Education, PERA

Why PERA's presumptions are faulty

Did you recognize the faulty presumptions in PERA’s spirited defense of defined benefit plans?

You have been given a false choice about why defined benefits plans are better than defined contribution plans.

In a recent EdNews Colorado Voices column, Colorado PERA Executive Director Greg Smith avers that PERA’s existing defined benefit structure best serves both the teachers and the taxpayers of Colorado. He was responding to a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality that leads the reader to support reforms to move away from the existing scheme and toward a defined contribution plan. Smith’s claims are wrong about the advantages of defined benefit plans in general, and PERA’s actuarial soundness in particular.

Smith cites a National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS) report that claims three advantages for defined benefit plans over defined contribution plans:

  1. Less error in the amount saved for retirement,
  2. Less need to rebalance and re-allocate assets over time, and
  3. Better returns, largely as a result of lower transaction costs.

Each advantage turns out not to be dependent on having a defined benefit plan, but on having a professionally-managed, aggregated plan. The same advantages would accrue to a similar defined contribution plan that was also aggregated and professionally-managed.

PERA already has such an option, PERA Plus. It’s organized as a three-part 457(b) / 401(k) / Defined Contribution option. Like any set of diversified retirement offerings, it includes a variety of funds with different investment goals. For our discussion, the most relevant set of funds are those with target retirement dates. PERA has nine of these, with target dates every five years from 2015 to 2055, and an Income Fund designed to provide current income for current retirees.

Over time, as the target date for each fund approaches, that individual fund reallocates its assets into more conservative investments, before maturing and merging into the Income Fund. While each individual fund “ages,” all the funds collectively are maintaining a proper average. Taken together, they continue to represent the aggregate ages and target retirement dates of the entire set of members, the very source of the first two alleged advantages. The third, that of lower transaction costs, is completely independent of how liabilities are calculated.

There is no inherent reason why the assets of a DB plan should earn a higher return than those of an identically-invested DC plan. The only mandatory difference is that the defined benefit plan beneficiary has a share only in the specific benefits to be paid – the fund’s liabilities. By comparison, the owner of a defined contribution plan has a property right in the assets. Therefore, while a defined contribution plan is, by definition, always fully-funded, a defined benefit plan may have to seek additional funding, or trim back on its promises, in order to remain so.
The danger of unrealistic promises

It is therefore imperative that the promises being made to future retirees be realistic. All the more so if the promised benefits are being used to attract and retain qualified or exceptional teachers. Unfortunately, it is far from certain that PERA can afford the promises it is making, given its current funding levels. Recent legislative reforms (Senate Bill 10-001 in particular), while welcome and substantial, simply do not close the gap.

By PERA’s most recent published calculations, its unfunded liabilities remain at a staggering $26 billion, and its overall funded level is well below 60 percent, on a par with the chronically ill Illinois public pensions. In fact, a recent study by Barry Poulson suggests that PERA could be in the worst shape of any statewide plan in the country.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. PERA’s adoption of a 401(k)-like portability is indeed commendable. But if it’s designed to mimic the properties of a 401(k), it can hardly then provide an advantage over one.

While PERA is no longer “letting it ride,” as it did with its stock market investments of the late 90s, the 8 percent returns needed for a return to solvency come with risk. Even better-than-average returns during regular years won’t make up for prior losses in bad years, because funds must then catch up, while payments can’t be deferred.

What success SB1 does offer is predicated on both benefit reductions and payment increases. However, a court challenge to the limitation of COLAs to 2 percent has been upheld by a State Court of Appeals, and its future is uncertain at best. Should the lower courts find that limitation not to be justified, most of the immediate reduction in PERA’s unfunded liability will be wiped out.

On the contribution side, PERA plans to require supplemental increases, rising incrementally from 2 percent to 5.5 percent until 2018. School districts have been picking up the tab for these increases, rather than passing them on to the teachers themselves, as they are allowed to do. As a result, PERA now absorbs upwards of 15 percent of annual operating expenses in many large school districts, a number that is expected to rise to 20 percent as the existing plan increases for make-up contributions.
Disclosure of ties to lobbying group needed

It is also worth noting that the institute that issued the favorable DB article (NIRS) is the lobbying and public policy arm of the defined benefit public pensions, with a particularly close relationship with Colorado PERA. Smith sits on the board of directors of NIRS, as does Meredith Williams, PERA’s former executive director. Colorado PERA is both a charter member and in NIRS’s Visionary Circle, along with such other public plans as CalPERS and the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.

Inasmuch as NIRS is not an independent think tank, but instead is a creation of interested parties to the debate over public pensions, this relationship ought to have been disclosed.

While there is no doubt that total compensation is an important part of attracting and retaining effective teachers, those promises must be grounded in reality. Until realistic arguments are used, PERA will continue to fail not only its member teachers, but also the schools and parents it is intended to serve.

Joshua Sharf is a research associate for the Independence Institute’s Fiscal Policy Center, and blogs at View From a Height. This column originally appeared on Ed News Colorado.

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