Monthly Archives: May 2013

Are Pensions Really Broke?

Nearly 10 years ago it was predicted that the water industry would experience a large exodus of experienced workers.  It did not happen; likely it was only delayed by the 2008 financial crisis.  If that is the case, will there be an acceleration of retirements in the next few years?  If so, what are the plans the plans for knowledge capture? GIS, work orders, MMIS, and other programs will help, but capture is important as the next “generation” of employees will not have the advantage of years of experience in finding valves, and pipes, etc.  We need to plan ahead for the knowledge capture issue, develop training for newer employees and figure a means to access lost knowledge in the future.  Capture is a big issue, but what we hear more of is the potential for a drain on our resources for funding these retirements?  The news is full of stories of dire consequences of retirement defaults coming for the public sector.  Keep in mind many utilities are publically owned and these employees are part of the public retirement systems.  Is this real or a political position for another agenda?  Do we need to be worried?

Interestingly it depends on whether you were looking before 2008 or after.  This picture was very different.  Even in my state of Florida, the pension system was fully funded before 2008, dropped just after, but has returned to near full funding as a result of the improvement in investment returns.  Most of these systems rely on investment returns so changes can cause the system solvency to change rapidly over short periods of time.  Looking only at a short instant in time belies the long-term truth and  it is the longer view we need to look at.  Good thing Wall Street normally goes up, but the impact of poor investment strategies by a limited few (2008) has significant impacts across society in everyone’s pension programs.  Look at all the 401k programs – those incurred crushing blows just as pension programs did.  So yes there may be problems, but many of these pension systems are not nearly as strapped as you would be led to believe in part because they have always relied on people continuing to pay into the system.  Hence they always have cash flow, unlike personal accounts.

The long-term view or the impact on personal accounts doesn’t faze the “fixers” who have many ideas to “fix” the pension problem.  One of the concepts championed is to change enrollment to a 401k vs a fixed benefit system.  Another camp suggests privatizing.  But both radically change the long-term solvency of vested employees and here’s why.  Under the current concept for public retirement systems, your employer and often you, pay matching amounts into the system.  According to a study done some years back in Florida, over 80% of people who get public sector jobs do not stay long enough to become vested in the system.  That means that while they get their contributions back, the retirement system keeps the match, reducing long term costs to the public.  All full time employees pay into the system. Retirement systems rely on cash flow from current employees for payouts to retirees, thereby protecting the invested funds and allowing the system to “weather” periodic financial difficulties.  That’s why the system solvency will based on what is happening on the stock market.  The system is designed to grow at a given rate, so if you reduce the people paying in, you accelerate the use of invested dollars because the cash flow diminishes.  In many respects that is what happened to some of the industrial pension systems –automation and outsourcing jobs overseas cut down the payees so much that the pension system could not sustain itself.  So it’s relatively easy to demonstrate that both cutting jobs through privatizing and 401k type programs accelerate the crisis and will create future burdens on the taxpaying public.  These two solutions sound great, but are simply unsound.

There are other ways to mess up retirement systems.  The federal workforce has decreased from 6.6 million in the late 1960s to 4.5 million today.  Clearly the reduction in employees contributing will have an impact on significant federal pensions.  Florida and many other states, with the windfalls on the late 1990s, reduced vesting from 10 years to 5 or 6.  That means that a greater percent of people will become vested, which means more future obligations.  That’s not a solution for solvency.  Florida’s legislature changed the contributions from only the government entity paying (a total of 10.4%) and required employees to contribute.  The employee match is their money and they get it back with interest, meaning only 7./4% remains in the system.  If experience with social security and other states is an indication, both shares will have to increase so that their combined total will be in the 13-14% range.  How did hat save anyone money?

So what’s the solution?  Two things.  First, the initial way these pension plans were set up were actuarially sound.  They should be revisited for contribution amounts, vesting period and expected return rates on investments (one of social security’s issues is that they own so many Treasury bonds that pay under 2% that it is hard to get a valuable rate of return).  This is a project for experts, not policians to consider and evaluate.  The big issue though is age for retirement. I know this is not popular, but let’s talk social security here as an example.   The text of the 1935 Social Security Act says that benefits were to be granted at age 65 (Section 202).  However the average age that people live to was 60 for men and 64 for women, meaning the average person NEVER collected social security.  Now it is 76 and 81, which means they collect for 12 to 15 years, tremendous difference in the obligations.  We all appreciate good medicine and most look forward to retirement, but keep in mind it comes with a price.  Since 50 is the new 30, we probably will all probably can be working longer.

Water and sewer workers like police and fire, are vital to thriving communities. So, let’s act with caution when looking at fiscal impacts that may come to utilities in the future. Since many of these folks have, and have worked hard to secure a retirement package, it will need to be funded.  But we must act judiciously when making changes to the current program.  Cut off payees – and ratepayers will make up the difference.  Change the type of program, and the potential for major losses occurs.


