The Endgame of State/Local Government Pensions
Charles Hugh Smith
June 14, 2013
There is no way the pensions and benefits promised in an era of financialized abundance can be paid once the wheels of financialization fall off.
Yesterday I described the destructive effect of abundance on decision-making: An Abundance of Bad Decisions. One aspect of this dynamic is the tendency to extrapolate prosperity into the future as a permanent state of affairs.
One example of this is state/local government pensions: during the past 30 years of financialized abundance, the benefits and pensions promised to public employees were increased substantially. Public unions are a powerful political force in many states, and in eras of rising tax revenues, it’s an easy political decision to increase public employee benefits and pension payouts.
The rising stock and bond markets generated huge profits for the public-employee pension funds, enabling them to grow without taxpayer contributions. The effortlessness and persistence of this growth encouraged the mindset that pensions would be paid for via the magic of ever-rising markets; if tax revenues weren’t even needed to fund the pension plans, then no hard political choices would ever have to be made.
Alas, the 8+% annual growth rate of the boom era is now structurally unrealistic. The New Normal is bond yields of 2% or 3% at best, and equities markets that are increasingly at risk of significant sell-offs.
The illusion that the pension funds can pay the promised benefits is maintained by plugging wildly unrealistic 7% or 8% returns into projections of future pension fund earnings. Now those unrealistic projections are being questioned: California, Illinois on Brink of Pension Crisis (Mish).