The Oracle of Omaha warns about public pension underfunding 

By Edward Zelinsky

May 5, 2014 OUPBlog - As the American public debated the legislation ultimately enacted into law as the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, no person was more influential than the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett. Much attention was given to billionaire Buffett’s complaint that his federal income tax bracket was lower than his secretary’s tax rate. President Obama invoked “the Buffett Rule” to bolster the President’s successful effort for the Act to raise income tax brackets for high income taxpayers.

In his most recent letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett issued another oracular pronouncement about America’s fiscal health. Buffett warned that many public pension plans are dangerously underfunded:

Local and state financial problems are accelerating, in large part because public entities promised pensions they couldn’t afford….[A] gigantic financial tapeworm…was born when promises were made that conflicted with a willingness to fund them….During the next decade, you will read a lot of news –- bad news – about public pension plans.

Many of those who heeded Buffett’s call for higher tax brackets for the wealthy ignore his current warning about the parlous financial condition of public pension plans. One of the problems of being an oracle is that your listeners will pick and choose which prophecies to follow.

Attached to Buffett’s most recent shareholders’ letter was a 1975 memo on pensions Buffett sent to Katharine Graham, then chair of The Washington Post Company. Buffett’s observations in this now released memo are as compelling today as they were forty years ago.

It is easy to grant pension benefits payable in the future while failing to fund that pension promise today as “making promises never quite triggers the visceral response evoked by writing a check.” Typical defined benefit formulas, which gear pensions to an employee’s final salary before retirement, are particularly expensive for the employer to finance since higher final salaries will, at the end of an employee’s career, escalate his pension entitlement. It is tempting, but futile, to assume that the underfunding of defined benefit plans can be remedied by every plan continuously earning above average returns on pension assets: “yes, Virginia, maybe every football team can have a winning season this year.”

All of this explains why many of the nation’s public pension plans are today seriously underfunded: Elected officials promise pension benefits without properly funding them and rely on unrealistic assumptions about future rates of return to deny the reality of underfunding.

Buffett’s observations resonate with particular force in Connecticut where I live. Connecticut competes with Illinois for the distinction of being ground zero in the public pensions crisis. In this election year, neither the Governor nor the legislature will acknowledge that the Nutmeg State’s public pensions are seriously underfunded.

Consider in this context Buffett’s warning that pension plans should not assume that they will earn superior investment returns. Connecticut contends that its pension plans will earn 8% annually. Most other states make similarly optimistic assumptions. The National Association of State Retirement Administrators has recently determined that the average state public pension plan currently assumes that its investments will earn an annual rate of return of 7.72%.

More realistic assumptions about rates of return would expose the underfunding of public pensions described by Buffett. Under the Internal Revenue Code, private sector pensions this month must calculate their obligations to pay retirement benefits using interest rates ranging from 1.19% (for pension benefits payable soon) to 6.76% (for pension benefits payable furthest down the road). If Connecticut or any other state with similarly underfunded pensions assumed these more sobering rates of return (as they should), Buffett’s dire assessment of pension underfunding would be dramatically confirmed.

Equally instructive is the recent contract settlement brokered by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union (TWU). With much fanfare, Governor Cuomo announced that TWU workers will receive increased wages but that the MTA will not elevate fares to cover these increased wages. Only after the cheering stopped did we learn how this alchemy is to be accomplished: by reducing the MTA’s scheduled contributions for pensions and retiree health care costs. Governor Cuomo, the MTA, and the TWU have decided to underfund pensions for MTA workers. No doubt, they will justify this underfunding by predicting superior investment returns on the pension’s investments.

The Oracle of Omaha is, unfortunately, right. Many states and localities will soon have to choose whether to pay pensions promised to retired workers, or whether to put police on the streets and teachers into classrooms, or whether to increase taxes significantly to pay pensions and maintain public services.

It is regrettable that many who marched under Buffett’s banner when he favored higher taxes on the rich ignore his message about the troubled state of public pensions.

Edward A. Zelinsky is the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America. His monthly column appears on the OUPblog