Unfunded Pension Liabilities And Car Analogies
At one point or another, we are all guilty of it . . . making bad analogies. This time, the bad analogy award goes to Gary Findlay, executive director of the Missouri State Employees Retirement System (MOSERS). According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s David Nicklaus, Findlay believes using a risk-free discount rate to calculate the state’s unfunded pension liabilities is akin to taking a “zero-risk approach to traffic accidents — by banning cars.”
Findlay’s analogy was in response to a recent Show-Me Institute paper on Missouri’s unfunded pension liabilities. The author of the policy study, Andrew Biggs, demonstrates that Missouri’s unfunded pension liabilities are much higher than the state has reported when we accurately account for the risk of the investments.
Biggs, on the Show-Me Daily blog, and Jason Richwine, of the Heritage Foundation, have criticized Findlay’s remarks. In his post, Richwine states: “From an economist’s perspective on costs, Findlay is free to pursue whatever level of risk he wants with the Missouri pension fund. What he cannot do is pretend that more risk comes at no cost to the state’s taxpayers, who must make up for any funding shortfalls.”
I cannot help but heap more criticism on Findlay. His analogy would be accurate if Biggs had suggested we take a zero-risk approach to pensions by banning pensions. Of course, that is not what he suggests. Rather, Biggs argues that pension liabilities should be calculated with a low-risk discount rate. In non-economist speak, that means when you are gambling with taxpayer money, it is wise to hedge your bets.
If we want to stick with the car theme, a better analogy would be that calculating pension liabilities with a low-risk discount rate is akin to purchasing auto insurance. Like driving, our investments have risks embedded in them. I believe it is important for Missourians to adequately plan for that risk before we let our unfunded liabilities come back to rear-end us. (How is that for a car analogy?)