In the first article of this series, I discussed how distorted the Illinois Public Employee Pension Systems are compared to the retirement systems available to private sector workers. I documented how tens of thousands of public employees become retirement millionaires at taxpayer expense. Then I discussed how the $320 billion state officials say taxpayers now owe for pensions could actually be low--if the assumed rate of return on public pension investments is too high.
I don’t want to get between Warren Buffet (who predicts no more than 6.5% return) and a pension manger (who predicts either 9.3% or 8.5% returns), but I know if I asked someone to guarantee a 9.3% return on my retirement funds he would say something like, "You are nuts, I am not guaranteeing you anything. Your retirement investments are your problem." My sentiments exactly--no one should be the guarantor of anyone else’s retirement, including Illinois taxpayers guaranteeing Illinois Public Employees retirement funds.
Buffet has said, "Pension managers continue to make investment decisions with their eyes firmly in the rearview mirror," meaning past performance does not guarantee future results.
Let me outline some reasons why future returns may not match past returns:
1. The human population will never double again.
This has never been true before, but demographers say the world’s population will level off at about 11 billion in 2100 from 6+ billion now. This is important because new workers are an important part of economic growth as they work, earn, consume and invest. This compares with a doubling of population between 1960 and 2000 the era of highest economic growth in history.
2. Major economic powers have birth rates below replacement rate.
Economic powerhouses China, Japan and Europe will all have decreasing populations in the next decades, another historical first. Economic growth will almost certainly slow from past decades.
3. Life expectancy is growing.
Related to number 1 and 2 above, this means more senior citizens supported by fewer workers. For example, China’s life expectancy has gone from 45 to 80 in just the last 50 years. This means current actuarial assumptions for life expectancy are almost certainly too low, meaning future pension obligations are larger than currently assumed.
4. People are retiring at an earlier age.
Earlier retirement age, plus longer life expectancy means slower economic growth and more taxes on fewer workers. See 1, 2 and 3 above.
5. All of the above.
All of the above means more income/wealth will need to be transferred via taxes from fewer working/productive people to more non-working/non-productive people thus greatly decreasing investment and economic growth. A given dollar cannot go two places, investment and tax, at the same time.
6. Oil prices since 1981 have actually gone down.
During the greatest economic growth period in history, oil prices were decreasing in real inflation adjusted prices from $80/barrel in 1981 to about $65 with most of that period below $25. This has enabled economic growth because there is a direct correlation between BTU per capita and GDP per capita. If the cost of BTU’s go up the rate of GDP growth will go down. In 1998, during the greatest stock market boom in history, oil hit $10 per barrel. In the coming years, do you think oil will more likely hit $10 or $110?
7. Economic engines China and India will slow over the next couple of decades.
As the middle-class grows in India and China, the demand for more government services and subsequent taxes will have those economies reverting towards the mean of western countries 0-4% growth rates. That leaves only the Muslim crescent from Bangladesh to Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa as potential economic growth engines. I rate the chances of those two areas becoming the next China and India as extremely low.
8. The terrorist risk premium.
A dozen terrorists with dirty bombs (let alone nuclear weapons) could simultaneously shut down Manhattan, Toronto, London, Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin causing complete financial chaos and bringing the world economy to a halt. I do not know whether that risk premium is one percent, two percent or more, but I do know it is greater than zero.
Having said all that, the real argument is not investment return rates. It is the inherent unfairness of one group of people having to guarantee that rate for another politically connected group of people, i.e. public employees and their politically influential unions. Common sense fairness dictates all citizens should share the risk of economic benefit or detriment equally.
I would suggest a 10.95% employer contribution rate (Social Security plus a 4.75% 401K contribution) would be fair for public employees. This is higher than the average private sector contribution, but less than half of what we contribute now to public employees retirement. But as we make that transfer to the retirement system with each paycheck our liability ends. From that point forward, it is the employee’s responsibility. If he gets a 9.3% return, good for him. If he doesn’t, it should not be our problem.
Tenure for public employees salaries while they are working is bad enough, but pension tenure guaranteeing them an investment return is unfair, unacceptable and financially impossible long term. Retirement at 62 or older based upon Social Security and 401K's for all employees, public and private, is what’s fair and necessary and what all Illinois taxpayers deserve.
So, Governor Blagojevich, I find it curious you do not deem it immoral when tens of thousands of public employees become millionaires after donating millions to your political campaign.
Let’s work together on the "Moral Imperative" of putting public employee pensions on a par with their private sector peers--fairness to all, no more and no less.
What could be more "moral" than that?
NOTE: More detailed information on public pensions can be found at the Family Taxpayers Network web site: www.thechampion.org.
Bill Zettler is a contributing editor to RFFM.org.