August 16, 2022

A Proposal for Drawing a Clearer Picture of Public Pension Finances

The suggested changes — which are voluntary rules — are an effort to straddle the gaping divide between public sector unions, their supporters and public pension consultants on one side and, on the other, economists who have criticized the official fund disclosures as misleading and fiscally unsound.

Among the recommendations to be proposed by the Government Accounting Standards Board is a new way to calculate today’s value of pensions that will be paid in the future, in response to complaints that the current method drastically understates what governments owe.

The rule makers would also bar actuarial techniques that some states and cities have been quietly using to make it look as if pension cuts for the workers they will hire in the future are already producing savings today. That would appear to affect states including Illinois, Rhode Island, Ohio, Texas and Arkansas.

A third change would require cities and towns that participate in big, state-run pension systems like the New York State Common Fund to report their share of the systems’ total obligations. Not all currently do so, making it impossible to trace such promises back to the municipalities that have to pay them.

The recommendations are efforts to forge a compromise between the sides in the hopes of getting states and cities to adopt the rules. But the proposals are likely to heighten the antagonism between interested parties with vehemently opposing views.

“We expect a lot of pushback,” said Robert H. Attmore, the chairman of the accounting standards board, in an interview.

Public pension policy has grown increasingly polarized as municipalities and state governments face mounting pension costs at the same time that overall state revenues have constricted in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. Workers, unions, government officials and consultants who work for public pension funds contend that a full-blown accounting overhaul is unnecessary, and they suspect hidden agendas. They view substantial changes as a way to weaken public employees’ unions and take benefits away, or as an opportunity for outside interests to get a crack at managing some of the billions held in pension trusts.

But economists and other proponents of significant changes argue that official pension numbers are fundamentally inaccurate. They warn that the current pension portrayals mask a looming fiscal breakdown as more and more public workers retire, threatening taxpayers whose own retirement plans have been shredded since 2008. Those taxpayers must still pay higher taxes to finance the pensions of public workers, some of whom can retire in their 50s, sometimes even in their 40s.

Rather than choose sides in the dispute, the rule makers have charted a third course, Mr. Attmore said.

“Nobody believes that it’s going to be exactly correct,” he said. “We’re trying to get as close as we can to what we think economic reality will be.”

The most closely watched issue for the board has been how to measure the value, in today’s dollars, of all the pension benefits that governments must pay in the future. The process involves the use of a rate, known as a discount rate, to convert between dollars in the future and dollars today.

For years, economists and other analysts have complained that the current accounting rules call for governments to use a rate that is much too high, greatly understating the cost of the benefits they have promised, and making unsustainable plans look viable. Since public pensions are protected by state laws and constitutions, they have urged the accounting board to require a rate like the one for safe investments like Treasury bills.

The other side responds that most public pension plans look viable because they really are viable. It has urged the accounting board to preserve the current method, in which governments use their expected rates of return on the assets in their pension funds.

The accounting board’s proposed solution would require governments to blend the two rates. Each government would be required to project all the pensions owed in the coming decades and all the investment returns it expects. By analyzing these cash-flow projections, governments would be able to see whether they were setting enough money aside, and if not, which year in the future they would run out, called the “cross-over point.”

Until now, analysts who have warned that some pension funds could run out of money and tried to estimate when have been accused of fear-mongering and using faulty assumptions. Mr. Attmore said the rule makers hoped to keep the projections honest by making governments explain how they calculated their cross-over points.

In addition, governments would have to provide a sensitivity analysis, showing how changes in their assumptions would affect their final numbers.

After projecting how many years their pension assets would last, each government would use that information to calculate its own discount rate. It would be a blend, combining the rate governments now use for the years up to the cross-over point, and a more punitive low-risk rate for the years after that. The low-risk rate would be based on an index of tax-exempt municipal bonds, Mr. Attmore said.

Governments would then spread the cost over the estimated working lives of their employees. If the portion that workers have already earned exceeds the fair value of the pension assets, the excess would go onto the government’s balance sheet. Benefits that workers expect to earn in the future would not be shown on the balance sheet, Mr. Attmore said. Currently, all pension disclosures are tucked away in footnotes.

This method might not satisfy critics, Mr. Attmore acknowledged, but it would shine a bright light on the public plans at greatest risk of running out of money, or those whose burdens would crowd out required government services. If adopted, the new rules would give governments an adjustment period, rather than demanding big, controversial changes overnight.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has been investigating certain states’ and cities’ pension numbers for possible fraud, but Mr. Attmore said he could not comment on the legal implications for governments whose current methods would not be allowed in the future.

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