.  This is Mississippi.  We can't question Dr. Wright's crony contracts, the contracts thrown to Friends of Pheel, or campaign finance reports so why should we question paying millions of dollars in management fees every year?

The problem PERS faces is structural in nature.  The retirees and other beneficiaries continue to grow in number but the contributions paid into the system continue to fall.  The ratio of active workers to retirees declined from  2.4 in 2006 to 1.6 in 2015.  The PERS portfolio earned a return of 18% in 2014 but the growth in retirees prevented it from enjoying the full benefits of that return.  The slightly positive rate of return in 2015 was not enough to keep the funding level from falling by half a point.  The deficit's growth ate up nearly all of the investment income. PERS also increased the amortization period to 32 years.

However, some people don't want such facts mentioned nor their assertions questioned.  After all, this is Mississippi.  

*Here are the market returns since 2000:

2000: 8.4%
2001: -7.1%
2002: -6.6%
2003: 3.5%
2004: 14.6%
2005: 9.8%
2006: 10.7%
2007: 18.9%
2008: -8.2%
2009: -19.4%
2010: 14.1%
2011: 25%
2012: 0.6%
2013: 13.4%
2014: 18.3%
2015: 3.5%


Anonymous said...

The mortgage analogy fails completely -- in fact, it borders on being deliberately misleading.

The tacit assumptions when you talk about paying a mortgage are (1) that you have a job or an independent source of income that covers the payment; and (2) that the mortgage amount will go down over time. Neither is true for a pension plan.

First, with a pension plan, the 60% you have in the "bank" IS THE ONLY THING YOU HAVE to generate income to pay off the mortgage. There is no "job" or other source of income.

Second, you're not paying down a set amount that shrinks over time. You're keeping up with a permanent obligation that grows over time.

This means, as KF suggests, that having a small percentage of your total obligation on hand is a big problem. Having a shrinking percentage even as the market is doing well is a huge problem -- it means the issue is not a cyclical slowdown in the economy, but rather the fact that YOU ARE MAKING COMMITMENTS THAT ARE OUT OF LINE WITH WHAT YOU WILL EVER CONCEIVABLY BE ABLE TO PAY.

Bottom line: if you think PERS will average 20+% returns over the next 30 years --which is what it has to do to avoid eating its capital and eventually collapsing-- then by all means drink the Kool-Aid.

If on the other hand, you realize that assumption is insane, it's time for some real grown up talk on what employees have to contribute, when they can retire, and what they can expect when they do.

Retired City Employee said...

All I know is this.....years ago I worked for the city for 12 years. Shortly before I turned 60, the city personnel department called me about applying for my PERS retirement. I did and was certainly pleasantly surprised when they informed me I would be getting almost 25% annually of the TOTAL amount I had contributed during the 12 years. $20k and change put into my PERS account and $412/month I would get from PERS (or my wife if I die before she does) for the set of our lives. With COLA it is now over $500/month.


Anonymous said...

The plans assets used in computing the 60% already includes the projected future contributions. Our state leadership has their heads in the sand and are ignoring the problem. they are no different from Washington's liberal Democrats. Just lie about, cover it up and let it become someone else's problem down the road.

Anonymous said...

No discussion of the offsetting negative payout due to death of beneficiaries. I think JJ and PERS are "cooking the books" in
making their argument.

Anonymous said...

To 3:22PM

I am not certain about this, but I am pretty sure that the funding level figures take into account the actuarial impacts of beneficiary deaths and attrition from the plan.

I welcome feedback from others who may be better informed.

Anonymous said...

Below is a link to a very interesting article illustrating in a vivid and real-world way exactly what is going on with PERS and many, many other pensions.

The article describes the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) "termination liability" calculation that applies to municipalities who elect to withdraw from their programs. In this case, 4 retirees - who were already drawing from their pensions - would cost the city $1.6M in "termination fees" in order to continue drawing their full pension benefits. So, CalPERS is admitting that if all contributions to the fund stopped today, there would not be enough money to pay CURRENT RETIREES (not to mention the currently employed but future retirees). In other words, CalPERS (and MS PERS and many other PERS, for that matter) needs contributions from the currently-employed to pay benefits to the already-retired.

There is a term for this kind of financial arrangement: It begins with "P" and ends with "I" and there is a "Z" somewhere in between.

Anonymous said...

Ok chicken Little's.....

We are all broke.

Is there a solution?

Stop these plans now?

Create another frame work?

Or wait for it to implode and pick up the pieces and figure it out then?

The religious zealots will be in charge persecuting gays and blacks for the meltdown....sorry folks....that's how this story ends....oh....and the Jews....y'all are screwed too.

Anonymous said...

There was even a five year rate of return of 14.8%. How many JJ readers would love to have an average rate of return of 14.8%?

Looking at the rate of return while excluding consideration of the risk of the chosen investments? My brother in law knows a guy who recommends you could put it all in options and defaulted junk bonds. The PERS rate of return needs to be compared to the market rate of return, and to similar pension funds with comparable asset allocations and risk profiles to draw useful performance conclusions.

Page references below are to this report.

The goal of PERS attaining an 80% funded level by 2042 assumes PERS earns a 7.75% annual rate on it's investments through 2042, and that nothing else changes. This 7.75% ARoR is slightly more realistic than the 8.0% ARoR used until July 1 2015. (page 23)

How likely is the ARoR to be 7.75% over the next 26 years? That probably depends on how many secular bull markets you want to forecast, and whether you start 2017 nearer a market top or a market bottom. Look at the Annualized Rate of Return chart on page 23. Are things starting to get back to normal? Or perhaps there is there a new normal?

The Unfunded Accrued Liability is one of the numbers that tells how sick PERS is.

