Underfunded Public Pensions as “Stranded” Costs? Two Trillion Dollars?

The Financial Times runs a story today by Francesco Guerrera and Nicole Bullock on the looming problems of underfunded public pensions at the state and local level in the United States.  The news story cites a new study by Orin Kramer, chairman of New Jersey’s pension fund:

The estimate by Orin Kramer will fuel investors’ concerns over the deteriorating financial health of US states after the recession. “State and local governments are correctly perceived to be in serious difficulty,” Mr Kramer told the Financial Times.

“If you factor in the reality of these unfunded promises, their deficits will rise exponentially.”

Estimates of aggregate funding requirement of the US pension system have ranged between $400bn and $500bn, but Mr Kramer’s analysis concluded that public funds would need to find more than $2,000bn to meet future pension obligations.

Two trillion dollars?  One question about these obligations is whether taxpayers will stick around to pay them, or instead will vote with their feet.  (“Vote with their feet” is something that has been discussed in various ways at VC – as an aspect of a federal system and states with their own laws.)  Many of these pension obligations have been incurred by municipalities and others by states, and in some cases the obligations are intertwined.  But what happens if voters-taxpayers move out?

The assumption has long been that taxpayers are stuck, on account of jobs and other circumstance.  But query whether that is necessarily true as the baby boom generation retires.  In that case, it might find itself far more mobile, in circumstances where rising taxes at every level make relocation a more valuable decision at the margin.  For that matter, if otherwise desirable locales manage to tax their businesses away, will the baby boomers’ kids and grandkids have reason ever to locate in places that lack jobs?  They might have been raised there – but would they go back?

Would people leave California? They are leaving now, true, but would they leave in the future specifically for this reason or generally on account of the tax burden, particularly as retirees?  Or New Jersey?  What about the city of Oakland?  Or even smaller cities, such as the towns in California – not large at all, small towns, that have already declared bankruptcy over pension obligations?  It’s easy to move out of those towns.  For that matter, what about a municipality declaring bankruptcy in anticipation of un-meetable pension burdens down the road – in other words, you know it can’t be met, you know that your tax base will move out, and even though you are solvent now, you see that you won’t be down the road – and if you restructure now, you can save a much worse situation by not driving out your taxpayers.  But is that available under bankruptcy?  I’m not a bankruptcy specialist – it might not be possible to do so as a matter of law; someone can tell me in the comments.

In theory, all parties should be able to see the train wreck coming and renegotiate now, but the reality is, parties won’t do that, because they will lock horns over how much of promised benefits can get paid by increased taxation, and many other things.  That’s why bankruptcy judges have much of their discretionary power to impose things on parties nearly all of whom have varying degrees of hold-up.  Query too whether less heavily obligated jurisdictions might woo people to come, and perhaps pass measures as part of state constitutions limiting levels of indebtedness and writing in provisions that would cover future contingent pension payments.

How might the heavily indebted jurisdictions respond to taxpayer exit?  (Their position becomes a little like the position of utilities with “stranded” costs – and presumably that is how they would present their case, not as having profligately promised benefits as politicians to favored public employee constituencies, but instead as having provided services to taxpayers over decades but now getting stuck with the check.)  One way would be to try and impose taxes (and perhaps “fees”) that “follow” people who leave the jurisdiction.  More likely, I would think, would be an effort to federalize the pension bill.  Alternative one would simply  have the federal government assume the burdens, and presumably set the rules for future pensions.  Alternative two would be to leave the debts where they are, but have series of federal transfers to state and local jurisdictions to cover them, the unending bailout-stimulus.

The alternative to all of these, of course, would be for states and localities to declare bankruptcy and have a judge restructure the obligations and, one assumes, lower the obligations and the benefits.  It is an alternative often touted.  I worry, however, that people who call for it assume that the bankruptcy system, which was created to deal with mostly manageable private bankruptcies and the occasional huge corporate wipeout and the occasional public finance disaster, would somehow stay above politics and remain the same essentially apolitical system it is now.  That, after all, is what people who look to the bankruptcy system to resolve all these public finance messes seek – a set of neutral, apolitical rules of the kinds that govern private bankruptcy.

When relatively apolitical systems of these kinds are asked to take on, however, not just the occasional role in deeply politicized issues, but instead to take them on as a whole endemic category, now and into the future – it is very hard to see that the apolitical nature of the system is not inevitably changed.  How could it not be, over time?  (The same is true of the Fed, I would think.)  A bankruptcy system that contains, for good reasons, much discretionary authority on the part of the judge, and the ability of Congress to revise the rules, and then gradually takes on as its most visible and public function the resolution of public (and hence political) finance questions, it seems to me, will sooner or later lose the elements of neutral, apolitical decision-making arising from a system fundamentally about private bankruptcy and corporate restructuring.  It will become something else.  Institutions and systems of governance are not static.

(Realistically, however, what happens regarding public pensions is a political function of  the political power of the public employee unions, at all levels of government, as highly organized, interested, focused political groups – as against disorganized publics as taxpayers, represented in theory, but often not in fact, by politicians in state and local government.)