Increasingly, the “defined benefit” model of retirement plan (where the employee is paid a lifetime annuity, based on years of service and final salary) is being replaced by the “defined contribution” model of retirement plan (where the employee owns and controls an investment account). One of many reasons for this shift is the tendency of DB plans to be underfunded (promises to pay exceeding available assets), which is structurally impossible for a DC plan. One estimate of private sector DB plan underfunding is over $300 billion.
State and local public employees, for the most part, have DB retirement plans. Much discussion has occurred in recent years to estimate how underfunded they are: the estimates start at $1.3 trillion and go up from there. The difficulty is that calculating the amount depends on your estimate of future rate of return. Most plans themselves project they will earn 7 to 8 percent on their investments, and critics say that is too optimistic.
The organization State Budget Solutions this month produced one such estimate, using a 3.2 percent rate of return (the 15-year Treasury bond yield rate). This calculates to public employee pension plans having only 39 percent of the assets they need to cover their promised payments—a $4.1 trillion gap. A map of their state-by-state funding ratio estimates is below.
Moody’s and the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) have sought to change reporting requirements to make it harder for public employee pension funds to increase liabilities without funding them. Further, many states are considering reforms to bring assets and benefits more in line with each other, and a few have implemented them.