Submitted by Mark Glennon of Wirepoints
Governor JB Pritzker’s administration has now made clear it will seriously consider the latest idea to address Illinois’ pension crisis – transferring public assets directly to state pensions. It recently announced the formation of a task force on the subject.
At its core, the concept is exceptionally simple. In practice, however, it’s exceptionally subject to smoke and mirrors and would further obscure a pension system that’s already far too opaque. More importantly, asset transfers do nothing to improve the state’s overall fiscal health.
Just convey ownership of some public assets to the pension, for free, in addition to the cash contributions taxpayers make now. That’s all this is about. Maybe the Illinois Lottery or Illinois Tollway for state pensions. Maybe Midway Airport or its water system for Chicago pensions. Those are examples of assets that have been mentioned that might be handed over.
Illinois state pensions are officially reported to have assets about $130 billion less than what they need to have on hand to pay for pension benefits already earned. Turn over ownership of the tollway and some other assets and, voila, the thinking goes, that shortfall would shrink by whatever the transferred asset is worth.
The first problem should be obvious – the state, as a whole, would be no better off. Whatever assets the state owns – which are your assets as taxpayers – would simply be moved over to the pension funds for the sole purpose of covering benefit obligations. But the pensions are really just a unit of government because Illinois courts have made clear that the sponsoring unit of government is liable directly to pensioners if pension assets ever fall short. So, pensions might be made more secure by an asset transfer, but the government’s overall balance sheet remains the same.
Not true, I’ve heard some proponents of asset transfers say. They claim there are certain public assets where the value of the asset can only be fully unlocked through a transfer to a pension. Just selling or leasing the asset to some third party, they say, wouldn’t work. I’ll believe that when I see an example.
If you’re wondering at this point whether accounting shenanigans might be at play, you’re right to be concerned. Some valuation would have to be placed on the asset transferred in order to understand a pension’s true position. But public assets don’t have clear market values. What’s the Illinois Lottery really worth, for example? Experts will have different opinions, but the temptation will be to inflate the value in order to make pension financial statements look better.
And how on earth will actuaries decide what rate of return to assume on those assets? Currently, Illinois pensions assume about 7% per year. That’s already extremely controversial, with Nobel economists being the harshest critics. This will make heads explode in the actuary world.
Over time, the value of the asset will change. The lottery’s value, for example, will drop markedly if Illinois expands other forms of gambling as rapidly as planned. Does anybody really expect pensions to honestly report that changing value, given their sordid history distorting their position with phony numbers on things like discount rates and mortality projections?
And even if honest valuations are used, another temptation will be to transfer assets that are on the books at lower valuations. That would improve a government’s reported balance sheet when it’s valued fairly in the pension after transfer, but the government’s position wouldn’t really improve at all.
In the private sector, where asset transfers to pensions are sometimes done, that accounting trick is the whole point – take an asset that’s been heavily depreciated to less than fair value and give it to the pension at fair value, which magically improves the consolidated balance sheet. That’s a sensible tactic for a private company to improve its reported position, but for governments, from a taxpayer’s viewpoint, it doesn’t change the economic realities.