Growing Deficits Threaten Pensions

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Pensions
By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

The funds that pay pension and health benefits to police officers, teachers and millions of other public employees across the country are facing a shortfall that could soon run into trillions of dollars.

But the accounting techniques used by state and local governments to balance their pension books disguise the extent of the crisis facing these retirees and the taxpayers who may ultimately be called on to pay the freight, according to a growing number of leading financial analysts.

State governments alone have reported they are already confronting a deficit of at least $750 billion to cover the cost of the retirement benefits they have promised. But that figure likely underestimates the actual shortfall because of the range of methods they use to make their calculations, including practices that have been barred in the private sector for decades.

Local governments use these same techniques for their pension funds and face deficits that further contribute to what some investors and analysts say may be shaping up to be a massive breach of faith with a generation of public employees.

This gap is growing more yawning with the years. It has already presented taxpayers with a whopping bill that is eating up a vast portion of government budgets at the cost of other services. In Montgomery County, for instance, pension and retiree health care costs are already higher than the combined budgets for the departments of transportation and health and human services. Eventually, officials responsible for the funds will have to choose whether to continue paying out or renege on benefits promised to retirees.

By their own assessment, state and local governments acknowledge that their funds for retiree benefits are increasingly falling behind, with the number that are severely underfunded soaring to 40 percent in 2006, a five-fold increase from 2000, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

But even these grim calculations are based on assumptions that some analysts consider too aggressive, including projections about how the investments of pension funds will fare and how long retirees will live.

"Very small shifts in actuarial assumptions can generate huge changes over time," said Susan Urahn of the Pew Center on the States, which has studied the issue. "It is not very transparent, and even where it is transparent not many people understand it."

Pension funds generate money from worker contributions, government payments and the returns from investing that money. These funds pay an annual pension salary and health benefits to retirees for as long as they live.

But with workers retiring earlier and living longer, governments have been struggling to keep up with the promises they made. Many are taking out loans to restock their pension funds, which is akin to using a credit card to cover monthly mortgage payments. Others are passing the bill to future generations by using sunny projections of what their investments will return, claiming they do not need to dedicate more money now to their pensions.

Such "accounting nonsense" has been "pushing the envelope -- or worse -- in its attempt to report the highest number possible" for their investment returns, wrote billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett in a recent letter analyzing pensions for shareholders of his company. Taxpayers ultimately will pay the price when these forecasts prove wrong.

"Because the fuse on this time bomb is long, politicians flinch from inflicting tax pain, given that problems will only become apparent long after these officials have departed," he wrote. "In a world where people are living longer and inflation is certain, those promises will be anything but easy to keep."


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