Ed Mendel
August 15, 2016

Two actuarial associations did not publish a controversial paper by their joint task force, reflecting a split in the profession over whether public pension debt should be measured with risk-free bonds or the earnings forecast for stock-laden investment funds.

Using safe but low-yield bonds to offset or “discount” future pension obligations would cause pension debt to soar, creating pressure to raise the annual rates paid by state and local governments that are already at an all-time high for many.

Critics have been contending for a decade that overly optimistic pension fund earnings forecasts conceal massive debt and the need to take even more money from government budgets or find a way to cut pension costs.

The leading California critics, now mainly at Stanford University, are not professional actuaries. They have backgrounds in finance, like David Crane, and in academic economics, like Joe Nation and Joshua Rauh.

The paper of the joint Pension Finance Task Force paper of the American Academy of Actuaries and the Society of Actuaries, which did not make it through the usual peer review process, was based on the principles of financial economics.

“One of the assertions of the paper is that public pension plans are purported to be default-free obligations so they would be valued using default-free interest rates,” an anonymous former task force member told Pensions & Investments.

Although not as well publicized as criticism from outside the profession, a group of actuaries has been urging the adoption of a risk-free discount rate for about a decade, said Paul Angelo of Segal Company actuaries in San Francisco.

Angelo, chairman of the California Actuarial Advisory Panel, does not favor the use of a risk-free discount rate. He agrees with not publishing the task force paper, saying it lacked the “science” to support the change and relied only on assertions.

For the first time, Angelo said, the actuaries urging a risk-free discount rate went beyond simply reporting debt and seemed to be advocating its use to set the annual payments to the pension fund made by government employers.

The California Public Employees Retirement System and the California State Teachers Retirement System currently assume their pension fund investments, expected to pay two-thirds of future pensions, will average 7.5 percent a year in future decades.

The systems use the 7.5 percent long-term earnings forecast to reduce or “discount” the cost of future pensions, as if it were money in the bank. Thirty-year U.S. Treasury bonds, regarded as risk free, were yielding 2.23 percent last week.

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