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A Few Simple Charts Spell Disaster For Public Pension Ponzi Schemes

Earlier today, Milliman released their 2017 Public Pension Funding Study which explores the funded status of the 100 largest U.S. public pension plans.  Not surprisingly, this study only served to confirm many of the rather alarming trends surrounding public pension ponzi's that we discuss on a regular basis.

Starting with a high-level status update, Milliman figures the largest 100 public pensions were roughly just as underfunded on June 30, 2017 as they were on June 30, 2016...not an encouraging development given that the S&P 500 surged 15% over that same period.

This 2017 report is based on information that was reported by the plan sponsors at their last fiscal year ends—June 30, 2016 is the measurement date for most of the plans in our 2017 study. At that time, plan assets were still feeling the effects of market downturns in 2014-2015 and 2015-2016. Total plan assets as of the last fiscal year ends stood at $3.19 trillion, down from $3.24 trillion as of the prior fiscal year ends (generally June 30, 2015). However, market performance since the last fiscal year ends has been strong, and we estimate that aggregate plan assets have jumped to $3.44 trillion as of June 30, 2017. We estimate that the plans experienced a median annualized return on assets of 11.49% in the period between their fiscal year ends and June 30, 2017.

 

The Total Pension Liability reported at the last fiscal year ends totaled $4.72 trillion, up from $4.43 trillion as of the prior fiscal year ends. We estimate that the Total Pension Liability has increased to $4.87 trillion as of June 30, 2017. The aggregate underfunding as of the last fiscal year ends stood at $1.53 trillion, but we estimate that the underfunding has narrowed to $1.43 trillion as of June 30, 2017.

Meanwhile, 32% of the top 100 plans were less than 60% funded.

Of course, the discussion gets far more interesting when Milliman analyzes the prevailing discount rates used by public pensions compared to independent analyses of where those discount rates should be set. 

As our readers are well aware, we've long argued that public pension funds essentially hide their true funding status by simply choosing artificially high discount rates for future liabilities thus making their present values appear lower than they actually are.  It's a clever scam but one that can only persist until the ponzi runs out of cash.

As Milliman notes, the median expected return of the 100 largest public pension funds in the U.S. is somewhere around 5.9% based on the asset allocations of those funds.

That said, you can imagine our shock to learn that 83 of the top 100 funds used discount rates in excess of 7%.

So, what does that mean?  Well, Milliman figures that overstating a fund's discount rate by just 1% artificially reduces it's benefit liability by up to 15%.  Therefore, given that the aggregate liabilities of the top 100 funds are roughly $5 trillion, each 1% adds about $750 billion in liabilities.

A relatively small change in the discount rate can have a significant impact on the Total Pension Liability. How big that impact is depends on the makeup of the plan's membership: a less "mature" plan with more active members than retirees typically has a higher sensitivity to interest rate changes than a more mature plan with a bigger retiree population. Other factors, such as automatic cost of living features, also come into play in determining a plan's sensitivity. Using a discount rate that is loo basis points higher or lower than the independently determined investment return assumption moves the aggregate recalibrated Total Pension Liability by anywhere from 8% to 15% (see Figure 13).

Adding insult to injury, Milliman notes that the ratio of retired pensioners (those taking money out of the system) to active pensioners (those still funding the ponzi) has surged 16% over the past couple of years. 

Of course, this ratio is only going to get worse over the coming decade as a wave of Baby Boomers retire...unfortunately, that wave of retirements will result in many of them finally realizing they've been sold a retirement fantasy for their entire life.

Here is the full study from Milliman: