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Pension Liabilities: Fear Tactics and Serious Policy

David Rosnick, Dean Baker

Abstract

There is major national debate over the funding status of state and local pension funds. Many economists have argued that pension funds are being overly optimistic in assuming that pensions will be able to get 8 percent nominal returns on their invested funds. This calculation is based on the historic average of the mix of assets that are held by these funds. They have argued that funds should instead that their assets will get the risk-free rate of return on US Treasury bonds and build up their funds accordingly. This paper applies a funding rule projects returns based on current price to earnings ratios in the stock market. It runs a number of simulations based on the pattern of stock returns since the beginning of the last century. It shows that in all cases this funding rule would imply a more even flow of payments to the pension fund than a funding rule that assume a risk-free rate of return. The implication of this analysis is that if state and local governments want to maintain a relatively even flow to their pensions and not burden taxpayers at certain points in time with excess burdens, pensions should adopt a funding rule like the one described in this paper.

Published on 6 Sep 2012 in World Economic Review No 1, 2012