Monday, October 26, 2015

Someone Is Spending Your Pension Money

By John Mauldin 

“Retirement is like a long vacation in Las Vegas. The goal is to enjoy it to the fullest, but not so fully that you run out of money.”– Jonathan Clements

“In retirement, only money and symptoms are consequential.”– Mason Cooley

Retirement is every worker’s dream, even if your dream would have you keep doing the work you love. You still want the financial freedom that lets you work for love instead of money. This is a relatively new dream. The notion of spending the last years of your life in relative relaxation came about only in the last century or two. Before then, the overwhelming number of people had little choice but to work as long as they physically could. Then they died, usually in short order. That’s still how it is in many places in the world.

Retirement is a new phenomenon because it is expensive. Our various labor-saving machines make it possible at least to aspire to having a long, happy retirement. Plenty of us still won’t reach the goal. The data on those who have actually saved enough to maintain their lifestyle without having to work is truly depressing reading. Living on Social Security and possibly income from a reverse mortgage is limited living at best.

In this issue, I’ll build on what we said in the last two weeks on affordable healthcare and potentially longer lifespans. Retirement is not nearly as attractive if all we can look forward to is years of sickness and penury. We are going to talk about the slow motion train wreck now taking shape in pension funds that is going to put pressure on many people who think they have retirement covered.

Please feel free to forward this to those who might be expecting their pension funds to cover them for the next 30 or 40 years. Cutting to the chase, US pension funds are seriously underfunded and may need an extra $10 trillion in 20 years. This is a somewhat controversial letter, but I like to think I’m being realistic. Or at least I’m trying.

The Transformation Project
But first, let me update you on the progress on my next book, Investing in an Age of Transformation, which will explore the changes ahead in our society over the next 20 years, along with their implications for investing. Our immediate future promises far more than just a lot of fast paced, fun technological change.

There are many almost inevitable demographic, geopolitical, educational, sociological, and political changes ahead, not to mention the rapidly evolving future of work that are going to significantly impact markets and our lives. I hope to be able to look at as much of what will be happening as possible. I believe that the fundamentals of investing are going to morph over the next 10 to 15 to 20 years.

I mentioned a few weeks ago at the end of one of my letters that I was looking for a few potential interns and/or volunteer research assistants to help me with the book. I was expecting 8 to 10 responses and got well over 100. Well over. I asked people to send me resumes, and I was really pleased with the quality of the potential assistance. I realize that there is an opportunity to do so much more than simply write another book about the future.

What I have done is write a longer outline for the book, detailing about 25 separate chapters. I’d like to put together small teams for each of these chapters that will not only do in-depth research on their particular areas but will also make their work available to be posted upon publication of the book. We’re going to create separate Transformation Indexes for many of the chapters, which will certainly be a valuable resource and a challenge for investors. And now let’s look at what pension funds are going to look like over the next 20 years.

Midwestern Train Wreck
Four months ago we discussed the ongoing public pension train wreck in Illinois (see Live and Let Die). I was not optimistic that the situation would improve, and indeed it has not. The governor and legislature are still deadlocked over the state’s spending priorities. Illinois still has no budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1. Fitch Ratings downgraded the state’s credit rating last week. It’s a mess.

Because of the deadlock, Illinois is facing a serious cash flow crisis. Feeling like you’ve hit the jackpot through the Illinois lottery? Think again. State officials announced Wednesday that winners who are due to receive more than $600 won’t get their money until the state’s ongoing budget impasse is resolved. Players who win up to $600 can still collect their winnings at local retailers. More than $288 million is waiting to be paid out. For now the winners just have an IOU and no interest on their money (Fox).

As messy as the Illinois situation is, none of us should gloat. Many of our own states and cities are not in much better shape. In fact, the political gridlock actually forced Illinois into accomplishing something other states should try. Illinois has not issued any new bond debt since May 2014. Can many other states say that?

Unfortunately, that may be the best we can say about Illinois. The state delayed a $560 million payment to its pension funds for November and may have to delay or reduce another contribution due in December.

Illinois and many other states and local governments are in this mess because their politicians made impossible to keep promises to public workers. The factors that made them so impossible apply to everyone else, too. More people are retiring. Investment returns aren’t meeting expectations. Healthcare costs are rising. Other government spending is out of control.

Nonetheless, the pension problem is the thorniest one. State and local governments spent years waving generous retirement benefits in front of workers. The workers quite naturally accepted the offers. I doubt many stopped to wonder if their state or city could keep its end of the deal. Of course, it could. It’s the government.

Although state governments have many powers, creating money from thin air is, alas, not one of them. You have to be in Washington to do that. Now that the bills are coming due, the state’s’ inability to keep their word is becoming obvious. Now, I’m sure that many talented people spent years doing good work for Illinois. That’s not the issue here. The fault lies with politicians who generously promised money they didn’t have and presumed it would magically appear later.

On the other hand, retired public workers need to realize they can’t squeeze blood from a turnip. Yes, the courts are saying Illinois must keep its pension promises. But the courts can’t create money where none exists. At best, they can force the state to change its priorities. If pension benefits are sacrosanct, the money won’t be available for other public services. Taxes will have to go up or other essential services will not be performed. This is certainly not good for the citizens of Illinois. As things get worse, people will begin to move.

What happens then? Citizens will grow tired of substandard services and high taxes. They can avoid both by moving out of the state. The exodus may be starting. Crain’s Chicago Business reports: High end house  hunters in Burr Ridge have 100 reasons to be happy. But for sellers, that’s a depressing number. The southwest suburb has 100 homes on the market for at least $1 million, more than seven times the number of homes in that price range – 14 – that have sold in Burr Ridge in the past six months.

The town has the biggest glut by far of $1 million-plus homes in the Chicago suburbs, according to a Crain’s analysis. “It's been disquietingly slow, brutally slow, getting these sold,” said Linda Feinstein, the broker-owner of ReMax Signature Homes in neighboring Hinsdale. “It feels like the brakes have been on for months.”

We don’t know why these people want to sell their homes, of course, but they may be the smart ones.

They’re getting ahead of the crowd – or trying to. Think Detroit. I have visited there a few times over the last year, and the suburbs are really quite pleasant (except in the dead of winter, when I’d definitely rather be in Texas). But those who moved out of the city of Detroit and into the suburbs many decades ago had a choice, because Michigan’s finances weren’t massively out of whack. I’ve been to Hinsdale. It’s a charming community and quite upscale. It is an easy train commute to downtown Chicago.

Look at it this way: with what you know about Illinois public finances, would you really want to move into the state and buy an expensive home right now? I sure wouldn’t. That sharply reduces the number of potential homebuyers. The result will be lower home prices. I’m not predicting Illinois will end up like Detroit…...but I don’t rule it out, either. Further, more and more cities and counties around the country are going to be looking like Chicago. Wherever you buy a home, you really should investigate the financial soundness of the state and the city or town.

Pension Math Review
Political folly is not the only problem. Illinois and everyone else saving for retirement – including you and me – make some giant assumptions. Between ZIRP and assorted other economic distortions, it is harder than ever to count on a reasonable real return over a long period. Small changes make a big difference. Pension managers used to think they could average 8% after inflation over two decades or more. At that rate, a million dollars invested today turns into $4.7 million in 20 years. If $4.7 million is exactly the amount you need to fund that year’s obligations, you’re in good shape.

What happens if you average only 7% over that 20 year period? You’ll have $3.9 million. That is only 83% of the amount you counted on. At 6% returns you will be only 68% funded. At 5%, you have only 57% of what you need. At 4%, you will be only 47% of the way there.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

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