John Pelletier Op-Ed: Did You Know That You are an Insurance Company?

by John Pelletier, Director of Champlain College’s Center for Financial Literacy

If you pay income or real estate taxes in Vermont, you are like an insurance company. You are insuring, with your taxes, the retirement pension and healthcare benefit promises made to state employees and public school teachers. Here are the risks you are insuring: investment risk, longevity risk and economic growth risks.

Like all insurance companies, you are only on the hook if there is a big loss that has not been saved for. But here is the problem—our state retirement and healthcare plans are currently on an unsustainable path. Without changes, it’s likely that in the future Vermonters will be hit with big tax increases to pay for these promises.

Since 2001 Vermont’s pension obligations have grown much faster than the assets held in the pension plans. In 2001 the funded ratio (the ratio of the actuarial value of assets to actuarial accrued liability) for the state employees’ and state teachers’ retirement plans was 93% and 89%, respectively, and in 2017 was 71% and 54%, respectively. Vermont has no funds set aside to pay for the expensive and growing healthcare retirement benefits.

Investment Risk is the risk that plan returns are below expectations.  According to USA Today we are currently in the midst of the second longest bull market in history (9+ years) and second in terms of investment gains (over 300% in market gains). Are Vermont’s pensions prepared for the next inevitable bear market—a decline in the value of equities that is greater than 20%?

Many in the investment industry are warning investors to expect lower equity investment returns over the next decade because stocks appear to be expensive right now.

Bonds are a very important source of pension plan income. In 2000, ten year treasury bonds returned about 6.4% in interest a year, but only 3% a year today. Experts expect interest rates to continue to rise. If a pension’s bond portfolio has a 7 year average duration, these bonds will decrease in value by 7% if interest rates increase by 1%.

Our state pension plans are based on an expected return of 7.50% a year. Is that a realistic expectation for the future? Calpers, one of the largest pension plans in the country, reduced its return expectations to 7% in 2016.  Milliman, the world’s largest provider of actuarial services, in a 2017 study, stated that a more realistic rate of return assumption for public pension plans is 6.71%.

This return estimate is consistent with actual public pension returns according to a recent Wall Street Journal article:  median annual public pension returns were “6.79% over the past decade and 6.49% over the past 20 years.” In fact, over the last 10 years the Vermont state employees’ and state teachers’ retirement plans have had average annual returns of 4.8% and 4.6%, respectively.

Longevity Risk is the risk that plan beneficiaries live a lot longer than we expect.  If you were born on this date in 1948, you are 70 years old today. In 1948 the life expectancy of a newborn child was 70 years. Today the life expectancy of someone born in 1948 is 85 years. Life expectancy has increased by two years each decade.  A World Economic Forum report titled “We’ll Live to 100—How Can We Afford It?” notes that people born in the US in 2007 have a life expectancy of 103 years. Our public pension and healthcare plans were designed for 10 to 15 years of retirement, not 20 to 45 years. Without changes, many individuals will collect retirement benefits for more years than they worked.

Economic Growth Risk is the risk that Vermont’s economy and tax revenues do not grow as quickly as expected. The current economic recovery (9+ years) is the second longest in US history. At some point in the future we will have another recession and that will result in a material drop in Vermont’s tax revenue.

Vermont’s economic growth has been slow since the Great Recession. According to Bureau of Economic Analysis real gross domestic product growth in Vermont has ranged between 0.5% and 1.5% a year from 2014 to 2017.

Vermont’s population and its labor force are shrinking. This puts severe limits on Vermont’s economic growth potential. Vermont should expect subpar economic growth in the future compared to other states.

Vermont is the second oldest state in the nation. Only Maine is older. In fact, 1 out of 6 Vermonters is older than 65. Unless things change, Vermont will have many fewer wage earning taxpayers in the future. How will Vermont fund these retirement benefit promises with a shrinking tax base and low economic and tax revenue growth?

Vermont has made promises to its state employees and teachers. We need to make sure that we can keep these promises without drastically raising taxes on Vermonters or dramatically reducing state services through budget cuts. There will be another stock market crash and recession. Will Vermont be ready or will it submit a big insurance claim to its taxpayers?

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John Pelletier is the Director of the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College, and a member of VBR’s Pension Reform Task Force

Ventriss VPR Commentary on Financial Literacy Training [5.21.18]

A few times a year I take the plunge and buy a handful of lottery tickets, especially when the prize money catches my attention.

I absolutely understand the statistical probability of my winning, but as the adman says, “You just never know!” And that’s enough to motivate my occasional purchase and fuel my imaginings for a posh retirement.

