Forbes Real Time

A Modest Proposal To Solve Illinois’ Pension Woes

Banknotes of Zimbabwe after hyperinflation

Getty

It’s easy-peasy, really.

There’s a way to reduce the Illinois and Chicago pension liabilities by half, with no constitutional amendment required, no hard political truth-telling or compromises, no cuts at all.

And considering that Chicago’s pensions are 23% funded, and Illinois’, 40%, this is not a minute too soon.

Here’s the scoop:

The basic structure of Illinois’ and Chicago’s pensions are the same. In general, Tier I employees/retirees, those hired before 2011, receive a pension based on final pay and service with a fixed 3% per year Cost-of-Living Adjustment; whenever inflation is lower than this (the last ten years, it’s averaged 1.8%, the last 20 years, 2.2%), they come out ahead, to the extent that some retirees get pension checks greater than any paycheck they ever received. Tier II employees, on the other hand, keep the same benefit formula, but averaged out over a longer period of time, receive pseudo-COLAs at half the rate of inflation, without compounding, and have their pensionable pay capped at a level that (unlike, for instance, the Social Security ceiling) doesn’t rise based on average wage growth or even inflation but at half the rate of inflation, so that, to take the teachers as an example, any teacher who earns above-average pay levels will be affected as soon as 2027, based on current inflation projections and average wage data.

Now, the value of any pension without a true CPI-based cost-of-living adjustment will be eroded over time due to inflation, and eroded in very short order in instances of high inflation. And in countries with a history of inflation, employer-sponsored pensions are more likely to include true cost-of-living increases. In some cases, the entire actuarial valuation is done on a “real” basis, evaluating all of the inputs on the basis of “value in addition to inflation” — that is, using the assumed salary increase in excess of inflation and the interest rate in excess of inflation. When both these hold true – true-CPI increases and assumptions all relative to inflation, in principle, neither the liabilities nor the pension benefits’ real value are affected by fluctuations in inflation. (Random trivia: in Brazil, the government even issues its bonds on a “real” basis.)

At the same time, back in the spring, the latest buzzword was Modern Monetary Theory (here’s an explainer), which was the means by which various progressive politicians promoted the idea that there was an awful lot more room for government deficit spending than appears to be the case; concerns about inflation were waved away with the assurance that the government would be able to tack as needed by increasing tax rates.

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?

If the United States were to hit a period of high inflation rates, sustained over a long period of time, these liabilities would shrink considerably — and I’m not even speaking, snarky photo aside, of hyperinflation. Based on my calculations (and yes, these are real calculations, using real data for this plan collected for another project, not merely back-of-the-envelope estimates, however unlikely the very even numbers make it appear), an inflation rate of 10%, and assumptions for interest rate/asset return rate and salary increases over time which reflect the same net-of-inflation rates as at present, would halve the pension liabilities of the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System.

Sounds preposterous, I know. And admittedly, beyond all the ill-effects of high inflation, individual state governments don’t control monetary policy anyway. But is it really any worse a proposal than the idea of selling the Illinois Tollway to a private firm which would do the dirty work of raising tolls so as to indirectly fund the pensions by making the tollway an attractive and profitable purchase? Or more ill-conceived a notion than the notion that public pensions can function perfectly well as pyramid schemes in which each cohort of employees funds their predecessors’ benefits?

Or maybe the politicians of Illinois have some better idea? If so, I’m all ears.

What do you think? Share your thoughts at JaneTheActuary.com!

Elizabeth Bauer, Contributor

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