Category Archives: Pensions

America’s long-term challenge #2: the looming retirement crisis, by Simon Black

Many people have saved very little for their retirements, but of course they have nothing to worry about. The government will take care of them. From Simon Black at sovereignman.com:

Last week, the financial services giant Northwestern Mutual released new data showing that 1 in 3 Americans has less than $5,000 in retirement savings.

It’s an unfortunately familiar story. And Northwestern Mutual’s data is entirely aligned with other research we’ve seen in the past, including our own.

The Federal Reserve’s most recent Survey of Consumer Finances, for example, shows that the median bank balance among US consumers is just $2,900.

And Bank of America’s annual report from last year showed that the average balance per HOUSEHOLD (i.e. -not- per person) was $12,870… which was actually LESS than the average account balance that Bank of America reported in 1997!

On average, the typical US household has less savings today than they did 20 years ago… and almost nothing put away for retirement.

In fact 21% of Americans (based on Northwestern Mutual’s data) have absolutely nothing saved for retirement.

And 33% of Baby Boomers, the generation closest to retirement, have between $0 and $25,000 saved for retirement.

That’s hardly enough savings to last more than a few years… and a major reason why most retirees currently rely on Social Security to meet their monthly living expenses.

According to a Gallup poll from last May, 58% of US retirees said that they rely on Social Security as their major source of income. They simply don’t have enough of their own personal savings stashed away.

But as we’ve discussed many times before, Social Security is rapidly running out of money.

The most recent report from Social Security’s Board of Trustees (which includes the US Secretaries of the Treasury, Labor, and Health & Human Services) tells us that the program’s cost has exceeded its tax revenue since 2010.

Last year this shortfall was $59 billion, 11% worse than in 2016.

And in order to make up the difference and cover this deficit, Social Security has to dip into its trust fund, effectively burning through the program’s savings.

The problem with this approach is that, eventually, these annual deficits will burn through ALL of the program’s savings.

The government knows this; the Board of Trustees even state this in their annual report, projecting that the Social Security trust funds will become fully depleted in 2034.

Sixteen years may seem like a long way off. But we’re talking about retirement here. You’re supposed to think long-term about retirement. And the math simply doesn’t add up.

To continue reading: America’s long-term challenge #2: the looming retirement crisis

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Why This Is About To Get Far Worse…by Chris Hamilton

Demographically, across the developed world robust growth is not in the cards . From Chris Hamilton at economica.com:

Once upon a time, skeptical analysts cross checked stated growth versus energy consumption…looking for discrepancies as fluctuations in energy consumption are a good proxy for the changes in real economic activity.

Nowadays, the model of printing highly politicized and/or skewed economic data has gone very global.  So, today I offer a couple broad variables to gauge global economic activity; 1) total primary energy consumption data by region, cross checked against 2) their consumer bases (the 0-65yr/old populations).  I break the world down into four different regions to gain a better vantage of the purported global recovery, as follows:

  • OECD (List of 35 nations) representing 17% of global population & 43% of total energy consumption
  • Combined Africa / S. Asia (S. Asia = India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives) representing 41% of global population & 9% of total energy consumption
  • China, representing 19% of global population & 22% of energy consumption
  • “RoW” or Rest of the World, representing 23% of global population & 26% of global energy consumption

The first chart below shows total global primary energy consumption in quadrillion BTU’s from 1980 through 2015 according to the EIA (US Energy Information Administration).  The flattening in consumption since 2012 is plainly visible in the upper right and clearly detailed in the year over year columns in the lower right.  The arrows highlight minimal growth or outright energy consumption declines that were associated with recessionary periods.  The weakness of the current period since 2012 is unparalleled from 1980 on…and even more significant than the sharp but brief downturn of 2009.

To continue reading: Why This Is About To Get Far Worse…

The Pension Crisis Is Worse Than You Think, by Lance Roberts

The pension crisis is here, it’s bad, and it will only get worse. From Lance Roberts at realinvestmentadvice.com:

Last year I penned an article discussing the “Unavoidable Pension Crisis.” 

“Currently, many pension funds, like the one in Houston, are scrambling to slightly lower return rates, issue debt, raise taxes or increase contribution limits to fill some of the gaping holes of underfunded liabilities in their plans. The hope is such measures combined with an ongoing bull market, and increased participant contributions, will heal the plans in the future.

This is not likely to be the case.

This problem is not something born of the last ‘financial crisis,’ but rather the culmination of 20-plus years of financial mismanagement.

