Monday, September 23, 2013

Thoughts from the Frontline: Rich City, Poor City

By John Mauldin

"The future is already here," intoned William Gibson, one of my favorite cyberpunk science fiction authors, "it's just not very evenly distributed." Paraphrasing Gibson, the pension crisis is already here; it's just not very evenly distributed. For the past two weeks we've been exploring the problems of state pension funds. This week we will conclude our look at pension plans for the nonce with a 30,000-foot overview of the states and then take a deeper dive into one city: mine. This will give you at least one version of how to do your own homework about your own hometown. But fair warning, depending on your locale, you may need medical help or significant quantities of an adult beverage after you finish your research. Then again you may be pleasantly surprised and congratulate yourself on choosing a particularly adept hometown. And be on notice that, no matter what your personal conclusion and how well-grounded your analysis is, there will be people who live in your neighborhood who think you are utterly full of, well, let's just say "nonsensical matter" and leave it at that. This is a family letter.

Into the Transformational Future

First, a quick announcement. I am constantly asked where the future jobs will be, and I think hard about the answer to that very personal question (it's crucial to those of us who have young kids). Will we see Gibson’s dystopian world or Ian Banks' world of abundance? The answer is, of course, that secular growth in employment will come from the new, transformational technologies that are already being created all around us, truly new industries that will change everything and create opportunities for work that we can't even imagine yet, in the same way the automobile or telecommunications or the McCormick reaper both took some jobs away and created even greater opportunities. The transition is the thing, though. It will be filled with opportunities for some and forced change for others, while we wait for the future to become more evenly distributed. In the next few weeks, you are going to get a letter from me that will tell you about the newest addition to Mauldin Economics, the Transformational Technologies Alert, written by my longtime friend Pat Cox, who is no stranger to readers of this letter. Pat and I have long wanted to work together, exploring the future and especially biotech. He is the best, and you will want to join us from the very beginning. We invite you to charge ahead into the future with us, exploring opportunities that will begin to change your own life right now. And now back to pensions…

Through the courtesy of one of your fellow readers I've been given a treasure trove of data on 702 city pension plans. I won't say that I got lost in the data, but the search and rescue teams sent to find me had to go back for extra supplies. There were some very dark alleys that it took a while to find my way back out of. Not to mention some twists and turns that were totally surprising.

So first I need to say a big thank you to Gregg L. Bienstock and Justin Coombs of Lumesis for giving me access to their data. Gregg is a cofounder of Lumesis, and their signature software is called (appropriately enough, given the oceans of data they plumb) DIVER. They've compiled data on 54,000 issuers of municipal and state bonds from over 100 sources. They sent me an Excel file on the major pension plans of every state and the pension plans of cities with populations over 100,000. And Justin was kind enough to create multiple spreadsheets and graphs upon request and patiently explain their data. The bulk of the data in this letter is from The opinions are my own and should not be attributed to Lumesis. From time to time we will also look at another fascinating study from the Pew Charitable Trusts on pensions and retiree healthcare in 61 cities.

As we have seen the last two weeks (here and here), the assumptions that states make about their future investment returns are fairly unrealistic and generally nothing like what they've achieved for the last 10 years. This makes their balance sheets look far better than they really are, and for some states the discrepancy is pretty stark. Witness Illinois, where unfunded pension liabilities run north of $280 billion, give or take. That is more than $20,000 for every man, woman, and child in the state. And the bill keeps rising every month as the state plows ever deeper in debt to its own future.

Keeping in mind the caveat that the percentages may actually be worse than reported, let's look at a few graphs on a state-by-state basis. This first graph shows the funded ratio of state pension plans through 2012. (Note: on all the graphs the large "island" below Louisiana is a representation of Puerto Rico. To its left is Alaska, and both are obviously not to scale.)

The next graph shows actuarial required contributions (ARC). The ARC is simply the amount of money required to fund the pension plan given the return assumptions of the plan. The important thing to note here is the amount of blue in the graph. If you ask your local politicians how their pension plan is doing, they can probably tell you with a straight face (and because they don't know any better) that their state's pension is fully funded. I note with some alarm that "conservative" Texas doesn't fare very well. While Texas claims funding above 80%, a more reasonable assumption on returns suggests it is no better than 43%. Can Rick Perry run for president as a conservative on that number? Then again, can New Jersey Republican governor uber-star Chris Christie run on his state's funding level of 33%? Just asking.

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