Thursday, October 29, 2015

Why You Need to Pay Attention to the Retirement Crisis (even if your retirement is fully funded)

A recent survey in Forbes of attitudes toward retirement revealed 18% of Americans believe they are very prepared for the expenses of retirement. A report of the Employee Benefit Research Institute, however, estimates that 43% of Americans believe they are unprepared. The remaining 39% are uncertain about their ability to support themselves in retirement. Many of those who are unprepared believe the government will find a way to support them in their golden years. While those comfortable in their own plans believe the retirement crisis is simply "not their problem". Both groups are wrong. Here's why.

Currently in America, half of pre-retirees (age 55-64) have no retirement savings, while the half that do show median savings of $111,000. The median retirement savings of this age cohort as a whole (including both those with and those without funded accounts) is only $14,000. By 2030, just fifteen years from now, Americans age 65 and over will total 70 million. Half, or 35 million people, will have no retirement savings. The median balance of those with savings will support retirement income of about $370 per month. So, another 17.5 million will be grossly underfunded in their retirement savings. Roughly 9% of this group, or 6.3 million work for public sector agencies, often with good retirement plans and benefits. This means roughly 46 million people will neither have the benefit of public employee pension plans, nor adequate personal retirement savings. By 2030, US total population is projected to be on the order of 375 million people, so this group of economically distressed seniors will represent an estimated 12.3% of the nation's population.

First, as to why the government can't make this problem go away. The 2015 Trustees Report of the Social Security Administration shows a projected date of insolvency of the Social Security Trust fund of 2034. By that date, the Trustees predict, Social Security will only be able to pay roughly 75% of annual benefits. Now, median annual benefits of Social Security last year were just $15,000, so (in current dollars) median benefits would be reduced down to $10,000 per year (75% of $15,000), substantially below the poverty line. For the fund as a whole, the present value deficit of Social Security today, again per the Trustees report, is a staggering $10.7 trillion.

Now, why this is your problem, even if you believe it is not. If you've been reading along, you have a sense of the magnitude of the retirement crisis and can begin to imagine the consequences to the economy of a burden of 46 million seniors living in poverty. But consider this. In addition to the under-funding of personal retirement accounts and Social Security mentioned above, US state and local government pension plans are underfunded by an estimated $4 trillion. These are funds that governments are legally responsible to pay retirees. To raise the funds necessary to pay their pension obligations, governments will turn to...taxpayers. There is no one else. Now, don't shoot the messenger, as bad as the problem is, it's still better to be aware of the issue now, while some solutions still exist. 

If you'd like to read more about the retirement crisis and what can be done about it, please check out my new book, Up In Smoke: How the Retirement Crisis Shattered the American Dream, available now on 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

There's Still a Jobs Problem in America

Once a month the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports on jobs. From it's peak in 2009, the BLS has reported a falling unemployment rate, from 10% to the current 5.1%. Despite these impressive gains, there's still a jobs problem in America. Here's why.

Many Americans are aware of the falling unemployment rate. They hear about it on the nightly news. They read about it in the newspaper. But behind the headlines, economists have quietly been warning about the quality of jobs being created and the falling labor participation rate. Low paying jobs in the services sector and a record number of Americans mysteriously dropping out of the labor force, both serve to artificially reduce the unemployment rate, making the jobs economy appear much stronger than it actually is. 
The counterargument is that retiring baby boomers are the reason for the falling labor participation rate. It's to be expected, with an aging population. But is that really true? First, let's explain the labor participation rate. It's the share of Americans, age 16 and over, who are employed or actively looking for work. If fewer Americans are in the labor force, then those holding jobs represent a greater percentage of this total. Hence, a lower unemployment rate.

Thus, the unemployment rate has been biased by the steeply falling labor participation rate since 2008. For this reason, the more compelling chart to look at may be the employment to population ratio, also maintained by the BLS.
With no bias in the data due to a falling labor participation rate, this chart simply shows the proportion of the population, age 16 and over, that is employed. Now it's true that this chart would be influenced by retiring boomers, but it's hard to believe that 5% of the working population, or 7.7 million people, would have all decided to retire in the two years from 2008-2010. In fact, the first of the baby boomers to turn 65 did not occur until 2011. So something else is clearly responsible for the steep decline in the employment to population ratio in the first two years of the great recession. 

