Hawaii State ERS Underfunded by $7 Billion
State and county workers’ pension plan is grossly underfunded – and we’re all on the hook for it
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The state got just what it was expecting in its Christmas stocking. Unfortunately, it was another lump of coal – more bad news about the state of Hawaii Employee Retirement System, which covers both state and county employees. In its five-year report, the actuary firm of Gabriel Roeder Smith & Company claims the system’s future liabilities now exceed the assets set aside to pay for them by $7.1 billion. That’s nearly $5,500 for every man, woman and child in the state.
Worse still, because of the arcane rules governing actuarial accounting, those figures don’t fully incorporate the system’s huge market losses in 2008 and 2009. Consequently, an additional $1.5 billion will be added to the state’s unfunded liability over the next two years. This means the state’s legally required contribution to the pension system will increase to more than $671 million a year by 2015.
The actuary’s findings were hardly a surprise to those familiar with the state’s pension system. In fact, Wes Machida, the conscientious new ERS administrator, spent much of the holiday season playing Grinch, briefing legislators and members of the incoming administration on what to expect in the report.
Pension benefits for state and county workers, once earned,
Digging a Hole
One of the most remarkable aspects of the current shortfall is how quickly it has grown. As recently as 2000, the pension system covering government workers for the state and Hawaii’s four counties was 94 percent funded. This year, by some measures, the funding ratio has declined to less than 60 percent, and the prospects for paying down the deficit appear more and more remote.
There are a couple of factors behind the relentless growth of the pension liability. The first is that, like most state retirement systems, the ERS is a defined-benefit system. In other words, state and county employees are guaranteed set benefits when they retire, based on how many years they have worked and their average salaries at the time of retirement. In addition, those benefits, once earned, are guaranteed by the Hawaii Constitution; they cannot be reduced, even in response to a fiscal crisis such as the state’s recent budget shortfalls. This is typical of defined-benefit systems. In 1979, when New York City went bankrupt, it reneged on hundreds of millions of dollars owed to contractors and bondholders, but never failed to make pension payments to retirees.
To pay for these enormous liabilities, the ERS – again, like almost all state pension systems – is a “pre-funded plan.” In theory, enough assets are set aside and invested each year to generate income to offset future liabilities. A pension is said to be “fully funded” when current assets are projected to pay for all future liabilities. Funding comes from three sources: employee contributions, employer contributions and interest earned on the system’s assets. Each contributes to the shortfall.
In Hawaii, employee contributions are set by law at around 12 percent of payroll for firefighters and police, and 6 percent for other employees. According to Machida, employee contributions amounted to $361 million in 2010, which included $187 million in one-time payments as members changed plans within the system, leaving $174 million in normal employee contributions.
The amount paid by state and county employers is also governed by statute, which prescribes an “actuarially required contribution,” or ARC, sufficient to fully fund the system within 30 years. As lifespans have increased and payrolls have expanded, the counties’ and state’s required contributions have soared: In 2000, the ARC was about $175 million; by 2010, it had reached more than $550 million - $400 million for state employers, and in excess of $150 million for the counties. Even so, the unfunded liability has grown.
The system’s investment earnings scenario isn’t any rosier. Here, too, state law predominates, setting the pension fund’s anticipated rate of return on its investments at a robust 8 percent. But this number has little bearing on the system’s actual earnings. In the past 10 years, returns only reached as high as 8 percent four times. In fact, the system’s market earnings over the past decade have averaged only 2.8 percent, not even keeping pace with inflation. With such inflated earnings expectations, not only is income overestimated, but future liabilities are underestimated.
There are, in fact, a slew of other actuarial assumptions that affect the size of the pension system’s liability. For example, Machida notes, the system assumes an average life expectancy of 83 years. Every year, though, actual life expectancy increases. “The average life span of a female schoolteacher is over 90 years,” Machida says.
Other assumptions are more financial. “For example, there were more promotions than expected,” Machida says. “Salary increases were projected at 3 percent or 4 percent; but professors, for example, at one point were given a 9 percent to 11 percent raise. Police officers were getting a 9 percent raise.” Similarly, more benefits were added to the pension system without consideration for how we would pay for them. It will be hard to get back these costs.
Distressingly, most strategies to address the system’s weaknesses hinge on manipulating some of these manini-seeming assumptions: extending the age of retirement; changing the definition of “base pay”; changing the way cost-of-living allowances are calculated. Because the benefits of retirees and existing employees are protected by the state constitution, any changes can probably only apply to new hires. That means the cost of addressing the system’s long-term liability will have to be spread over a small pool of members.
Machida says these assumptions aren’t the main reason the state’s unfunded liability has grown so dramatically. He ascribes most of the increase to an old rule that allowed legislators to seize any annual earnings over 8 percent and apply them to the state’s ARC. In 2001, the worst year, the state used approximately $150 million of these “excess” earnings to help balance the budget. Between 1999 and 2003, according to Machida, more than $350 million in excess earnings were diverted from the pension system. “In 2004, with the assistance of (then) Governor Lingle, we introduced legislation to take that away,” Machida says. But the damage has been done. “If that money had not been taken,” he says, “the system today would be almost fully funded.”
Whatever the proximate causes of the pension-system shortfalls, the effect is a vicious circle: When current income and contributions aren’t enough to pay current benefits – a condition that began in 2006 and is projected to accelerate rapidly for the next five or six years – the only option is to sell off portfolio assets to cover the difference. In 2011, the ERS is projected to cannibalize nearly $200 million in portfolio assets; by 2020, that figure could reach $600 million a year. That’s the opposite of a “pre-paid pension fund.”
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