Director of Health Policy and Pension Reform
We've previously covered the dismal investment returns earned by the public pension systems for Illinois teachers, lawmakers and judges. It's time to add one more.
Although the pension fund for state employees predicted it would earn $850 million in fiscal year 2012, it actually earned less than $6 million. The fund posted an investment return of just 0.05 percent, far below the 7.75 percent it expected.
Of course, this isn't the first time State Employees’ Retirement System, or SERS, investments have come in below expectations. The five-year average rate of return is -0.1 percent. Even before this year, the five-year average rate of return was only 3.1 percent, and the 10-year average was just 4.5 percent. And when investment returns come in under projections, it falls on taxpayers to make up the shortfall.
Ultimately, there are only two numbers that matter: the amount of money the pension fund will pay out for earned benefits and the amount of money it has on hand. Between now and 2045, SERS is scheduled to pay $133 billion to retired state workers. It has just $11 billion on hand. For these assets to cover future payouts, SERS would need to see average investment returns of 21.5 percent per year.
The simple fact is that SERS is broke. Under new accounting rules, the fund has less than 19 percent of the money it should have in the bank today to make its pension payments. The system doesn't even have enough money on hand to pay out benefits to state workers who have already retired.
The longer lawmakers delay action, the worse Illinois’ pension debt crisis will become. Only major reforms, like moving to defined contribution plans for all future work and tackling the automatic, compounded cost-of-living adjustment can get the problem under control.