State and Local Governments Paper Over Pension Landmine

In 2013, Detroit went bust to the tune of $18 billion. And earlier this month Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy restructuring after amassing a staggering $74 billion in debt.

Key to these financial disasters was soaring unfunded pension liabilities.

I’ve talked about the current debacle surrounding U.S. pensions extensively. And the way I see it, it’s only going to get worse.

Consider fiscal year 2015, when U.S. cities, states and governments reported unfunded pension liabilities of $1.4 trillion. While that seems like a staggering shortfall, the latest research says it’s just a drop in the bucket.

In fact, research from the Hoover Institution released earlier this week – Hidden Debt, Hidden Deficits: 2017 Edition – pegged unfunded liabilities owed to U.S. workers based on their current service and salaries at $3.8 trillion.

That’s right: $3.8 trillion in unfunded liabilities! That’s an eye-popping 21% of total U.S. GDP in 2015.

But it gets even worse…

A recent study by the American Legislative Exchange Council estimated unfunded pension liability of states and local governments at $5.6 trillion, which equates to nearly $17,500 for every man, woman and child in America.

Worse yet, credit rating agency Moody’s put the number of unfunded pensions liabilities at $7 trillion.

No matter how you slice it, these shortfalls are terrible. But why the big disparity in size? What’s really going on?

Simple: It’s the way the returns on these pensions are calculated.

For fiscal-year 2015, government agencies used an expected return of 7.6% to make the math work and dress everything up nicely. By using that lofty return goal, pension assets would double in about 9.5 years.

But recalculating the unfunded pension liabilities with the more realistic market rate of 2.8% means it would take roughly 26 years to produce the same results. And it would also make the pension shortfall much larger.

State and local governments use unrealistic investment returns to paper over the true extent of their pension problems.

The fact of the matter is that state and local governments use unrealistic investment returns to paper over the true extent of their pension problems.

More astonishing is that despite consistently falling short of these investment objectives, they continue to use these pie-in-the-sky return calculations when figuring their annual budgets. Governments use current worker contributions for funding needs, with “hope” of repayment – aided by higher investment returns – at a later date.

But after all the accounting shenanigans, the sad reality is that underfunded pension liabilities are a massive problem that gets worse by the day. And we could be just a black swan event away from finding out how big a financial disaster it truly is.

And the end-result will be governments going bust, reduced pension benefits for retirees and higher taxes for you and me.

What to do?

I recommend my readers stay away from Treasury securities and diversify their wealth across a wide spectrum of assets. This includes building core positions in precious metals on weakness. I’m also looking for opportunities to buy high-quality blue chip companies during a near-term correction.

Good investing,

Mike Burnick




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Comments 8

  1. Dan S. May 19, 2017

    Mike, you’re right about the pension crises about to hit this country hard. Social Security cutbacks as this was not meant as a retirement fund, so I guess it was just another tax, right? All while the Government has issued 2.8 trillion dollars in U.S. Treasuries and pulled money to waste from the fund. The true working class will be taxed to the hilt to pay for all of the underfunded government pensions. The glorified public unions will jack fees or swallow tax dollars to cover their butts. All jobs relating to or mandated by the governments will do just fine. The rest of the populous will have to fend for themselves. A country on the brink of destruction?


  2. Ohio Bob May 19, 2017

    Nothing apparently has happened in Detroit since 2013. So what’s the big deal? When will the consequences appear, not only in Puerto Rico but other locations as well?


  3. Jack DeCamp May 19, 2017

    I don’t think that any government entity, at any level, should fund and pay for a pension. The only reason for government paid pensions is a way of giving in to the mostly union contract demands. Pay them what must be done now, don’t just “kick the can down the road” so someone else becomes responsible for your irresponsible promises. There are other ways workers have of establishing for a pension; ira’s, employer pensions [must be funded annually], unions {also must be funded annually], etc.


  4. Donald F. Mackay May 19, 2017

    Will a state’s pension deficit affect that state’s muni bond monthly interest payments and recapture of capital at maturity? Would it be safer to invest in national munis and revenue bonds rather than a one (troubled) state’s munis?


  5. mjk90620 May 20, 2017

    These govt employees support politicians who give them the pensions,which are much better than most private sector workers get.What we really need is a much smaller govt,local and federal.The fact that the Libertarian Party has the support of only about 3% of the population,tells me that 97% of the population wants big govt.Sad.


  6. James May 21, 2017

    What’s gonna happen togdp at factor costs and GDP at market prices?


  7. Leilani OReilly May 22, 2017

    If we are told to avoid Bonds why recommend GGN when it holds 5.15% of fund in US Treasuries.


  8. Michael Riley May 23, 2017

    Our Govts need to abolish DEFINED BENEFIT PENSION PLANS.
    Govt needs to put in the promised contribution and then whatever benefit comes out — that’s it !!!
    … with no further obligation to taxpayers like me !

    MPR in Cedarburg, WI