TRS – A Texas Pension Too Big To Fail

TRSTexas State Senator Paul Bettencourt, (R-Houston) poked the bear when he filed Senate Bills 1750 and 1751, which would allow the Teachers Retirement System of Texas (TRS) and Employee Retirement System of Texas (ERS) to study, and possibly implement, changes in their public pensions. Change would mean moving – in an as-yet unspecified way – from a traditional “defined benefit” to a more 401K-style “defined contribution” plan. The effect would be to shift the burden of paying for retirement, somewhat, from taxpayers to employees. The bills as written specifically would only affect newly hired employees, not existing employees or retirees.

The bear he poked, of course, is public school teachers.

Public school teachers in Texas face steeper challenges planning their retirement than other professionals, in part because the vast majority cannot participate in Social Security, in part because of modest pay increases throughout a full career of service, and in part due to barriers to good retirement advice.

I don’t blame teachers, their union, and groups like the Texas Public Employees Association and Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA) that have come out in opposition to the bills. Tim Lee, Executive Director of TRTA, told me that an estimated 120 thousand text messages had been sent to legislators regarding changes toward a hybrid plan, such as suggested in SB 1751. Lee regards a shift to a hybrid system – even for only new hires – as undermining the strength of the entire TRS. A change caused by these bills would cause his organization to rethink their strategic approach to everything, including whether to advocate for joining the Social Security system. They don’t currently, but might in the future if they thought a hybrid system weakened TRS.

And yet, (and here’s where I become a target for the next 10,000 angry text messages from teachers) Bettencourt has an important point to make, by filing these bills. “Long term, what I hope to do is start a discussion about the real cost of pensions,” Bettencourt told me.

paul_bettencourtAs a finance guy, I want my public officials staying up late worried about public pensions, seeking ways to reduce their systemic risks. TRS has more than 1.5 million members, more than $130 billion in net assets, and represents the ultimate “Too Big To Fail” public pension in Texas.

Reasonable people can disagree on the following, but on the four biggest measurements of a pension plan’s health, the TRS according to its 2016 audit is worse off than we’d wish for, although maybe still within acceptable bounds.

  1. We want at least an 80 percent “Funded Ratio” – the percent of money owed to pensioners that’s covered by money already in the investment portfolio. TRS is now at 79.7 percent. Too low.
  2. We want less than 30 years to “amortize” or pay down, pension debts, and would prefer 15 to 20 years. TRS is at 33 years. Too long.
  3. We would prefer a low, or conservative, annual return assumption, compared to a national average of 7.47 percent annual return assumption in pension plans. The TRS assumes an optimistic 8 percent return. Too high.
  4. Finally, the unfunded liability part of the pension – money owed to retirees but not yet paid for – has grown from zero in the year 2000 to approximately $35 billion this year. Too big.

None is this spells catastrophe today, in my view. It just means the TRS is not, currently, building in room for error. As a teacher, if TRS is my main safety net, these numbers do not make me comfortable.

Actually, let me restate: Were I a young teacher, or a prospective teacher facing a new career, I would be livid about those TRS numbers. Older teachers – those close to retirement or already retired – are probably fine, and realistically won’t get benefits chopped to make up any future shortfalls. Rule changes in pensions always hurt the young ones.

In fact, one of the main flaws of the TRS design is this “generational inequity” in favor of older teachers rather than younger teachers, according to Josh McGee, who is both a pension-plan economist for the John Arnold Foundation and the Chairman of the Texas Pension Review Board. McGee has written extensively about how traditional pensions like TRS strongly favor veterans over younger teachers, especially those who change jobs or leave the system at any point in their career.

Defined benefit plans are most generous to veterans of over 20 years, but McGee cites figures that only 28 percent of teachers nationwide stay for that long. The early-departing teachers lose many of their hard-earned retirement rewards.

A defined contribution plan or hybrid plan theoretically could allow teachers the chance to self-fund part of their retirement, which could accompany them to another career or another location.

Then there’s the issue of pension plan solvency.

“When you look around the state, the Dallas [Police and Fire] Pension is a smoking crater at this point in time. Houston is not far behind,” Senator Bettencourt notes, referencing existing problems in public employee pensions in the state’s largest municipalities.

The following are my words, not Sen. Bettencourt’s, but I regard public pension plans as ticking time bombs. Not because the managers of TRS are bad, or because anyone is doing anything particularly wrong. It’s just that small decisions to underfund a public pension can, over decades, compound into giant problems. Make a few wrong assumptions – the 8 percent return assumption seems way high to me for example – and you end up with a big fiscal hole in the state.

A safer approach for teachers and taxpayers might in fact be to shift, over time, some of the risks away from taxpayers. Currently 13 states have a version of a hybrid system of the type that Bettencourt’s bill would allow, while 38 states continue with a “defined benefit” plan like Texas’ current TRS.

It’s a debate worth having now, before anything bad happens.


