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  • Mayor Bloomberg Is Right About Public Pension Costs

    In a Sunday New York Times article about public pension costs, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has the following quote: “If I can give you one piece of financial advice: If somebody offers you a guaranteed 7 percent on your money for the rest of your life, you take it and just make sure the guy’s name is not Madoff.”

    Bloomberg was referring to a common problem with public pension accounting: In order to claim that they have enough money to pay future retirement benefits, fund managers assume that their investments will return 7–8 percent per year. There is nothing wrong with having a target or expected rate of return, but pension benefits are guaranteed. These benefits must be paid regardless of whether the funds hit their targets.

    When future benefits are guaranteed, a basic principle of financial economics teaches that actuaries must discount (reduce the value of) those future benefits at a risk-free rate, which is currently around 2–3 percent, not 7–8 percent.

    Bloomberg’s point is that it is “indefensible” (his word) to assume that pension funds can achieve high rates of return without anyone worrying about risk. Of course, using a lower discount rate means that public pension costs are much greater than what government actuaries claim, since lower investment earnings means more taxpayer contributions needed to pay benefits.

    The Heritage Foundation released two new papers today that detail the real cost of public pensions. This Backgrounder is a comprehensive and technical discussion of how to estimate pension costs using the risk adjustment advocated by financial economists. This Issue Brief, aimed at a wider audience, is the short version of the Backgrounder.

    The Issue Brief uses the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS) as an example. As also detailed today in an op-ed for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, proper risk-adjusting indicates that the WRS costs more than 2.5 times what the state claims. Seen in that light, the public-sector reforms signed by Governor Scott Walker (R) are rather modest.

    Wisconsin is far from unique in underestimating its pension costs, and nationwide reform is unlikely until taxpayers have a clear sense of what the real costs are.

    Posted in Economics [slideshow_deploy]

    6 Responses to Mayor Bloomberg Is Right About Public Pension Costs

    1. Bobbie says:

      that's beyond unfair to have guarantees in the government public sector when this bloated government is undisciplined to their oath of office, beyond the people's constitution causing definite contingency! How dare these burdens and infringements impose the people government says they're serving. Forget about a man who's suffering his own consequences from his own deviance. Bloomberg and the like, raises taxes to pay for government's failures to what they claim responsible for and all consequences on people uninvolved! WOW! Where has America gone?

    2. tim123 says:

      public pensions are out of control.

    3. Lawrence says:

      The Heritage op-ed offers a self-serving and misleading report for Walker to dismantle our national model public employee retirement system. It uses misinformation and omits relevant data that refutes their desired result.

      • saveamerica says:

        reality of public employees taking advantage of the tax payers through their union masters and the democratic party is in our face, where's your evidence?

    4. Blair Franconia, NH says:

      Public employees shouldn't be allowed to join unions. They have civil service protections. They should also pay
      more into their pensions.

    5. Ronald Derringer says:

      The Heritage analysis, and Mr Bloomburg's comments, do not acknowledge is that, with one exception, when fund performance falls below assumptions, benefits to retirees are cut. When performance exceeds assumptions, pensions are increased to help offset the impacts of inflation. Employees share the market risk and keep the taxpayer off the hook. Wisconsin's system is fully funded, market based and actuarially well managed. It cannot be compared to those irresponsible funds that failed to invest the funds to meet their obligations in the first place. Note: The funds averaged about 7% in the last, worst, ten years since the depression.

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