by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
If John Hood’s analysis of the current state of government pension obligations piqued your interest, you might want to check out the latest Barron’s cover story.
There’s good news: The magazine ranks North Carolina No. 5 (behind South Dakota, Iowa, Tennessee, and Nebraska) “based on debt and unfunded pensions compared with state GDPs.”
The bad news? All the states could be doing a lot better.
States had $510 billion of tax-supported debt outstanding at the end of 2011, according to Moody’s. That s comprised primarily of general-obligation bonds, which are backed by the full faith and credit of the issuing state. State debt is a relatively small part of the $3.7 trillion muni market.
The bigger problem is pensions. Eaton Vance puts the total unfunded liability of the states at $401 billion, for the fiscal year ended in June 2010, the last year for which complete state data are available. The pension gap is based on states’ assumed investment returns, which average about 8%. But Eaton Vance, Buffett, and many others argue that the assumptions are aggressive in light of ultra-low rates, a mediocre economy, and a lackluster stock market over the past decade.
In a Moody’s analysis of state and local pension obligations, the ratings agency found a $766 billion liability based on 2010 data. That’s a best-case scenario. Assuming a 5.5% return, which the ratings agency has proposed using to discount pension liabilities, the number balloons to $2.2 trillion, split about equally between state and local governments.
A report from the Pew Center for the States, meanwhile, puts the pension gap at $757 billion nationwide. Its analysis shows another $627 billion of unfunded health-care liabilities. Pensions were almost 80% funded on average in 2010 based on admittedly high interest-return assumptions, but only 5% of post-retirement health-care obligations had been funded by states. California, New Jersey, New York, and many other states had little or no money set aside for future health-care needs and were meeting those expenses out of their annual budgets.