Hoover Institute: Teacher Retirement Benefits

Hoover Institute:

The vast majority of teacher pension plans are not fully funded. This means that contributions include both the “normal cost” of pension liabilities accruing to current employees and the legacy costs of amortizing unfunded liabilities accrued previously (due to a variety of reasons, including the original pay-as-you go nature of most plans, as well as unfunded benefit enhancements over the years). In theory, if the actuarial assumptions hold true going forward and no new benefits are enacted, the amortization costs will eventually disappear (after 30 years, under a typical funding schedule), in much the same way that a homeowner’s monthly expenses decline when the mortgage gets paid off.

However, the near-term prospects may be very different. For one thing, public pension funds face the possibility of important accounting changes. Unlike private pension funds, public fund actuaries have been allowed to discount future liabilities at a rate of about 8 percent, the assumed long-run market return on fund assets. Finance economists have argued that such a high discount rate is imprudent, however, and there have been signs that public accounting standards might move toward the private-sector rules, based on corporate bond and Treasury rates, which could reduce the discount rate to about 5 percent. This would dramatically raise the required amortization payments.

Finally, it bears noting that the market value of pension funds has fallen precipitously as of this writing (December 2008). Barring a major market recovery, pension funds across the country will have new, large unfunded liabilities. Under actuarial smoothing methods, these losses will be phased in, raising required amortization payments over the next few years. If the accounting rules for public funds also change, reducing the discount rate on liabilities, the employers of public school teachers, along with other public employers, will face a double hit, requiring sharp increases in contributions. By contrast, those private employers who have switched over to defined contribution plans in recent decades will be unaffected. In short, there are good reasons to believe that the contribution gap we have documented will continue to widen in coming years.

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