As state governments across the nation struggle to address a public pension underfunding crisis they can no longer deny, The Economist is the latest major news outlet to turn its gaze on the ongoing debacle. In the current issue, the magazine’s “Buttonwood” column draws a sketch of U.S. public pension accounting that is not only dysfunctional, but that runs against plain common sense.
American public-sector schemes discount their liabilities by the expected return on their assets. The riskier the asset mix, the higher the assumed return—and the lower the bill appears to be.
This is an odd way of thinking. Suppose a car company borrowed $10 billion in the form of a 20-year bond to build a manufacturing plant and planned to pay off the debt with the profits from running the plant. The car company will assume a higher return on capital than its financing cost (otherwise it should not build the plant). But it still has to recognise the $10 billion bond liability on its balance-sheet. It cannot say it owes only $2 billion because it expects a very high return.
The reason is clear. If the plant fails to earn a high return, the firm will still be liable to repay the bond. Similarly, if pension schemes fail to earn a high return on their assets, they still have to pay benefits. Final-salary pensions are a debt-like liability.
The Buttonwood columnist (currently Philip Coggan) notes recent changes to the nation’s largest public pension plan, the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS), that would require greater employer contributions. But such changes will be ineffective in the long run unless they were to be accompanied by major reforms that address some of the structural factors that have made public pension shortfalls severe and chronic: payouts based on final-year pay, negotiation of benefits through collective bargaining, benefit increases through binding arbitration, politicized pension fund boards, and flawed accounting standards.