An April 2016 Moody’s analysis pegged the total 75-year unfunded liability for all state and local pension plans at $3.5 trillion. That’s the amount not covered by current fund assets, future expected contributions, and investment returns at assumed rates ranging from 3.7% to 4.1%. Another calculation from the American Enterprise Institute comes up with $5.2 trillion, presuming that long-term bond yields average 2.6%.

With employee contribution requirements extremely low, averaging about 15% of payroll, the need to stretch for higher rates of return have put pensions in a precarious position and increases the underfunded status of pensions.”

But it is actually worse than we originally thought as Aaron Brown recently penned:

“Today, the hard stop is five to 10 years away, within the career plans of current officials.  In the next decade, and probably within five years, some large states are going to face insolvency due to pensions, absent major changes.

If we extrapolate from the past, rather than use promises in the state budget, current employees plus the state will contribute about $25 billion over those seven years, which could provide another few years before the till is empty. But it will also add around $60 billion of future liabilities to current employees.The system probably breaks down before the pension fund gets to zero, for example if assets were to fall below $30 billion while projected future liabilities exceeded $300 billion. Even the most optimistic people would have to admit the situation is unsustainable. This could happen in three years in a bad stock market, or perhaps 10 with good stock returns.But fund assets are so low relative to payouts that good returns aren’t that helpful.

The next phase of public pension reform will likely be touched off by a stock market decline that creates the real possibility of at least one state fund running out of cash within a couple of years. The math says that tax increases and spending cuts cannot do much.

To continue reading: The Pension Crisis Is Worse Than You Think

Running on Empty, by Robert Gore

They dote on their progeny, then bury them alive.

Across the land, public pension and medical funds teeter on the brink of insolvency. You can ignore pending problems until you can’t. For those who prize clarity and realistic thinking, these impossible to ignore crises should be welcomed. They focus attention on an inescapable fact: the world lacks the unencumbered assets and productive capacity to redeem the promises that have been made against them. Somebody’s going to get stiffed.

With war on everyone’s minds, public pension and medical funds delineate inevitable battles lines: governments versus taxpayers, the unproductive versus the productive, the aging versus the young. Those wars are liable to be far more consequential than the ones everyone worries about in places like the Middle East and North Korea.

Nothing calls attention to the absurdity riddling the public pension system quite like the $76,000 monthly pension drawn by Joseph Robertson, an eye surgeon who retired as president of the Oregon Health and Science University last fall.

In the good old days, government employment meant low pay, but job security and a decent pension. Now such sinecures means wages in excess of those paid in the private sector plus pensions that are far more munificent…and job security. For a lucky few like Doctor Robertson, their pensions are a triple 7 jackpot. Oregon calculates pensions based not just on recipients’ government salaries, but what they receive on any non-government gigs they had going on the side. Robertson’s pension is based on his remuneration as university president and what he made operating on eyeballs.

This is what happens when actuarial tables and actual rates of return are discarded in favor of the political power of public employees and their unions, promises that can’t be kept, and taxpayers picking up the tab who have no idea what the final bill will be. Public pension and medical crises bring into sharp relief the writing on the wall: Governments Can’t Deliver.

As Charles Hugh Smith recently noted, public retirement and medical liabilities are increasing so fast that no amount of tax increases can keep up. Long before a 100 percent tax rate turns taxpayers into slaves, raising tax rates becomes counterproductive, yielding less, not more, revenues. One of the nifty things about the public pension and medical crisis is that it’s local. As such, it’s offering real world demonstrations that when local jurisdictions raise rates to fund their pensions, productive people leave.

The poster child is Illinois. The state on down to its smallest political subdivisions—like the town of Harvey—are buried beneath underfunded pensions. Illinois’ courts have ruled pensions are inviolable, which leaves governments facing insolvency with only two options: raise taxes and cut spending.

Harvey was ordered by a court to fund its firefighters’ pension fund, which is only 22 percent funded. The town’s property tax rate is six times the average rate in nearby Indiana, and Harvey is still coming up short. The state is garnishing its tax revenues, and the town has announced 40 public safety employees will be laid off. Why would anyone paying taxes in Harvey stick around for a future of ever-increasing taxes and ever-diminishing public services?

Many don’t, and Harvey and other localities in Illinois, including Chicago, are losing people. Out-migration statistics in Illinois, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, and other net-loser states don’t capture the full scope of the problem. If one productive person moves out while one unproductive person moves in and starts living off state largess, there’s been no net out-migration, but the state suffers a loss (obvious to everyone except those fools and charlatans who will plump for an open-arms and open-wallet approach right up until bankruptcy).

