The Gloomy Guses of the world, much to their glee, found plenty to be down about in a recent analysis of Illinois’ public pensions.
Last week’s news that Illinois’ public-pension woes continue should not have come as a surprise.
Still, the report from Moody’s Investors Service that the collective underfunding of the state’s five public-pension programs (state employees, university employees, teachers, judges and legislators) jumped to an estimated $317 billion in 2020 is a stunner. That is, after all, real money.
The new number represents a $56 billion jump over the 2019 figure of $269 billion.
What does that number mean? Just that current assets are $317 billion shy of what’s needed to meet current liabilities.
Broken down even further, it means that the pensions have sufficient assets to meet monthly obligations for an average of seven years. That’s not just not good, it’s very bad.
Analysts at Wirepoints, a website whose interests include state finances, write that “healthy funds have ratios that ranged from 25 to 40 years worth of assets.”
If there’s any good news here — there’s really not — it’s that the state’s official underfunding estimate is a mere $144 billion, a number that’s certain to increase.
The difference between Moody’s numbers and the state’s is the result of different return estimates on pension-fund investments.
The state predicts the pensions’ annual investment gains will be roughly 7 percent, while Moody’s figure for 2020 was just 2.7 percent.
Investment-market conditions determine rates of return — some years are off the charts in terms of gains, while others are marginal or worse.
For example, the Moody’s report noted that the teachers’ fund’s investment return in 2020 was substantially less than both what it and the state predicted — just 0.52 percent.
Shortfalls like that are not only the result of turbulent market conditions caused by the coronavirus pandemic economic lockdowns, but severe declines in interest rates.
Rates are expected to remain low in the coming months, bad news for bond investors like pension funds. At the same time, higher rates that are good for bond investors will simultaneously drive up borrowing costs for both private and public entities, including state and local governments.
While the underfunding increase is shocking in terms of size, it’s no surprise that it’s higher. That’s because state policy calls for continued underfunding of the state’s pension system.
Holding the underfunding to no increase would require the state to make “actuarially required” contributions. Instead, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and legislators make lesser “statutorily required” contributions.
But even the lesser annual state-pension appropriations are breaking the budget, consuming roughly a quarter of the operating fund and making it difficult to provide enough support for core state programs like education and public safety.
Illinois’ pension systems have been on a steady downward trajectory since 2000, the result of the state’s underfunding on one end and excessive benefits on the other.
In terms of state ranking, Illinois can go no lower. Moody’s reports that Illinois has the highest pension liabilities among the 50 states.
Unfortunately, the investment firm reports that being the worst doesn’t preclude Illinois’ pension woes from getting worse, as they continue to do.