A Steaming Pile of Pension Debt
How many of you are making progress climbing out of your personal debt hole? The financial meltdown of 2008 should have taught us the lessons of excessive debt and living beyond our means. Yet even if we are now making progress in balancing our personal finances, have you considered other debts that lurk in the shadows? Such as public pension debt? If not, ask yourself how much pension debt we, the taxpaying citizens of Missouri, actually owe to state government retirees.
Begin by thinking of a pension fund as a pool of investments (like stocks, bonds, etc.) that are purchased from money that employers contribute. These contributions and investments hopefully grow enough over time to cover the future retirement benefits of retired employees. But when employers fail to remit sufficient contributions, and when investments do not grow fast enough, the amounts of money available to pay retirement benefits fall short of the promised benefits. When this occurs, you have an unfunded liability. And because we are discussing public pension funds (where the government is the employer) future taxpayers are on the hook for the unfunded liability. And a looming fiscal crisis ensues.
We have reviewed the most recent comprehensive annual financial reports of five large statewide public pension funds in Missouri. The unfunded liabilities of each are listed below:
Missouri State Employees Retirement System (MOSERS): $2.4 billion
Missouri Local Government Employees Retirement System (MOLAGERS): $900 million
Public School Retirement System (PSRS): $5 billion
Public Education Employee Retirement System (PEERS): $500 million
County Employees Retirement Fund (CERF): $130 million
That is a total of just under $9 billion in unfunded liabilities that we owe to current and future public retirees! That is $1,500 per man, woman, and child in Missouri. And this includes only five public pensions (while these are among the largest public pensions in Missouri, there are approximately 130 public funds at the local and state level). This debt exceeds Missouri’s total general revenue collections for fiscal year 2011 ($7.1 billion, see the table on page 10 of the governor’s fiscal year 2013 executive budget). Taxpayer, beware. How many of the remaining 125 pensions operate in the red and how much do we really owe after they are accounted for?
Now, of course, if the economy and stock markets recover, the picture improves somewhat. But not by as much as you may suppose. Stay tuned for further discussions on that point.