Math fraud in pensions
I wrote a post three months ago talking about how we don’t need better models but we need to stop lying with our models. My first example was municipal debt and how various towns and cities are in deep debt partly because their accounting for future pension obligations allows them to be overly optimistic about their investments and underfund their pension pots.
This has never been more true than it is right now, and as this New York Times Dealbook article explains, was a major factor in Detroit’s bankruptcy filing this past week. But don’t make any mistake: even in places where they don’t end up declaring bankruptcy, something is going to shake out because of these broken models, and it isn’t going to be extra money for retired civil servants.
It all comes down to wanting to avoid putting required money away and hiring quants (in this case actuaries) to make that seem like it’s mathematically acceptable. It’s a form of mathematical control fraud. From the article:
When a lender calculates the value of a mortgage, or a trader sets the price of a bond, each looks at the payments scheduled in the future and translates them into today’s dollars, using a commonplace calculation called discounting. By extension, it might seem that an actuary calculating a city’s pension obligations would look at the scheduled future payments to retirees and discount them to today’s dollars.
But that is not what happens. To calculate a city’s pension liabilities, an actuary instead projects all the contributions the city will probably have to make to the pension fund over time. Many assumptions go into this projection, including an assumption that returns on the investments made by the pension fund will cover most of the plan’s costs. The greater the average annual investment returns, the less the city will presumably have to contribute. Pension plan trustees set the rate of return, usually between 7 percent and 8 percent.
In addition, actuaries “smooth” the numbers, to keep big swings in the financial markets from making the pension contributions gyrate year to year. These methods, actuarial watchdogs say, build a strong bias into the numbers. Not only can they make unsustainable pension plans look fine, they say, but they distort the all-important instructions actuaries give their clients every year on how much money to set aside to pay all benefits in the future.
One caveat: if the pensions have actually been making between 7 percent and 8 percent on their investments every year then all is perhaps well. But considering that they typically invest in bonds, not stocks – which is a good thing – we’re likely seeing much smaller returns than that, which means their yearly contributions to the local pension plans are in dire straits.
What’s super interesting about this article is that it goes into the action on the ground inside the Actuary community, since their reputations are at stake in this battle:
A few years ago, with the debate still raging and cities staggering through the recession, one top professional body, the Society of Actuaries, gathered expert opinion and realized that public pension plans had come to pose the single largest reputational risk to the profession. A Public Plans Reputational Risk Task Force was convened. It held some meetings, but last year, the matter was shifted to a new body, something called the Blue Ribbon Panel, which was composed not of actuaries but public policy figures from a number of disciplines. Panelists include Richard Ravitch, a former lieutenant governor of New York; Bradley Belt, a former executive director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation; and Robert North, the actuary who shepherds New York City’s five big public pension plans.
I’m not sure what happened here, but it seems like a bunch of people in a profession, the actuaries, got worried that they were being used by politicians, and decided to investigate, but then that initiative got somehow replaced by a bunch of politicians. I’d love to talk to someone on the inside about this.