The Bush years are certainly the gift that keeps on giving, aren't they? All those people who had jobs with what they thought was a secure future are all going to be scraping by on Social Security. Oh, and I just read that one of the largest long-term care insurers is about to collapse. Sure would be nice if FDR was around - maybe he could dream up some real solutions, like national health insurance...
The financial crisis has blown a hole in the rosy forecasts of pension funds that cover teachers, police officers and other government employees, casting into doubt as never before whether these public systems will be able to keep their promises to future generations of retirees.
The upheaval on Wall Street has deluged public pension systems with losses that government officials and consultants increasingly say are insurmountable unless pension managers fundamentally rethink how they pay out benefits or make money or both.
Within 15 years, public systems on average will have less than half the money they need to pay pension benefits, according to an analysis by Pricewaterhouse Coopers. Other analysts say funding levels could hit that low within a decade.
After losing about $1 trillion in the markets, state and local governments are facing a devil's choice: Either slash retirement benefits or pursue high-return investments that come with high risk.
The urgent need for outsize returns by these vast public pension funds, which must hit high investment targets year after year to keep pace with rising retirement costs, is in turn fueling a renewed appetite for risk on Wall Street.
Before the crisis, many public pension funds had experimented with risky trading techniques or committed more of their money to hedge funds and other nontraditional firms, which in turn invested some of it in complex mortgage securities. When these melted down, pension funds got burned.
Now, facing an even bigger funding gap, some systems are investing in the same securities, betting that a rebound in their value will generate huge returns.
"The amount that needs to be made up is enormous," said Peter Austin, executive director of BNY Mellon Pension Services. "Frankly, they are forced to continue their allocation in these high-return asset classes because that's their only hope."