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By: Mark Glennon*


For those of you frustrated by obscure pension reporting, here’s a simple way to look just a few numbers and get a pretty good feel on one important measure: How much would it cost per year just to stay even? That is, what does it take from taxpayers to keep a pension from falling further into the abyss? Then, compare that to what taxpayers are actually putting in. I’ll do that for Illinois pensions, which, as you will see, are falling far short.


Start with the unfunded liability. That’s what’s owed for work already performed but not covered by assets the pension has. Multiply that by the pension’s “interest rate” That’s the assumption the pension uses for how much its assets will earn every year, and sometimes called the “discount rate.” Unfunded pension liabilities don’t literally bear “interest” the way a bond or other debts do, but it works out the same way. For pensions, because the liability is not covered by an asset, the unfunded liability effectively grows at the discount rate.


Then, add what’s called “total normal cost” per year. That’s the additional liability the pension takes on for work now being performed. Finally, subtract out the “employee contribution,” which is what workers are contributing per year. What’s left is how much taxpayers must fund just to keep unfunded liabilities from growing. That’s simplified and leaves out some other items (usually, relatively small ones) but is roughly accurate.


Let’s do it for Illinois’ six statewide pensions combined:


Their total unfunded liability is about $113 billion. Their interest rates range from 7% to 7.5%. Multiply the rates used for each pension by their unfunded liabilities, add them up, and you get about $8.3 billion per year of “interest.”


Now, add the total, annual normal cost, which is about $3.6 billion, and subtract the total annual contribution paid by workers, which is about $1.5 billion.


The result is about $10.4 billion. That’s what taxpayers would need to pay just to keep the six pensions from deteriorating further. But the state in fact is contributing only $7.6 billion this year — more than ever before but $2.8 billion too little.


historical state total uaal
Source: CGFA,

We will sink that much further into the quicksand, even if all else goes well with state pensions. That’s been going on for years, and it’s a big part of why the history of the state’s unfunded liabilities looks like what you see on the right, despite larger taxpayer contributions every year.


The trend shown will continue.


My numbers come from last month’s report on state pensions by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability and the most recent actuary reports for each pension. That calculation of a $2.8 billion shortfall is actually a bit smaller than found in a more detailed and scholarly calculation addressing the same concept in a slightly different way, published here by an actuary about a year and a half ago. She calculated the built-in shortfall at $3.4 billion.


All these numbers assume pension assumptions are reasonable, which no reputable financial economist does. Most importantly among those assumptions, the shortfall will be worse if pension assets don’t in fact earn 7% to 7.5% per year. On that, keep in mind that the great post-recession bull market ended last summer. Once realistic returns start to show up in the reporting, the numbers will tank further.


Finally, nobody should assume that “just staying even” is how you need to fund pensions. Additional payments are needed to amortize the unfunded liability over no more than thirty years, most actuaries would say. Our failure to do that is just kicking the can to, well, I’m not sure who — whomever would still hang around Illinois in coming decades if this isn’t fixed. Amortizing the liability over 30 years would cost taxpayers another $3.5 billion or so per year.


These shortfalls will not be overcome. Illinois’ pension obligations cannot, and will not, be met in full. The sooner we accept reality and do what’s inevitable the better off all will be. That includes cutting unfunded liabilities — earned pension benefits — through constitutional amendment, bankruptcy or default.


*Mark Glennon is founder of WirePoints. Opinions expressed are his own.



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Andrew Szakmary
I would like to comment on what I believe are some very misleading statements on this board. 1) Steve-Oh: I cannot speak for the other systems, but SURS’ compound annual investment return from June 30, 2000 to June 30, 2015 was 5.58% per year, well above the 4% you claim. More importantly, as you are no doubt aware, use of the year 2000 as a starting point is extremely misleading, because that was the peak year of a 6-year bull market. During that 6-year run, SURS’ compound annual investment return was 16.57%. Far more representative is that over the past 20 years, SURS’ compound annual investment return… Read more »

Well said Andrew…..and I am gratefull I ecaped your sharp fact-finding critiques. Your vision is clear.


