There is a really big crisis coming.
Think about it this way.
After 8 years and a 230% stock market advance the pension funds of Dallas, Chicago, and Houston are in severe trouble. But it isn’t just these municipalities that are in trouble, but also most of the public and private pensions that still operate in the country today.
Currently, many pension funds, like the one in Houston, are scrambling to slightly lower return rates, issue debt, raise taxes or increase contribution limits to fill some of the gaping holes of underfunded liabilities in their plans. The hope is such measures combined with an ongoing bull market, and increased participant contributions, will heal the plans in the future.
This is not likely to be the case.
This problem is not something born of the last “financial crisis,” but rather the culmination of 20-plus years of financial mismanagement.
An April 2016 Moody’s analysis pegged the total 75-year unfunded liability for all state and local pension plans at $3.5 trillion. That’s the amount not covered by current fund assets, future expected contributions, and investment returns at assumed rates ranging from 3.7% to 4.1%. Another calculation from the American Enterprise Institute comes up with $5.2 trillion, presuming that long-term bond yields average 2.6%.
With employee contribution requirements extremely low, averaging about 15% of payroll, the need to stretch for higher rates of return have put pensions in a precarious position and increases the underfunded status of pensions.
With pension funds already wrestling with largely underfunded liabilities, the shifting demographics are further complicating funding problems.
One of the primary problems continues to be the decline in the ratio of workers per retiree as retirees are living longer (increasing the relative number of retirees), and lower birth rates (decreasing the relative number of workers.) However, this “support ratio” is not only declining in the U.S. but also in much of the developed world. This is due to two demographic factors: increased life expectancy coupled with a fixed retirement age, and a decrease in the fertility rate.