This newsletter from the Pension Integrity Project at Reason Foundation highlights articles, research, opinion, and other information related to public pension challenges and reform efforts across the nation. You can find previous editions here.
In This Issue:
Articles, Research & Spotlights
- A blueprint for protecting public funds from ESG and politicization
- Arizona’s innovation for multi-employer pension plans
- Challenges in inflation protection for Texas teachers
- Retention trends in the public workforce suggest the need for portability
- What U.S. pensions can learn from the U.K. margin call
News in Brief
Quotable Quotes on Pension Reform
Articles, Research & Spotlights
Reason Foundation’s Pension Integrity Project has developed an ESG Blueprint to help policymakers seeking sound and effective policies for managing public funds, particularly public pension funds. The website provides an overview of what ESG is, its potential impacts on public pension systems, and model legislation to strengthen the boundaries of fiduciary responsibility, ensuring that policymakers keep public funds out of political influence campaigns. Reason’s ESG blueprint is available here, and our full archive of ESG-related analysis is here. Recent pieces include:
- Webinar: Former SEC commissioner and CKE CEO on ESG and public pensions
- Backgrounder: Steps to protect public finance from political activism
- Politicization—of any type—can endanger public workers’ retirement funds
- Key differences between individual and institutional investors considering ESG factors
- The difficulties of assigning ESG ratings
- Democratic treasurers defend ESG investing
- Inflated claims, high fees, and politicization are behind the ESG reckoning
- The public pension systems signing on to politicized ESG investment efforts
Many state-run public pensions are multi-employer plans, meaning local cities and counties participate and contribute to a single fund and share liabilities. This allows smaller governments to reap the investment benefits of a larger asset-pooled plan, but it can also mean less flexibility in paying down the unfunded pension liabilities that are impacting annual budgets. State legislators in Arizona recently passed a bill that aims to improve this flexibility for employers participating in the Arizona State Retirement System (ASRS). As outlined by Reason’s Ryan Frost and Truong Bui, Senate Bill 1082 offers a vehicle for local governments to apply extra payments to a separate account, which can be used to offset rising contributions at a later time. This is an innovation that other state-run multi-employer plans should consider employing.
With high inflation continuing to degrade the value of fixed pension benefits, there is significant attention being placed on the cost-of-living adjustment policies that are supposed to cushion the blow from retirees’ losses of purchasing power. In Texas, there is a strict hurdle set in law that must be achieved before giving retired public workers a so-called “13th check.” The state must be able to demonstrate that it is “actuarially sound.” Reason’s Steven Gassenberger explains the current understanding of this hurdle, noting that it would be prudent to adjust this standard with shorter debt-payment requirements.
Increased rates of resignation in the post-pandemic world are a continuation of a decades-long evolution in the modern workforce, with the current generation of workers switching jobs at much higher rates. This phenomenon is even more pronounced among public workers and teachers. Examining some of the latest shifts in public employee retention, Reason’s Jen Sidorova offers ways that policymakers can shape retirement benefits to better fit today’s workers, including shorter vesting requirements and increased portability.
A sharp increase in bond yields recently put United Kingdom pensions in a difficult position where they needed to sell off assets, resulting in what was called a ‘doom loop’ scenario that prompted intervention from the Bank of England. Reason’s Swaroop Bhagavatula looks at how this market scare was associated with liability-driven investing (LDI), which is a strategy not often used by pensions in the United States. Still, there are some valuable lessons that can be applied, namely avoiding over-leveraging and maintaining adequate levels of cash to manage any major market shocks.
News in Brief
Paper Rediscounts Public Pension Liabilities
A paper from economics professors Oliver Giesecke and Joshua Rauh of Stanford University asserts that public pension liabilities should be discounted in a way that reflects the guaranteed nature of these promised benefits, which would mean using zero-risk rates based on treasury yields. Their analysis of 647 state and local pension plans in 2021 finds that, while these plans report unfunded liabilities of just over $1 trillion and an aggregated funded ratio of 82.5%, rediscounting the same plans to the proposed specifications would mean unfunded liabilities of $6.5 trillion and a funded ratio of 43.8%. The full paper is available here, and an interactive dashboard of its results is available here.
New Survey Asks Public Employees How The Current Market Has Impacted Their Retirement
MissionSquare Research Institute has published results from a survey of 1,003 state and local government workers focusing on how current market turbulence has impacted the perception of retirement security as well as saving behavior. The survey indicates that most (84%) of respondents feel anxious about their personal financial security. Nearly half (48%) have reduced the amount they save for retirement, naming high inflation as the cause. Over half (58%) of the polled public workers indicated that the retirement plan offered to them was a factor in their decision to stay in the job, while 33% said that this made no difference. The full report is available here.
Quotable Quotes on Pension Reform
“In some cases, the [midterm election] campaign rhetoric not only dismissed the danger of climate change, it went so far as to mischaracterize a strategy we believe in strongly: examining the risk factors of the environment, of social inequality, and of good governance […] But let’s be clear: Applying the lens of ESG is not a mandate for how to invest. Nor is it an endorsement of a political position or ideology. Those who say otherwise are actually advocating for investors like CalPERS to put on blinders…to ignore information and data that might otherwise help build on the retirement security of our 2 million members.”
—CalPERS CEO Marcie Frost quoted in “CalPERS CEO Pushes Back Against Politicization ESG Investing,” Pensions & Investments, Nov. 16, 2022
“Regardless of your view on climate change or inclusion or human rights, Mississippi’s pension system, taxpayer dollars, and college savings programs are the wrong place to experiment with investment strategies that push balance sheets to the side. Moreover, many of the policies ESG promotes tie directly to higher costs for consumers, a weaker Mississippi job market, increased inflation, and smaller investment returns – all while undermining the free market and our economic liberty.”
—Mississippi Treasurer David McRae in “Guest Column: Protecting Mississippi’s Finances,” The Vicksburg Post, Nov. 2, 2022
“It does limit us…We, I believe, have been successful in trying to minimize any kind of cost that might bring to you, but eventually, it’s going to bite us in the butt if we continue. So we just have to be careful and prudent about it…Our bank list is getting short.”
—Lamont Financial Services Founder Bob Lamb on Louisiana Treasurer John Schroder pulling the state’s investments from BlackRock over their ESG approach in “Pulling Louisiana’s Investments Could ‘Bite Us in the Butt,’ Adviser Tells Treasurer,” Louisiana Illuminator, Oct. 18, 2022
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Reason Foundation’s Pension Integrity Project has helped policymakers in states like Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, and Montana implement substantive pension reforms. Our monthly newsletter highlights the latest actuarial analysis and policy insights from our team.