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Pension Meltdown
Majority of Pensions Headed for Bankruptcy

Investment returns may be up since the recession, but public pensions are still in deep, deep trouble. On Wednesday, the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates released the results of a “stress test” on American public pension plans, and they weren’t pretty. According to the report, 85 percent of all plans are on track to go bankrupt within 30 years unless their average rate of return increases to 9 percent. Barring something truly miraculous, that’s unlikely to happen: Bridgewater expects the rate to be closer to 4 percent, and even the unrealistically optimistic estimates given by pension funds themselves rarely exceed 8 percent. As USA Today notes, the potential shortfalls are staggering:

Public pensions have just $3 trillion in assets to invest to cover future retirement payments of $10 trillion over the next many decades, Bridgewater says. An investment return of roughly 9% a year is needed to meet those onerous obligations.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that 85 percent of pension plans will actually go bankrupt. These numbers depend on public officials not taking the necessary actions. States and cities are slowly realizing that they have a major problem on their hands. Many will take preventative measures, either by cutting benefits or by increasing contributions to the plans (more likely a combination of the two).

But given the history of political “punting” by city officials and state lawmakers when it comes to pension reform, it’s probably a safe bet that more than a few cities and states will end up in the same position that Detroit, Chicago, and San Bernardino find themselves in.

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  • Anthony

    Funding ratios – the proportion of assets to liabilities – implied from Feed suggest that state and local governments have not set aside enough money (not to mention calculated discount rate) to make good on pension promises. But the implication is over broad, not all pension plans are in serious trouble; that said and in agreement, tough decisions to distribute pain among current retirees, current employees, future employees, and future taxpayers cannot be fiscally avoided. Many American public pension plans are at a transformative moment as the debate has changed.

    • Corlyss

      “But the implication is over broad, not all pension plans are in serious trouble;”

      Just guessing here, but I think that would be covered by the 15% not implicated in the post.

      • Anthony

        No, not just referenced 15%. As a matter of fact, I was referring to states and municipalities that improved their investment practices over last decade or more (15% alluded to in Bridgewater study could include some but…).

      • Anthony

        Corlyss, an observation: Jim_L (an acolyte) cannot fail to up vote any reply to my comments no matter how innocuous (the mind’s capacity to carry perceived slights as rationalization).

        • Steve Rogers

          Or perhaps that unnamed commenter thought, much as I did that the comment had merit as the article does not say ALL pension plans are in trouble and that the 15% are clearly indicated as not. And then your reply that said……nothing really. No examples, no source, nothing to support your assertion that the 85% isnt 85% and that more than the 15% no longer have pension plans on the road to serious trouble.

          • Anthony

            Some people look to make a molehill into a mountain. I am not here to educate the uniform nor to be commodious; if you need data locate source material. Point of comment is that allusion to report remains over broad. (politics of public sector pensions is not recently analyzed area). Thanks.

  • cubanbob

    Taxes are for services. Pensions aren’t services for the taxpayers. Cut the pensions. Don’t raise taxes or cut the services. When these ‘public servants’ contribute 12.4% of their wages up to the maximum for Social Security income purposes and do so for 40 or more years just too be lucky to live long enough to collect 20 years at best only 30% of final years average income then my give-a-crap meter might register.

  • ThomYork

    Cue stock market crash.

  • Jim__L

    “Many will take preventative measures, either by cutting benefits or by
    increasing contributions to the plans (more likely a combination of the
    two).”

    For the sake of my generation and my childrens’ generation, I hope the Boomers come to the realization that our having to fund plans that we have absolutely have no hope of enjoying for ourselves is in no way just.

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