Because of the way they're structured, they have incentives to ignore the retirement plans' long-term health.
For the last decade, analysts have been arguing over whom to blame for America's state and local pension crisis. Politicians? Public employee unions? Financial markets? Amid the din, the detrimental role of public pension boards has been overlooked.
There is a mounting body of evidence that pension boards, which oversee the funds created by employer and employee contributions, are partly to blame for the underfunding problem. Pension board members' incentives lead them away from a focus on the plans' long-term fiscal health. In a new report, I document those incentives and their consequences and recommend ways to mitigate -- and even eliminate -- the governance issues.
The long-term costs of failing to act to deal with mounting pension debt are enormous. In 2015, the Federal Reserve estimated that states' and localities' pension funds had accumulated $5.52 trillion in liabilities but had set aside only $3.7 trillion in assets. To ensure that public employees receive the benefits promised by their plans, state and local governments are spending more every year on their pension systems. According to census data, those governments contributed $40.1 billion to their pension systems in 2000; by 2016, that number had skyrocketed to $140.5 billion. In addition, pension funds are making riskier investments in an effort to catch up.
Daniel DiSalvo is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, an associate professor of political science at the City College Of New York (CUNY), and author of Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences (2015). Follow him on Twitter here.