Recently, Mary Williams Walsh, NY Times, penned an article titled,
“Standards Board Struggles With Pension Quagmire”.
The gist of the article had to do with what role did the actuaries and actuarial accounting play in the current state of public pension funding. Many of the actuaries felt that they were pressed by politicians into reverse-engineering their calculations to achieve a predetermined result (contribution cost). “That can’t be good public policy,” said Bradley D. Belt, a former pension regulator, who is now the vice chairman of Orchard Global Capital Group.
According to Ms. Walsh, “he called for additional disclosures by states and cities, including the current value of all pensions promised, calculated with a so-called risk-free discount rate, which means translating the future benefits into today’s dollars with the rate paid on very safe investments, like Treasury bonds.”
Actuaries currently use higher discount rates, which complies with their professional standards but flies in the face of modern asset-pricing theory. Changing their practice to resolve this is one of the most hotly contested proposals in the world of public finance, because it would show the current market value of public pensions and probably make it clear that some places have promised more than they can deliver.
But, if we are going to require DB plans to mark-to-market their fund’s liabilities, inflating future promised benefits, we should also include future contributions as an asset of the plan. Since many, if not most plans, have a legal obligation to fund the plan at an actuarial determined level or through negotiations, these contributions are likely to be made (NJ is one of the exceptions).
When valuing liabilities at “market” without taking into consideration future contributions, plans are artificially lowering their funded ratio, while negatively exacerbating their funded status. Most individuals (tax payers) would not understand the “accounting”, but they would certainly comprehend the negative publicity of a < 50% funded plan.
Most public pension plans derive a healthy percent of their assets through contributions. Not reflecting these future assets in the funded ratio creates the impression that these funds are not sustainable, which for most public plans is not close to reality.
We need DB plans to be the backbone of the US retirement industry. Only marking to market liabilities without giving a nod to future contributions doesn’t fairly depict the whole story. We can do better.