The problem is weak job creation, not retiring baby boomers. Not only are fewer high paying, full-time jobs being created, but the employment that is being generated is seasonal, part-time or in lower paying jobs in the services sector. 

To understand why this is occurring, we first have to step back and understand how new jobs are actually created in the private sector. Since there are few, if any, economic incentives for hiring new employees, businesses hire new people when they forecast they will see the sales and revenue opportunities to pay these salaries. Think about it. If you run a small factory that makes running shoes, the only way you would expand and hire more staff is if you believed that demand for your shoes would support the investment in increasing production. And that, right there, is the problem.

Let's take a look at new business investment in America since the beginning of the recession. After recovering somewhat dramatically in the year following the 2009 recession, the rate of growth of new business investment has leveled off and in fact fallen in recent years. Why? Because companies are not seeing the demand for their products in the US or, increasingly, abroad. Weak demand, weak investment, weak hiring.

Unfortunately, the public sector isn't helping. Faced with a slowly recovering, but now flat tax revenue outlook, state and local governments are desperately struggling to pay rising salaries, retirement benefits, energy and health care costs. As a consequence, new capital investment fell off a cliff in 2009 and continues to decline today.
                        U.S. Investment in Public Infrastructure
With business and local government investment this lackluster, the prospects for meaningful new job creation looks highly doubtful. Until businesses see new demand they will be unlikely to expand current production. Entrepreneurs will shy away from starting new businesses and investing in new ventures. 

Unfortunately, igniting demand is something that America and other developed economies have very little experience addressing. And so, we have a bit of a chicken and egg problem. If consumers had more job certainty, higher wages and more disposable income, they'd be willing to spend more freely, thereby generating demand for products and services. However, businesses are unwilling to increase hiring or pay greater salaries, without seeing greater business opportunities. So which comes first, jobs or consumer demand? For this very reason, we've remained mired in the same stalled economy for the past seven years, with uncertain prospects for new job creation.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Connecticut: #1 in Per Capita Income, #48th in Pension Funding

This past week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the dire state of public pension funding in the very wealthy state of Connecticut. The Journal drew appropriate irony to the fact that America's #1 state in per capita income also ranked a disturbing 48th in the funding of its public employee pension liabilities. Home to hedge fund managers, corporate executives and Wall Street elite, Connecticut has approximately half of what it needs to fund its employee pensions. The state has an unfunded liability of $26 billion, with pension liabilities doubling over the past decade.

As readers are becoming increasingly aware, the unfunded pension liabilities of US states, cities, counties and local districts have become an issue of urgent concern. The pension deficit, nationally, has been estimated as high as $4 trillion. Let's stop and think about that number for a moment. If US state and local governments contributed $275 million per day to pay off this deficit (which is considerably more than what is currently being paid) it would take 40 years to right the ship. And that's just the liability for current retirees and employees. Any new hire would add to the funding burden. Further, as the Journal article points out, even these projections are based upon an assumed earnings rate going forward of 8%. If markets correct and deliver returns to pensions of, let's say, 4% or heaven's forbid, negative returns the deficits will increase disproportionately. 

Now, I understand that some people read about the magnitude of government pension deficits and roll their eyes, already convinced that government in most localities is something of a mess. So what's new? The problem is that this issue will not and cannot go away on its own. Governments will need to turn to taxpayers to raise revenue to pay these deficits.

What should be obvious to all, but what many people simply do not realize, is that state and local governments rely upon taxes from individuals for the vast majority of the revenue that they raise. Be they personal income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, motor vehicle license or fuel taxes, or taxes on services like utilities, telephone, or otherwise, the individual taxpayer provides an estimated 91% of state and local tax revenue, nationally. 

