Shenanigans! Pension Plan Return Assumptions Edition

From Reuters:

New Jersey’s treasurer said on Thursday she will increase the expected rate of return for the state’s struggling public pension system from 7 percent to 7.5 percent, then lower it again over time.

The switch to a higher assumed rate means that the state, and participating local governments in New Jersey, will for now escape the higher costs that arise when investment return assumptions are lowered.

The savings come at a fortuitous time for new New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who took office in January and is facing a shortfall ahead of his first budget proposal in mid-March.

The higher rate will save about $238 million for the state and more than $400 million for local governments in the near term, according to the office of Acting State Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio.

Color me gobsmacked. Here is a translation into plain English:

We know that our current return assumption is unrealistic. But, if we lower it outright we are going to have to make large contributions we can’t really afford (we are only 49 percent funded as it is). So we are going to tell a teensy weensy little white lie, and pretend returns will be higher for a while. And eventually we will fix the numbers. It will all work out in the end. Trust us.

Where is one to begin with something like this?

With the fact that New Jersey’s treasurer is OPENLY FUDGING THE NUMBERS?

How about some healthy skepticism regarding whether a bunch of politicians will ever adjust the numbers back down to where they belong if it means a public outcry over unfunded liabilities or higher taxes?

Or maybe the troublesome fact that only 50% of projected liabilities are funded?

Puerto Rico should be instructive where these underfunded state and municipal pension plans are concerned, both in terms of the root causes of the problems and the difficulties inherent in closing massive budget holes. This is not likely to end well for New Jersey.

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