This number (Unfunded Accrued Liability) gets smaller with:

1. Exceedance of the 7.75% ARoR target,

2. Increases in employer and/or employee contribution

3. Decreases in benefits to be paid.

This number gets larger with the reverse of the above.

The impact of of any under performance in the investment portfolio is illustrated by the chart on page 11. More than half of the "PERS Pension Buck" over the last 30 years is investment income. A few cents short on the buck in the first few years of the 2042 projections and the magic of compounding will mean these projections will need a major adjustment or to be consumed with a much larger dose of hopium.

See the Graph and the numbers on pages 26 and 27. Since the year 1996 the Unfunded Accrued Liability has declined in actual dollars in the following years: 199,1998, 2001 and 2014. Since the year 1996 the Unfunded Accrued Liability has increased from $2.5 billion to $16 billion in 2015.

Since it's government money, all the fees and costs paid by PERS (which come right off the top every year) should be looked at to see how efficient this part of the operation is.

Anonymous said...

Minor typo, the first year below was 1997. The paragraph should be:

See the Graph and the numbers on pages 26 and 27. Since the year 1996 the Unfunded Accrued Liability has declined in actual dollars in the following years: 1997,1998, 2001 and 2014. Since the year 1996 the Unfunded Accrued Liability has increased from $2.5 billion to $16 billion in 2015.

Look at the chart on page 26 and 27. What (if anything) has changed in the administration of PERS that will change the outcome predicted by both the unmistakable trend of increasing Accrued Liability and increasing Unfunded Accrued Liability. The growing percentage difference between the promise and the actuarial reality, and the magnitude of the shortfall in billions of dollars illustrate the problem. 2014 was the first year since 2001 that Unfunded Accrued Liability decreased. It decreased from $15.1 billion to $14.4 billion. In 2015 that small progress was reversed as as Unfunded Accrued Liability increased to $16.0 billion.

Anonymous said...

Not to overlook the fact that the taxpayer is contributing 15.75% of wages to the fund. A ridiculous rate considering a typically generous retirement contribution match in private industry of 6%.

According to Tim Kalich of the Greenwood Commonwealth, beginning last year, new governmental accounting rules required each of the nearly 900 employers in the PERS system - state and local governments, school districts, community colleges, universities, municipal utilities, etc. to record the $12.5 BILLION dollars in unfunded liabilities of the PERS fund to each of the governmental entities' balance sheets. Which of course weakens each of the public entity's financials along with reducing their ability to borrow money and obtain favorable interest rates. One would hope taxpayers on the local level will now wake up to what this program is truly costing our state.

Anonymous said...

This has a pretty simple solution. Decrease benefits. Roll back legislation that increased benefits one act at a time until the unfunded liability drops to an acceptable level. Grandfather in current employees by not changing the plan in place when they were hired. Do this for all new hires. Problem solved.

Anonymous said...

The reason the contributions are falling is two fold. The first being that those with control of the government have cut jobs, which, to a certain extent, is a good thing. Second, why would any talented individual take a job with the state? The benefits are terrible, the people in charge are usually worse than the benefits due to our church system of promotion by politics, and unaccountability seems to permeate government jobs as a whole. Did I forget to mention that the last time I checked the state was requiring workers to contribute 12% on an 8 year vesting schedule? I guess making them feel trapped is one way to hold on to employees.
When I read articles like this I thank the lord that I moved to Memphis to watch Mississippi burn. The rest of the nation laughs for a reason, it's because the voters single handedly elect the worst possible leaders who only validate what those laughing knew all along.

Anonymous said...

I sure glad I have nothing to do with this farce of a retirement plan.

Anonymous said...

If you live and pay taxes in Mississippi @8:51 eventually this is going to bite you. Only unknown is the size of the haircut all the applicable parties will have to take.

Anonymous said...

PERS also assumes an annual 3% payroll contribution increase in their financial assumptions. And just a few years ago PERS also had an annual 8% return baked into their projections.... Only state legislature can make policy/plan changes to PERS. That's the problem. Employees contribute 9% of their pay to their own plan. However the employer (taxpayer) contribution rate in now 15.75%. Therein lies another built in problem. But legislature doesn't want to tell joe the cop or Larry the teacher to dig into their own pocket for a higher contribution amount. Oh, and the state pays over 35% contribution rate for highway patrol... and yes, all PERS member units have to account for the unfounded liability (GASB) based on a formula. Which does negatively impact such financials.

Anonymous said...

11:07 see 2:18.

About To Join The Yawners.. said...

I'm not sure what the difference would be, but if we stopped retirees from returning as independent contractors, that would benefit PERS. If I retire on PERS and a month or two later return as a contractor (or is the requirement - matters not), I don't pay anyting into the system yet I occupy the job of someone would IF they were hired as an employee.

Somebody wiser than I would have to speak to the cost-benefit analysis of that, considering benefits, salary, insurance, etc, plus the employer having to contribute if I were an employee and not a contractor.

Secondly, I'm pretty certain that a blog-article on the subject of retirement for government employees is unrelated to contracts by Carey Wright and the Governor. So there's that.

Third: I always struggle to be comfortable with the credibility of a report from a blogger when the underlying premise is 'See, I told you dumbasses', or, "I been tellin' you simpletons this thing is a mess". Can't that frame be replaced with something more productive?

Lastly: There will always be a comment or two that attempts to scare people into thinking their taxes are going up to prop up this (or any other) system. State income taxes have not been raised in how many years? And they're about to be reduced! Government agencies pay the contributions, not citizens. Of course government agencies get those dollars from budget lines which come, indirectly, from state funds which are tax-payer based. But that's a helluva long stretch from 'your taxes are going up to pay for this'.

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