March 4, 2009

Go read the whole thing, if you have the stomach. See, this is the whole thing about the Republican-dominated economic policies of the past three decades: They just don't work. You can't magically make liabilities go away by deferring them, but God forbid these pants-wetting politicians should actually take a leadership position in favor of higher taxes now when it could save billions of dollars later! Why, the scary Club for Growth might say "Boo!" to them!

March 3 (Bloomberg) -- The Chicago Transit Authority retirement plan had a $1.5 billion hole in its stash of assets in 2007. At the height of a four-year bull market, it didn’t have enough cash on hand to pay its retirees through 2013, meaning it was underfunded to the tune of 62 percent.

The CTA, which manages the second-largest public transit system in the U.S., had to hope for a huge contribution from the Illinois state legislature. That wasn’t going to happen.

Then the authority found an answer.

“We’ve identified the problem and a solution,” said CTA Chairman Carole Brown on April 16, 2007. The agency decided to raise money from a bond sale.

A year later, it asked Illinois Auditor General William Holland to research its plan. The state hired an actuary, did a study and, on July 17, concluded that the sale of bonds would most likely result in a loss of taxpayers’ money.

Thirteen days after that, the CTA ignored the warning and issued $1.9 billion in bonds. Before the year ended, the pension fund was paying out more to bondholders than it was earning on its new influx of money. Instead of closing its funding gap, the CTA was falling further behind.

Public pension funds across the U.S. are hiding the size of a crisis that’s been looming for years. Retirement plans play accounting games with numbers, giving the illusion that the funds are healthy.

The paper alchemy gives governors and legislators the easy choice to contribute too little or nothing to the funds, year after year.

The misleading numbers posted by retirement fund administrators help mask this reality: Public pensions in the U.S. had total liabilities of $2.9 trillion as of Dec. 16, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Their total assets are about 30 percent less than that, at $2 trillion.

With stock market losses this year, public pensions in the U.S. are now underfunded by more than $1 trillion.

That lack of funds explains why dozens of retirement plans in the U.S. have issued more than $50 billion in pension obligation bonds during the past 25 years -- more than half of them since 1997 -- public records show.

The quick fix for pension funds becomes a future albatross for taxpayers.

[...] By law, states must guarantee public pension fund debts.

“What appears to be a riskless strategy is actually very risky,” says David Zion, director of accounting research for New York-based Credit Suisse Holdings USA Inc. “If the returns on the pension bond-financed assets don’t exceed the cost of servicing the debt, the taxpayers bear the brunt.”

Baseline Scenario says:

These optimistic assumptions are bad enough, because they allow underfunding of pensions. But what’s even more bizarre is the behavior this causes. As the Bloomberg article explains, local governments issue pension obligation bonds to raise cash for their pension funds. These bonds usually pay fixed interest rates, say 6%, and the proceeds are then invested in risky assets. But the magical thing is that because you are allowed to assume an 8% return, for pension accounting purposes, the difference between 8% and 6% is free money!

Well, it’s free money as far as this year’s assessment of the pension is concerned. In the long term, of course, it’s a crazy investment strategy (and a mistake many people make - comparing a risk-free interest rate you borrow money at with a risky expected rate you hope to earn). And the results in the future are predictable: either higher taxes, or yet more value-destroying pension obligation bonds. Sometimes people get caught saying stupid things, like Christine Whitman saying, “You’d be crazy not to have done this. It’s not a gimmick. This is an ongoing benefit to taxpayers,” but it’s really a systemic problem.

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