But we know that’s not the way to build a retirement nest egg, and in fact, doing it the right way requires knowledge and informed decision-making as early in life as possible. Continue reading “Ventriss VPR Commentary on Financial Literacy Training [5.21.18]”

VBR & EPR Release 1 & 2Q18 Business Conditions Survey and Index

Results Show Continuing Neutral Outlook

Today, Lisa Ventriss, President of Vermont Business Roundtable (VBR) and Jeffrey Carr, President, Economic & Policy Resources (EPR), announced the Q2 of 2018 outlook results of their joint initiative, the VBR/EPR Business Conditions Survey and Index.

Overall Finding
The latest survey, which was conducted during April of 2018, achieved a response rate of 68 percent overall and included a 50 percent or greater response rate from all represented sectors within the membership.  Survey results show that: Continue reading “VBR & EPR Release 1 & 2Q18 Business Conditions Survey and Index”

Vermont Talent Pipeline Management (VTPM) Program Launches Manufacturing Industry Collaborative [5.4.18]

Manufacturing joins Construction and Health Care as Economic Priority Sectors

Vermont Advanced Manufacturers connected in April on the campus of Vermont Technical College to form the VTPM Vermont Manufacturing Collaborative. This new collective impact collaborative is the third launched since April 2017. In concert with regional convening partners from around the state, 21 manufacturing employers met to join forces in the work of developing a pipeline of skilled talent. Continue reading “Vermont Talent Pipeline Management (VTPM) Program Launches Manufacturing Industry Collaborative [5.4.18]”

VBR Research & Education Foundation Awards $45,000 in Scholarships for 2018-19 [5.2.18]

(South Burlington, Vt.)  At a recent meeting of its Nordic Educational Trust Scholarship Committee, the Vermont Business Roundtable awarded eight Vermont high school and adult students with two-year college scholarships totaling $40,000; another $5,000 was awarded for a second year of support to existing Nordic scholars. The need-based awards ranged from $3,000 to $8,000.

This year’s Nordic scholars (four men and four women) will pursue degrees in automotive technology; business management and technology; civil engineering; diesel and heavy equipment technology; mechanical engineering; radiology technology; respiratory therapy; and veterinary sciences.

According to Roundtable President, Lisa Ventriss, “This year we received a record-number of applications from First Generation-college bound students eager to pursue a two-year post-secondary degree. They are driven Vermont students who understand very well how life-changing a college degree can be for them and their future life goals. The Roundtable is extremely pleased that we can walk that journey with them.” Continue reading “VBR Research & Education Foundation Awards $45,000 in Scholarships for 2018-19 [5.2.18]”

Mark Crow Op-Ed – Responsible Solutions to Irresponsible Debt [4.24.18]

by Mark Crow, President, Tenth Crow Creative
and VBR Board Director

Relatively recently, I learned that the state of Vermont (so, we taxpayers) is incurring vast and ever increasing amounts of liability for obligations the state undertook to fund retirement plans for teachers and state workers; plans that include pension and retirement healthcare benefits. As of June 30, 2017, the state owes approximately $4.5 billion to these plans, which is an increase of $900 million from just the previous fiscal year. That’s approximately $18,750 per Vermont household (based on 240,000 households). And, for a variety of complicated reasons, based on the structure of the plans, this amount will only continue to increase. Continue reading “Mark Crow Op-Ed – Responsible Solutions to Irresponsible Debt [4.24.18]”

VBR & EPR Release 4Q17 and 1Q18 Business Conditions Survey and Index

Today, Lisa Ventriss, President of Vermont Business Roundtable (VBR) and Jeffrey Carr, President, Economic & Policy Resources (EPR), announced the Q4 2017 outlook results of their joint initiative, the VBR/EPR Business Conditions Survey and Index.

Overall Finding
The latest survey, which was conducted during January of 2018, achieved a response rate of 69 percent overall and included a 50 percent or greater response rate from 13 of 14 represented sectors within the membership.  Survey results show that:

  • A supermajority of respondents (69%) shared negative outlooks specifically with ease of hiring for available positions, a decline from the previous survey (63%);
  • Slightly more than 40 percent of responses to the question about the state’s overall business climate outlook were neutral (42%), an improvement from the previous survey (63%).  The remaining responses saw a doubling of positive responses this quarter compared to last (38% vs 19%), and also a slight uptick in negative responses (20% vs 18%).
  • The information sector again had the most optimistic outlook on the general business climate (100% optimistic), while the education sector again had the least optimistic, but improving outlook (50% pessimistic, 25% neutral, 25% optimistic).  This is the third quarter in a row that the information sector led in optimism about the general business climate.

