Friday, May 28, 2010

Pension Pulse

Mentioned a few days ago was the report from the Pew folks on the state of city finances that included some benchmarking of the City of Pittsburgh.  At the bottom is their main table on the comparable situation of city pension systems for 11 cities.  A few fascinating things in that.

[update: Ha.  Check out footnote 49 of the Pew report linked above.  I didn't catch that.  Also check out the Trib's update on the city pension situation Friday. Was that in Friday's paper? or posted online on Friday?]

First off, there was an update to the numbers even in the brief time since that report came out.  Per the news yesterday the city's pension system is funded as of the and of March at 29%, not the 34% in the table below.  Does not change our ordinal ranking (can't be worse than worst) so who cares?  Hold that thought.

That 29% is the state of the pension system as of the end of March.  Anyone notice what has happened in financial markets over the last 7 weeks?  Bloomberg box says things are not good compared to the levels of April 1.  So unless the city has dumped a lot of additional cash into the system over that time, the funding level is not 29%.

Note the state of Detroit's pension system.  Many know the state of all things financial in the City of Detroit are far worse than most anywhere else these days.  Yet somehow the Detroit pension systems were overfunded in 2008, and really are only down to only 85% following the wall street miasma of late.  How is that possible?  Could it be because of something I have pointed out in the past that the Detroit Pension system has a transparency eons ahead of us when it comes to their pension system.  Try and find any data comparable to what Detroit makes available on their pension system here.   If there is another explanation for why Detroit of all places is so far ahead of Pittsburgh in pension funding I think it would be a great discussion to have.  That and why nobody really cares about the lack of pension information the city puts out confounds me.

Note how far Pittsburgh's funding level is below all the others.  What isn't talked about thus far, and what I bet gets little comment is whether a net gain of $200 million from the monetization of the parking assets is enough to make a difference.

The only thing people care about is getting to the 50% level that is nominally needed to prevent a state takeover of the pension system.   Let's say the city does net $200 mil from the parking assets.  That would move the 29% to 49%, maybe for sake of argument say it gets us to 50%, it will only be by a decimal point.  It is the funding ratio where the city was at around 2002.  Things looked peachy at the time.

On the Pew chart 50% would move us from having  the absolutely lowest funded pension system to just barely above Chicago and Philadelphia... just barely.  50% is a pretty dire state of pension funding by any measure. 

Add it all up and what do you get?  If the 29% is not really where we are at right now...  just a few % points below that make it that much harder to get the system over 50%.  How much more would be needed and where will it come from is a potential question.  Deep down I suspect the uber-low interest rates in the bond markets these days ought to produce a higher set of bid prices than might have been expected when this process all got started.  Time will answer that more definitively, but when the bids come in they will look like big numbers.  Big or not the question will be: Is it enough?


Blogger Grimace said...

The outstanding liabilities in the pension plan seems to be growing without an end. The overall economy tanks, stock market tanks, pension obligations continue to rise.

Friday, May 28, 2010 1:30:00 PM  

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