Out-migration will get worse for net-loser states as the federal tax limitations on the deductibility of state and local taxes (SALT) kicks in. SALT has been capped at $10,000. After that, the wealthy have to pay the full measure of their high-tax states’ income, property, and sales taxes. The migration is gathering steam. It already costs twice as much to rent self-moving truck services from high-tax Los Angeles to low-tax Dallas as vice versa, and that spread will only widen.

State and local governments, their employees, and those on the dole can’t stop the productive from voting with their feet. The number who leave the US, however, is still a trickle. The federal government’s old age and medical funding problems, orders of magnitude greater than states’ and municipalities’, are no longer looming; they’ve arrived. The government could seal the borders to lock in the productive, but it wouldn’t prevent the slow-motion, but accelerating, catastrophe now underway.

The federal government’s ability to issue virtually unlimited debt and the Federal Reserve debt monetization machine mask the rot, but only create problems far larger than the ones they putatively solve. Low interest rates have destroyed state and local funds’ ability to achieve fairly safe returns, forcing them out on the risk curve to meet their rate of return targets, which are way too high. Underfunded as they are now, bear markets in stocks and bonds would obliterate them.

Encouraged by central bank debt promotion policies, individual, corporate, local, state, and federal debt has reached new records. While low interest rates have ameliorated the debt service burden, even they can’t stymie the toll debt is taking on the economy. Look no farther than real annual GDP growth, which hasn’t hit 3 percent since Bush Jr. was in office. Less growth means less tax revenues, which only exacerbates funding problems.

The older generation is pinning its retirement hopes on a younger generation confronted with huge debt, perpetually rising taxes, a shrinking economy, and dwindling opportunity. That’s not like hoping you can draw to an inside straight, it’s going all in, exchanging your hand for five new cards, and hoping you draw four aces. Good luck with that.

Oldsters like to complain that the youngsters are too preoccupied with gadgets and social media. They wish that were true. The youngsters are already questioning their impending debt servitude. The more perceptive are homing in on their parents’ generation’s self-granted benefits and unrivaled profligacy. You don’t have to search too far on the internet and social media to see the awakening.

Doting parents and grandparents who post their darlings’ every precocious moment and wouldn’t dream of letting them walk a block to school by themselves have no compunction about burying them alive under welfare and warfare state IOUs. In a world riven with conflict, the easiest war to predict is the intergenerational one.

It’s not strictly accurate to say that the state and local public pension and medical funds’ crisis is the canary in the coal mine. It is but one in an aviary of canaries. The fund canary is in extremis and may well be the first to expire; the others will certainly follow. Picture the horror as the adult canaries and their fledglings wage mortal combat for those last few molecules of oxygen.

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The Pension Crisis Gets A Catchy Name: “Silver Tsunami”, by John Rubino

Promises, promises. Inadequate contributions, ever-escalating benefits, and an aging baby boomer population are behind a pension crisis that’s becoming more apparent by the day. From John Rubino at dollarcollapse.com:

Pensions really are in crisis, but the story is so full of large numbers, obscure projections, and dry terms like “unfunded liabilities” that not many people are paying attention.

The same is true for a lot of other big trends out there, which is why those sounding the alarm eventually settle on pithy/scary (if not always accurate) terms to get people’s attention. Global warming, for instance, or nuclear winter.

Now the pension crisis may have found its hook:

‘Silver Tsunami’ hits as pension costs devour California school budgets

(San Francisco Chronicle) – What happens when state funding improves, but local school budgets get worse? And how did we get into this situation in the first place?

It’s simple. School systems are getting hammered by the rising costs of pension and health care commitments. Meanwhile, they are being pinched by external factors including declining student enrollment, increased competition and frozen federal funding.

California is not an anomaly. Districts throughout the nation are facing the same squeeze.

So why isn’t anyone paying attention? Three main reasons:

Money is boring: And only boring people like chief financial officers talk about money and use phrases like “unfunded liabilities.” Interesting, cutting-edge people talk about “disruptive innovations” like personalized learning, or anything with the word “maker” in it.

Money is politically messy. Everyone wants funding for their favorite education project. In this zero-sum world, no one wants to talk about making tough choices. Even fewer want to discuss sensitive topics such as pension and health care liabilities.

Education finance has never been part of our nation’s education wars. Most of the opinion makers in education are like the Great Houses of Westeros in the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” They are much happier fighting each other to the death about issues like unions and charter schools than focusing on the more powerful forces that could destroy them all.