While 70% of those polled in a recent survey by the Reason Foundation indicated that they would oppose reducing benefits to public sector retirees, this same group also opposed raising taxes to pay for benefits. Those polled were against raising taxes, against reducing government services, and against reducing pensions for retired workers. This failure to appreciate the linkage between local government liabilities and the tools by which governments fund these liabilities, is a primary obstacle in addressing the growing and unsustainable public sector pension crisis.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Teacher Pensions are Well Earned, But...

An article with this title, written by Michael Hiltzik, recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times. In LA Times fashion the article, more an editorial than newsworthy, nonetheless appeared on the front page of the Sunday Business Times. The article caught our attention, not just because of an interest in public pensions, but also for the indispensable work of public school teachers.

In the piece, the writer singles out a teacher with 30 years' experience in the Los Alamitos School District, a small district outside of Los Angeles. The teacher is mentioned by name in the article (presumably to lend credibility) which we won't do here. Our argument is not with the retirement pension of this teacher, or of any teacher in particular. This educator spent 30 years in front of a classroom, made payroll contributions to her retirement plan and is entitled to rely upon that pension income in her retirement.

This case, however, illustrates a point about public employee pensions and those calling for reform. The reform effort, proposed in California for the 2016 electoral ballot, along with local measures passed several years ago in the cities of San Jose and San Diego, do nothing to touch existing retiree or current employee pensions. Rather, the reforms, are effective only for prospective employees, yet to be hired. This simple fact, is what makes the anti-reform efforts of the public unions and editorials like this one in the Los Angeles Times, so peculiar.

But let's go to the core of Mr. Hiltzik's argument. The teacher in question, now 61, will soon enjoy a lifetime annual pension "in the range of $100,000", representing approximately 90% of her highest year annual salary. Mr. Hiltzik goes on to characterize that pension as "decent". Now, if a pension of 90% of salary is considered "decent" in the world of state and local government, then literally millions of private sector workers are living indecently. Saving an account balance through an IRA or 401k that will generate lifetime retirement income of 90% of highest year salary is virtually unheard of in the private sector. 

Mr. Hiltzik, however, continues to justify this level of retirement income by pointing out that the teacher "funded much of her pension from her own paycheck, a contribution that comes to 9.2% of her pay this year". This now reaches to the point of this post. While no one would like to see this teacher's retirement income, so well earned, so well funded and, well so decent, to now be changed. But what we must also consider, is that this lifetime pension of $100,000 per year (adjusted for cost of living increases) must actually be paid by someone, in this case, the school district and the CalSTRS public employee pension system.

But then again, if Mr. Hiltzick's representation that the teacher has funded much of her pension is true, then what's the concern?  Now, this is where we need to drag some math into the conversation. If the teacher's pension is $100,000 and it represents 90% of her highest year salary, then her salary, by simple mathematics would have been roughly $111,000. That would mean her payroll contribution in her highest year, at 9.5%, was $10,555. This would be her contribution, though, for just her highest (presumably last) year of employment. Her average salary over her total employment, we can assume was approximately $60,000. That would imply total pension contributions over 30 years were on the order of $170,000. Investment earnings, to a varying degree, would have been earned on those contributions, so for arguments sake let's say the current value of this teacher's contributions, plus interest are approximately $350,000.

Let's now consider the value of the pension to the teacher and, most importantly for this discussion, the cost of the pension to the public agencies that must provide it. Investment professionals use a rule of thumb for spending in retirement from a 401k or IRA of 4%. Using this metric, a portfolio that produces $100,000 in annual income, would need to be precisely $2,500,000 in size. So, in effect, our teacher is indifferent to an annual lifetime pension of $100,000 or to having been given a lump sum of $2.5 million, from which she can draw 4% per year.

But let's also consider the impact of this one pension on the public agencies that are required to provide it. These public agencies are holding roughly $350,000 from our teacher's lifelong payroll contributions, plus investment income. With a pension liability for the agencies that amounts to $2.5 million, our teacher's pension is underfunded by $2,150,000. Magnify this case, by literally millions of public employee pensions and you can begin to appreciate the enormity of the public employee pension crisis and its impact on local governments and their taxpayers.