A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and the Houston Chronicle.

Please see related post:

Teachers and the struggle to get good financial advice

I Finally Say How To Invest

Interview with Mint: I give ALL the answers

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Public Pensions – The Big Four In TX

the_bigger_they_comeA key reason why I started a discussion of public pension funds in Texas by saying “Don’t Panic” is because 88% of Texans covered by a public pension plan are participants in one of just four plans, and the good news is that none of these four are in distress. Right now.

 The largest four pension plans – Teachers Retirement and Employee Retirement System (TRS), Employees Retirement System of Texas (ERS), Texas County and District Retirement System (TCDRS) and Texas Municipal Retirement System (TMRS) – cover over 2 million Texans. So no distress means you can stay calm.

On the other hand, if you had a worrying kind of paranoid view of public pensions – like I kind of do – you would notice that size should inversely correlate with complacency. The bigger they come, the harder they fall, as Jimmy Cliff and others point out.

The problem of size

If the Teachers’ pension system goes poorly – or any of these four go poorly – we can’t rely solely on my three rules of thumb to alert us.

We need an additional layer of scrutiny because the absolute scale of the problem is what we should worry about. The bailout for miscalculating on this scale might swamp the state budget.

This is what people in California worried about in the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2010, or what people in Illinois this year worry about. Namely, might the entire state of Illinois have to seek bankruptcy (or its legal equivalent) as a result of unfunded pensions?

Review of the Big Four

Four state pension plans dominate the Texas public pension scene, with over 2 million Texans participating.

texas_teachers_retirementOf these, the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) is the big gorilla, about six times as big as the next biggest pension system, with about 1.5 million members and over 150 billion in assets, as of its 2015 report.

The funded ratio of the TRS – the ratio between estimated assets and estimated liabilities, stands at 80.2 percent – or just at the point where reasonable observers feel comfortable most of the time. Remember, 100 percent means fully funded, but many funds do just fine running in perpetuity in the 80 to 90 percent region.

Meanwhile, the time to amortization – the estimated number of years it will take to fully fund teachers’ pensions – stands at 33 years, which is a bit on the high side. The Pension Review Board would prefer 15 to 20 years, but according to the state legislature, 40 years is the panic point, statutorialy speaking.

Finally, TRS estimates investment returns of 8% going forward, which seems too high to me, roughly in the top quartile of estimates. It’s not totally out of line with other pensions nationally, but it’s not a conservative estimate either.

One of the next biggest, the Employees Retirement System of Texas (ERS) resembles TRS in the sense of a 76.3 percent funded ratio, as well as a 33-year amortization, or time to pay down its unfunded liabilities. Back in 2014, the ERS reported an “infinite” amortization time period, essentially meaning it would never pay off its debts. So while 33 years is uncomfortably long, it also represents a step in the right direction from the previous years. The ERS also assumes an 8% return, which again isn’t conservative.

The two other big pension systems right now appear in healthier shape than either TRS or ERS. The Texas Municipal Retirement Systems (TMRS) scores higher than the first two, with a funded ratio of 85.8 percent, and an easier 17-year amortization. It’s 7 percent return assumption also means it has more room for error in its model, in case markets do not cooperate over the coming decades.

Meanwhile, the Texas County and District Retirement System (TCDRS) has a pretty comfortable 90.5 percent funded ratio, meaning estimated assets cover nine-tenths of estimated liabilities. In related news, actuaries estimate it will take only 9 years to amortize its debts. These levels for the TCDRS look good enough that the 8 percent return assumption feels less threatening.

texas_pensionTaken as a whole, these four systems indicate acceptable levels of risk as of now. They also mostly compare favorably with pension systems in other states.

A little panic

Ok, do you want to be a little bit scared? Fine, I’ll help you.

Josh McGee, Chairman of the Texas Pension Review Board, points out that these four big pension plans in general, and the Teachers Retirement System in particular, run an additional risk beyond the normal risk – simply based on their massive sizes.

“You want to see something really scary?”

You see, if a small pension plan goes bust, a responsible government entity has a problem of filling in the hole, but the hole might be, and hopefully is, manageable through belt-tightening, cutting future benefits, and higher taxes.

But the TRS, with an unfunded future liability a little more than $33 billion, is too big to fix, if something goes terribly wrong.

Just to attach a sense of scale to the $33 billion figure, the state of Texas spent about $112 billion on everything last year, so it’s not like a $33 billion hole can be solved by any reasonable measures. TRS looks fine-ish right now, but failure is too big a financial risk for the state to run, so extra caution is needed.

I still say “Don’t Panic” but I’d also say don’t get too comfortable either. A little bit afraid might be just right.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News


Please see related posts:

Public Pensions – Don’t Panic, Use Heuristics

Public Pensions – Dallas Police and Fire Pension System Clusterfck

Public Pensions – Houston Might Have a Problem



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