Old-style U.S. public pensions weather cost-cutting storm

Reuters

By Michael Connor

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Retirement payouts for 19.3 million U.S. state and local government workers in coming years are not likely to look much different from the iron-clad pensions that former teachers and police now get.

Even as lawmakers raise retirement ages and trim cost-of-living increases, few are eyeing anything that would result in the kind of massive migration to 401(k)-style direct-contribution retirement plans that happened in the U.S. private sector.

Since the 1980s, Americans employed at private companies have lost nearly all low-risk, defined-benefit pensions that paid cash until death. That shift, some economists say, has aggravated U.S. income inequality and bolstered corporate stability, even as it now sows political support for tighter spending on public pensions.

State lawmakers had filed 1,234 pension bills in the first four months of 2014, according to National Conference of State Legislatures data, but few bills passed into law have made big changes.

"There are long-term downward pressures on public (direct-benefit) plans, and there will be continued pressure to move new employees into hybrid plans and (direct-contribution) plans - not a wholesale shift," said Donald Boyd, co-author of a report on U.S. public pension programs.

Governments that are tiptoeing away from defined-benefit plans stop short of changes made by private companies. Some place only new hires into defined-contribution plans. Others create add-ons to traditional plans.

For example, Oklahoma in May put many new workers into a 401(k)-like plan while leaving current staff and retirees unaffected.

Boston College pension experts estimate that by 2042, defined-contribution participants will account for 19 percent of the public sector workforce but with just a 10 percent share of financial assets for that group.

About 89 percent of government workers with retirement benefits were in defined-benefit plans in 2012, according to Boston College's Center for Retirement Research.

"Making changes in pension systems is a tough process," said John Sugden, senior director at Standard & Poor's Ratings Service. "There are lots of stakeholders."

Current pension plans are popular with government workers, according to a new survey by the Pew Trusts. Sixty nine percent of teachers, nurses and other public workers are confident of a financially comfortable retirement. Only 55 percent of all Americans feel that way.

CHANGE OF PLANS

Georgia, Utah and four other states recently created hybrid programs that tack 401(k)-plans onto traditional ones, according to Boston College. Kansas and Kentucky approved cash-balance pensions, which give workers fixed returns but ease financial risk for employers.

But any savings from swapping 401(k)-style programs for traditional plans may not happen for a long time, if at all. That is especially true for Texas, Alaska and more than a dozen other states whose public workers are often not covered by the federal government's Social Security retirement program, according to analysts at Moody's Investors Service.

Social Security collects contributions of 6.2 percent of salary from workers as well as 6.2 percent from employers, and 41.3 million people now get retirement payments, according to U.S. government data.

"Costs sometimes don't make sense, especially in plans whose members are not in Social Security," said Moody's analyst Marsha Van Wagner. "Now employers may contribute 15 percent (of salary) to a defined benefit plan but with no Social Security. Costs may actually go up with employers' 6.2 percent Social Security payments."

But credit analysts welcome the focus on pension reforms, even if large shifts look unlikely in the near future, since the changes may make the cost of retirement benefits more predictable.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in June reversed a drive to improve his state's underfunded public pensions by vetoing $1.56 billion of promised payments he said were needed for other spending after a revenue shortfall.

"Making changes in pensions is no longer something that is sacrosanct," said S&P's Sugden. "Changes in pensions were never part of the discussion; now they are part of the discussion."

(Reporting by Michael Connor in New York; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

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