In light of the recent GAO report, one question I have received is how public pension solvency dates would change if one assumes an “Ongoing” model instead of a “Termination” model. The Termination approach asks how long existing assets would last to cover liabilities that have already been promised. It assumes that future contributions will cover the cost of future benefit promises and will not be wiped out to fund legacy promises. This is the approach I took in a paper from 2010 that examined exhaustion dates. An Ongoing approach instead assumes that future contributions are available to make payments at the time and could be completely wiped out if necessary to pay legacy liabilities. Note that in many systems departing employees can ask for contribution refunds, so that it is not clear that all future employee contributions are fully available for legacy promises.
Fortunately, Alicia Munnell and coauthors have already analyzed and answered this question in the 2011 paper “Public Pension Funding In Practice,” Journal of Pension Economics and Finance 10: 247-268. The main table from Professor Munnell’s paper is as follows. It shows that under the Termination framework public pension plans nationwide have assets through 2025 assuming 8% returns and 2022 assuming 6% returns. Allowing future contributions to be wiped out to pay for legacy liabilities extends the solvency horizon on average by 4-5 years.
Another interesting graph from the paper is the following, constructed under the 8% return scenario.
It is interesting that even under the Ongoing framework, assets of more than half the plans (7%+29%+33%) are exhausted by 2029, 36% (7%+29%) are exhausted by 2024, and 7% are exhausted before 2020.
At the time of the Munnell study, assets in the sample plans were $2.7 trillion as of 2009, according to the study. As of the last high-water mark for the stock market (June 2011), total state and local government retirement assets stood at $3.0 trillion according to the Fed Flow of Funds, which also corroborates the 2009 figure. It is telling that even a very strong market in which stocks have returned approximately 10% annually since 2009 have had such a relatively small effect on the situation.