If a pension administrator assumes a 7 percent annual return, the pension looks a lot less underfunded than if the administrator assumes a 3 percent annual return. The problem is, there are no safe investments returning 7 percent these days. From Tyler Durden at zerohedge.com:
The phony assumptions that go into calculating public pension underfundings in the United States are a frequent topic for us. As our readers are aware, state pension administrators are given fairly wide leeway to simply pick a discount rate out of thin air. Of course, since pensions are nothing but a massive stream of future liabilities that stretch out into perpetuity, every 100 bps increase can substantially, and artificially, lower the fund’s reported underfunded level.
In fact, we estimated the impact of higher discount rates on underfunding levels in a post entitled “An Unsolvable Math Problem: Public Pensions Are Underfunded By As Much As $8 Trillion“…here was the result:
Fortunately, we’re not the only ones that see through the ridiculously phony assumptions that go into duping retirees and taxpayers as the team at American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has just dropped a report which reviews the financial health of public pensions all over the country if you toss out their 7.5% discount rate and replace it with a risk free rate…
Faulty accounting and reporting methods obscure the magnitude of unfunded liabilities. Partly in response to the devastating impact of the Great Recession, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) made two significant changes in 2012 (Statement No. 67, Financial Reporting for Pension Plans and Statement No. 68, Accounting and Financial Reporting for Pensions) to the methods used for measuring the financial health of pension plans. GASB intended these changes to increase transparency, consistency, and comparability of pension information. Public pensions are now required to report their assets and liabilities using a standardized actuarial cost method, to disclose investment returns, and to include unfunded pension liabilities on state balance sheets.
Unfortunately, states have found ways to work around these requirements and paint an unrealistically rosy picture of their pension funding status.
The Center for State Fiscal Reform at ALEC analyzes the annual official financial documents of more than 280 state-administered pension plans using more realistic investment return assumptions in order to gain a clearer picture of the pension problem. The unfunded liabilities of each pension plan are revalued using a discount rate equal to a risk-free rate of return, best represented by debt instruments issued by the United States government. This year’s study uses a risk-free rate of 2.142 percent, derived from an average of the 10- and 20-year U.S. Treasury bond yields over the course of 12 months spanning April 2016 to March 2017. Based on these revised investment return assumptions, we report on total unfunded pension liability, unfunded pension liabilities per capita, and the funding ratio of these plans.