The Financial Times reviewed data recently that suggested that the US public pension system is in dire straits; the funding shortage is likely 3 times as large as what is being reported. The estimated deficit is $3.4 trillion.
The solutions for the funding shortfalls are grim: either raise taxes or cut spending; unfortunately the “cut spending” approach always goes to the essential services first, so that taxpayers feel the heat and will consider a tax hike instead.
US Congressman Devin Nunes recently noted that, “It has been clear for years that many cities and states are critically underfunding their pension programmes and hiding the fiscal holes with accounting tricks.” Nunes has “put forward a bill to the House of Representatives last month to overhaul how public pension plans report their figures.” He added: “When these pension funds go insolvent, they will create problems so disastrous that the fund officials assume the federal government will have to bail them out.”
Insolvency has already been observed in San Bernardino, California and Detroit, Michigan, largely due to mismanagement of pension funding and budget shortfalls. The Financial Times noted that “Chicago, Dallas, Houston and El Paso have the largest pension holes compared with their own revenues”, as well as the states of Illinois, Arizona, Ohio, and Nevada.
Research done by Stanford paints a difficult future: “Currently, states and local governments contribute 7.3 per cent of revenues to public pension plans, but this would need to increase to an average of 17.5 per cent of revenues to stop any further rises in the funding gap.”
And more: “Several cities and states, including California, Illinois, New Jersey, Chicago and Austin, would need to put at least 20 per cent of their revenues into their pension plans to prevent a rise in their deficits, while Nevada would have to contribute almost 40 per cent.”
Much of the problem lies in the fact that retirement costs and liabilities have consistently been calculated on a 7%-8% return , which is not particularly realistic, as has been demonstrated in recent years during the economic downturn.
There is no way this silent funding crisis will get any better — and until localities recognize and admit their crisis and make ardent changes to their pension systems, it will only continue to worsen egregiously.