Here's a dilemma: You manage a public employee pension plan and your actuary tells you it is significantly underfunded. You don't want to raise contributions. Cutting benefits is out of the question. To be honest, you'd really rather not even admit there's a problem, lest taxpayers get upset.
What to do? For the administrators of two Montana pension plans, the answer is obvious: Get a new actuary. Or at least that's the essence of the managers' recent solicitations for actuarial services, which warn that actuaries who favor reporting the full market value of pension liabilities probably shouldn't bother applying.
Public employee pension plans are plagued by overgenerous benefits, chronic underfunding, and now trillion dollar stock-market losses. Based on their preferred accounting methods -- which discount future liabilities based on high but uncertain returns projected for investments -- these plans are underfunded nationally by around $310 billion.
The numbers are worse using market valuation methods (the methods private-sector plans must use), which discount benefit liabilities at lower interest rates to reflect the chance that the expected returns won't be realized. Using that method, University of Chicago economists Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh calculate that, even prior to the market collapse, public pensions were actually short by nearly $2 trillion. That's nearly $87,000 per plan participant. With employee benefits guaranteed by law and sometimes even by state constitutions, it's likely these gargantuan shortfalls will have to be borne by unsuspecting taxpayers.
Some public pension administrators have a strategy, though: Keep taxpayers unsuspecting. The Montana Public Employees' Retirement Board and the Montana Teachers' Retirement System declare in a recent solicitation for actuarial services that "If the Primary Actuary or the Actuarial Firm supports [market valuation] for public pension plans, their proposal may be disqualified from further consideration."