In “Game of Thrones,” that force is the White Walkers. In education, it’s the “Silver Tsunami” — the tens of billions of dollars in pension and other post-retirement benefits guaranteed to retirees.

To continue reading: The Pension Crisis Gets A Catchy Name: “Silver Tsunami”

The War between Public Pensioners and Tax Donkeys Is Heating Up, by Charles Hugh Smith

The tax donkeys win this battle by withdrawing from it, a la Atlas Shrugged. From Charles Hugh Smith at oftwominds.com:

The migration is only beginning, but that’s only half the story.

You know it’s serious when the newspaper of record finally reports it: A $76,000 Monthly Pension: Why States and Cities Are Short on Cash (New York Times).

It’s a long article but the summary is brief: corrupt politicos promised the moon to public employees, and now the fiscal chickens of insolvency are coming home to roost.

Public pension obligations are rising so fast that even repeated tax increases can’t keep up.

This is setting up a second front in the war between entitled Baby Boomersand younger taxpayers who pay most of the federal and local taxes. Public pensioners are a subset of the entitled Baby Boomers, but their pensions can’t be paid with borrowed money like Social Security and Medicare; public pension obligations come out of local and state taxes, and as those obligations soar then public services must be slashed and taxes jacked up by annual double-digit increases.

So there is a war brewing between public pensioners and the Tax Donkeys: the Unprotected who pay local property taxes on their homes, state and local taxes on their incomes, sales taxes on their purchases, junk fees on local government services, and so on.

Corrupt politicos created the war by over-promising benefits to public employees and ignoring fiscal realities. By the time the bill comes due, the politicos who rubber-stamped the unaffordable promises are themselves gorging at the public-pension retiree trough.

Not every public employee is receiving gold-plated pensions and benefits, of course, but that doesn’t negate the reality that nationally, public pensions are increasing faster than government revenues and the returns earned by the pension programs.

If the stock and bond markets suffer multi-year declines, even modest declines, the pension war will move from skirmishes to open political combat.The 2008-09 Global Financial Meltdown was a taste of the reality facing public pension programs: once annual returns slip from +7% annually to -7% annually, the pension plans are soon insolvent.

Like virtually all wars, there are asymmetries between the two combatants: in the war between public pensioners and the Tax Donkeys, the pensioners can’t switch pension programs, but the Tax Donkeys can move to lower-tax states.

To continue reading: The War between Public Pensioners and Tax Donkeys Is Heating Up

 

More Absolutely Crazy Pension News, by John Rubino

One government employee in Oregon receives a pension of $76,111…per month! From John Rubino at dollarcollapse.com:

“War” and “pensions” are conceptually about as different as it’s possible to be. But – in a measure of how far into Crazy Town we’ve wandered – they’re both taking the world in the same direction.

If a Middle East (or Asian!) war doesn’t spike oil prices and push the global economy into recession, then pensions will probably produce the same end result. Here’s an excerpt from a much longer New York Times article that should be read in its entirety for a sense of what public finance has become:

A $76,000 Monthly Pension: Why States and Cities Are Short on Cash

A public university president in Oregon gives new meaning to the idea of a pensioner.

Joseph Robertson, an eye surgeon who retired as head of the Oregon Health & Science University last fall, receives the state’s largest government pension.

It is $76,111.

Per month.

That is considerably more than the average Oregon family earns in a year.

Oregon — like many other states and cities, including New Jersey, Kentucky and Connecticut — is caught in a fiscal squeeze of its own making. Its economy is growing, but the cost of its state-run pension system is growing faster. More government workers are retiring, including more than 2,000, like Dr. Robertson, who get pensions exceeding $100,000 a year.

The state is not the most profligate pension payer in America, but its spiraling costs are notable in part because Oregon enjoys a reputation for fiscal discipline. Its experience shows how faulty financial decisions by states can eventually swamp local communities.

Oregon’s costs are inflated by the way in which it calculates pension benefits for public employees. Some of the pensions include income that employees earned on the side. Other retirees benefit from long-ago stock market rallies that inflated the current value of their payouts.

For example, the pension for Mike Bellotti, the University of Oregon’s head football coach from 1995 to 2008, includes not just his salary but also money from licensing deals and endorsements that the Ducks’ athletic program generated. Mr. Bellotti’s pension is more than $46,000 a month.

The bill is borne by taxpayers. Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System has told cities, counties, school districts and other local entities to contribute more to keep the system afloat. They can neither negotiate nor raise local taxes fast enough to keep up. As a result, pensions are crowding out other spending. Essential services are slashed.

To continue reading: More Absolutely Crazy Pension News