Continue reading “VBR & EPR Release 4Q17 and 1Q18 Business Conditions Survey and Index”

David Coates – More Bad Pension News for Vermonters [2.8.18]

by David Coates, Managing Partner, KPMG (Retired) and member, Vermont Business Roundtable

More bad news has arrived for Vermonters, and especially Vermont taxpayers, with the release of the State Actuary’s 6/20/2017 Reports. The reports cover Pension and Retiree Health Care Benefits (OPEB) for State Workers and Teachers, and results are, frankly, quite startling.

The 2017 reports show that Vermont’s combined unfunded liability has increased by over $900 million (over 25%) in just one year. So as of June 30, 2017 our unfunded liabilities stand at $4.5 billion, an amount that is now three (3) times our General Fund revenues and seven (7) times our bonded indebtedness.

In other words, this is the biggest liability the state owes, is more than all of our other liabilities combined, and overwhelms the state’s balance sheet.

This large increase only compounds the problem we already had in paying for these generous benefit programs. Keep in mind that the state is not making any of the annual required payments on the OPEB.  For 2017, the unpaid amount for OPEB was $85 million…yes, $85 million…a 57 percent increase over 2016. These payments do swing from year to year by several million dollars due to a combination of factors; for example, the unpaid amount in 2016 was $54 million. It is also important to note that these liabilities would have been over a billion dollars more were it not for changes already made by the Treasurer.

The state has made the annual required pension payments for several years how and, in 2017, that payment was $137 million. The annual required payment for 2019 is $177 million, an increase of $40 million or 29 percent in just two years. (These amounts are taken from the Actuary’s Report.)

We must ask the hard question: What programs will be cut or taxes raised, to cover this gigantic increase given that revenues are projected to only increase around 3.5%?  Put another way, in 2008 the pension payment was 2.25% of revenues, in 2012 6.4%, in 2017 9.4% and in 2019 it will increase to 11.5%. And keep in mind, as mentioned earlier, the state is not paying anything against the 2017 OPEB obligation of $85 million.

To compound matters, another problem is likely to occur soon, which relates to the assumption used by the state for the return on the pension investments. In 2016, the assumption was 7.95% and in 2017 it was lowered to 7.50%. This assumption is still high compared to other states who are moving their rates to 7% and lower. For example, if our rate were lowered to 6.5%, a more reasonable assumption, it would have the effect of increasing our unfunded liability by $600 million. This would result in increased annual required pension payments in the millions of dollars … putting additional pressure on our revenues.

Failure by the state to make these pension payments would likely result in Vermont losing its coveted Triple A rating. That result would increase the state’s borrowing costs and those of other state-related agencies such as VHFA, VSAC, VMBB and VEDA who rely on the state’s rating when issuing their bonds…costing taxpayers additional millions of dollars.

Having said all this, there is some more promising news to report. The Administration and the Treasurer have reached an agreement to have a “stress test” performed on the pension and OPEB systems.  My understanding is this will include testing how the systems will perform under different market and volatility conditions. Importantly, it will also address affordability, which is critical as to whether or not the systems are sustainable.

At the end of the day, does anyone think our state can possibly meet these obligations?  I doubt even those legislators supported by the labor unions can believe this, given the preponderance and magnitude of this factual information.  Without strong leadership to change our structural problems inherent in these pension and OPEB programs, our state is headed for a financial tsunami!

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Business Roundtable Elects New Leadership for 2018 [1.12.18]

At its 31st Annual Membership Meeting held at Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa, the Vermont Business Roundtable elected two new directors to their first three-year term: Mark Crow, Tenth Crow Creative and Don George, BCBSVT. Elected to their second three-year term were the following directors: Tom Dee, Southwestern Vermont Health Care; Mark Foley, Foley Services; Walter Frame, Trapp Family Lodge; Judy O’Connell, Champlain Investment Partners; and Mike Walsh, NFP. Continue reading “Business Roundtable Elects New Leadership for 2018 [1.12.18]”

Roundtable Announces 2017 New Medallion Award Recipient [1.3.18]

(So. Burlington, VT) Today, Lisa Ventriss, President of Vermont Business Roundtable (Roundtable) announced the recipient of the Roundtable’s 2017 New Medallion Award, which recognizes exceptional school leadership and progress toward the state’s goals of equity, access, and quality of proficiency-based learning experiences for all Vermont students.  Continue reading “Roundtable Announces 2017 New Medallion Award Recipient [1.3.18]”