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Steep Losses Pose Crisis for Pensions

In the wake of the economic crisis, pension funds for police officers and other public employees have been battered and face a long recovery, experts say. Maryland's portfolio, for instance, has dropped by 20 percent.
In the wake of the economic crisis, pension funds for police officers and other public employees have been battered and face a long recovery, experts say. Maryland's portfolio, for instance, has dropped by 20 percent. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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Around the country, governments are struggling with the pact they've made with employees.

In New Mexico, lawmakers passed legislation this year requiring public employees to contribute about 1.5 percent of their salary to cover retirement benefits. Labor unions representing 57,000 of the workers sued the state in response.

In Philadelphia, officials delivered an ultimatum to state lawmakers: Allow the city to take a two-year break from contributing to its pension system or Philadelphia would lay off 3,000 workers and cut sanitation and public safety services. Last month, the lawmakers not only granted the request, but extended the funding holiday to thousands of cities and counties, despite severe pension deficits in many of these places.

In Montgomery County, officials last year committed to setting up an investment fund to finance about $3 billion in retiree health-care benefits promised to employees. But when it came time to put the first round of seed money into the fund this year, county officials balked, citing budget constraints.

"We know we've got a huge health-care liability," chief administrative officer Timothy L. Firestine said. "Our plan was to work gradually to fund that. And this year we abandoned that plan."

Swift Change of Fortunes

Just a few years ago, it seemed far-fetched that Virginia's pension system would hit hard times. In 2003, the state's primary pension funds either had more money than they needed or, at a minimum, were nearly fully funded. And like their counterparts across the country, state officials assumed they would earn around 8 percent a year from investing in financial markets for years to come given the outstanding performance of stocks in the 1980s and 1990s.

But officials in Virginia and elsewhere soon began to wonder whether those two decades were a fluke. As pension deficits began to rise, officials questioned whether the investment assumptions were too optimistic. In 2006, Virginia's pension officials suggested scaling back benefits or requiring current employees to begin paying into the pension fund. The state's lawmakers took no action.

Then the crisis hit. Virginia lost 21 percent of the value of its portfolio, or about $11.5 billion. Maryland and the District, meantime, suffered drops of 20 percent.

The losses were typical of what pension funds suffered around the country. State and local government officials had predicted before the crisis they would have $3.6 trillion in their accounts by now, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Today, they are $1.2 trillion short of that mark.

Pension funds were not equally affected. Officials in Arlington County, for instance, say their funding levels remain above 90 percent. And even those that suffered huge losses say they have enough money to payout retirement benefits for years to come. Virginia, for instance, still has nearly $43 billion in its accounts.

But Virginia officials now estimate the funding level of its major pension funds will sink to about 60 percent by 2013.

From there, the deficit will grow even wider, according to Kim Nicholl, the national director of PricewaterhouseCoopers public sector retirement practice. Even if public pension funds were to hit their 8 percent investment targets every year, Nicholl calculated they would have less than half of what they need by 2025. This is because a greater share of the population will be retired and those who are will live longer, thus collecting benefits longer, she said.


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