I’m grateful that I can spot “delusional”, and you and Andrew are hard-core delusional

mark glennon
Professor Szakmary- Regarding the portion directed to me, sure, we could raise enough new revenue to cover the $10 billion stay-even-on-pensions number. But you are, like so many others, focusing on just a tiny part of our consolidated disaster: 1. Even with the horrendous spending cuts now in place and with the too-small pension contribution, Illinois is running $6.2B/yr in the red, according to the Comptroller. Any tax/spending plan has to address that, too. Another $8 billion or so in revenue to fix that? 2. You are cherry picking the state out of our massive overlapping crises. CPS, Chicago, and dozens of municipalities are grossly insolvent and… Read more »
You can quote adequate ROI numbers all you want, but at what (and whom’s) expense were those gains made? Will SURS be refunding the profits gained from the housing bubble? Because guess who bought most of the toxic securities back then: the pension funds. Every negatively-impacting employee-related decision companies have made in the past few decades (ie outsourcing) has been in response to chasing profits to appease Wall Street’s biggest investors: the pension funds. Pensioners seem to have no issue with how these profits were obtained in the past even though there is a direct correlation to the income disparities we see today. When the minimum wage… Read more »
Andrew: The market crash in early 2000 and the market flat-line in last 9 months, is PART of the reason I hold to my stmt: Since 1/1/2000, that is 16.25 years, the stock markets have been awful. Nasdaq has grown about zero compounded in the period ! S&P 500 has grown 2-3% and 10-yr bonds have done best, over 5%. The past 16 years has been very important for ANY DB plan at that time that was well-funded, around 100%, but it would have been a terrible time (given the 16 years that followed) for any DB pension plans to have increased bfts, and many governmental plans… Read more »
Andrew, I should have stated it thusly: ” Tell us why private sector taxpayers working an living in Chicagoland, should have their wealth and home values unduly diminished even more than they already have been ! ” And don’t forget these key numbers, private sector working taxpayers are already paying $5.5B for Payroll of the 80,000 active govt ees covered in the five major citywide pension plans — and the unfunded liability is either $30B or $45B depending on net inv returns for the next 10-20 years. How is that possible without taxing the residents into oblivion ? Mark and I will await a clear, complete and… Read more »
I will get down in the mud I guess. You ask: (I paraphrase) Why should taxpayers have thier wealth diminished… 1. The law says you have to pay taxes. The government needs more revenues. This concept is not really hard is it? The court ruled, the LAW says the bill MUST be paid. Until the feds step in, or we fail to follow the LAW, we must pay. 2. Taxpayers are allready paying the payroll for 80,000… well dont we want our Cops/Firemen etc on the beat? Yes we do so we pay people to do work for us taxpayers. Maybe your asking …that they allready get… Read more »
It’s a shame these arguments are always taken to the extreme. When someone asks about the # of state employees or the salaries or benefits offered, it always comes back as “Don’t we want our Cops/Firemen etc on the beat?” or “I guess you want lead in your drinking water.” A better question is “Why are the Cops/Firemen hired in 2010 allowed to retire at the same age in ones hired in 1960?” Funny, you’d think medical advances, better living, and job safety would have lengthened at least a year or two of a career over 50 years, right? When you say “We wont be taxed into… Read more »

So is legalized theft from the private sector to enrich the govt class, a law that should be changed ?

T. H.
A few thoughts: Before the Dems and unions get too much grief for wanting to re amortize the debt. (kicking the can down the road), let us all remember that the father of this is Jim Edgar, whose administration came up with the major re amortization that we are still suffering with. It’s noteworthy that it passed unanimously. His so called pension ramp truly kicked the can down the road and cost we taxpayers billions in interest. As for the reasons for the deficit, it’s probably fair to say a little more than 50% of the deficit is the state not paying on time. The rest is… Read more »
Cheers Mark !! Excellent !! And notwithstanding what the NYTimes and other economic illiterates abounding in the media……say……the problem is NOT that contributions haven’t been large enough for last X years…………the problem is that the pension promises, too much and paid too early, and with too much COLA……were NEVER affordable in the first place !! A governmental entity promising luxurious pensions paid too early, should NEVER have costed out the affordability assuming 7.5% net inv egns per year. That was and is utterly reckless. Any shortfall from that leads to catastrophe………and since 1/1/16 the average annual compounded return has been more like 4% / year….for last 16.25… Read more »

Meant 1/1/2000 in the last sentence. So far, this century has been horrific for investment returns.

T. H.

I’m sorry, there is no realistic way to make the liability go away. There is no legal ability to retroactively change the contractual obligations created by the Constitution, except by the State exercising its police powers, which the ISC just ruled against. States can’t file for bankruptcy, and as for default, that’s not a legal remedy.