If you live on an island, and your groundwater table is tidal, what should your datum be for storm water planning purposes?  Average tide?  High tide?  Seasonal high tide?  If you are the local official with this problem, what do you do, realizing that the difference from mean tide and seasonal high tide (when most flooding occurs) is 1.5 feet?  Realizing that property and infrastructure is at much higher risk for periodic inundation, does the failure to address the problem indicate a lack of willingness, understanding, hope or leadership?  We see all four responses among local officials, but the “head in the sand” mode is the most curious.  It’s tough challenges that often define leaders.  With sea level rise, there is time to plan, construct infrastructure in stages, arrange funding, and lengthen the life of infrastructure and property.  Meanwhile, those insurers, banks and the public we talked about in a prior blog wait and watch.

Talk Radio discussion

Hi All.

This is a radio show I did this week.  One of 4 I have scheduled.  It talks about me and my company, outlook, thoughts.  Take a listen.  Let me know what you think!


The first of May is traditionally been graduation month for college students.  We went through our 6 ceremonies 10 days ago at FAU.  It is and should be a day of celebration for the students and their families.  It’s there day.  Congratulations to all graduates!!  Best of luck to all!   The good news is that the economy is picking up.  Pretty much all of our student have jobs in engineering, and employers are calling, looking for engineering interns and graduates.  Good news because clearly the business community sees a growth period ahead.  They are planning for construction.  Governments may be planning capital projects.  The stock market is up, so maybe those 401k plans have finally come back up north.  Housing values are improving in some areas, so maybe we will see that sea of retirements that’s been expected for a number of years.  With an economy based on attracting retirees, it’s been a while coming.

After my last post, I was asked about sea level rise and how to get started with the issue in a very “red” area as it was characterized.  I have come to the conclusion that the insurance industry will make sea level rise real for politicians in those places where it is impermissible for bureaucrats to discuss it.  Here’s why.  Say you have a house in a low lying area that is vulnerable to sea level rise and/or storm surge.  One is permanent, the other temporal, but in both cases are potentially catastrophic if you live in this house.  You bought the house, got a loan for 80 or 90% of its value and then got insurance for it.  Now the insurance is there to insure that if your house gets swept away or damaged, there will be enough money to pay off your loan.  That’ s what many people miss.  Insurance is for the bank, no you, which is why your loan documents require that you get and hold insurance while you have the house.  After your loan is paid off, there is no such requirement.

Now let’s say we are out 20 years.   You have enjoyed your house but have decided to sell it.  Now the banks will value it and are willing to loan say 80% of its value.  They of course assume that the house will increase in value with time so even if you make no improvements, if they have to foreclose on it they will get their money back (a major part of the problem with the financial crisis of 2008 was they banks could not get their money out of the properties).   Even if it doesn’t, as your loan is paid down, their risk decreases.   The loan documents require that you get insurance to cover your costs.

So far so good, but what happens when the insurers will not give you insurance for the full value of the property?  In Florida the State creates Citizen’s to deal with the fact that private, commercial insurers saw too much risk in coastal areas and refused to issue policies.  Now the State and Citizen’s have the risk.  Fine, but that isn’t dealing with the same issue – if the insurer think the value of the property will decrease, or the risk increases a lot, they will not issue policies. Or they will revise policies to say they will pay once – but will not insure you for rebuilding.  You may think this will not happen, but Citizen’s is already discussing this option.  Hence if you lose your house, they will pay you (so you can pay the bank, and then you are on your own.  Now the bank may be willing to offer you a distressed property as an options (Welcome to Detroit), but that won’t be in the same risk zone.

Take this further, let’s say Citizen’s for example says we will pay full value if you lose the house but will not insure a rebuild?  That means they probably will not give insurance to the guy who wants to buy our house in 20 years.  How much is your house worth now?  Probably nothing, which means now the bank will be looking at your insurance coverage and say – whoa – if the house is not worth anything on a resale, that means they may not get paid when you sell your house if you sell if before it is paid off (the norm)!!  That is an unacceptable risk, and they need a solution.  Of course if your house suddenly has no value, it means local governments get no revenue for taxes (good for you, but bad for providing essential services like storm water.  You may not believe this discussion is happening, but it is.

So here’s what I think happens.  I think the banks figure this out and start looking at vulnerability as a part of loans.  I think they start thinking about what the value in 20 or 30 years might be and if they can get their loan monies back out of property.  That will slow property values.  I think the insurance industry does the same, and working with banks will further set the prices acceptable for vulnerable property.  They are not good investments. If you own such property, you may get insurance in the short-term, but long-term your house value may decrease.  At some point, your house will have no resale value, unless……

BUT there iis a big caveat to all this.  Coastal areas are high value markets.  Lots of activity and lots of investment opportunities.  It all depends on what is being done to protect those properties, and depending on the federal governments to bail out private property is unrealistic.  It is a local issues, so I also think the banks and insurance industry will start looking at what local governments are doing to protect investments in private property.  Do they have a sea level rise adaptation plan?  Are the storm water systems updated/upgrades/maintained?  Are roads, water supplies and sewer systems capable of functioning under the changed condition?   Is there a 50 or 100 year vision on how the community adapt to nature?  If yes, there is comfort that investments are protected.  If everyone’s head is buried in denial…..Detroit’s calling.  U-haul anyone?

PS  No disrespect to Detroit, my father’s hometown and the home to many of my current and departed family.  For those who do not know, Detroit is high, has access to lots of water, sewer, roads, power and lots of land at reasonable cost, along with a jobs and manufacturing history.  Perfect opportunity, one not lost on our ancestors.

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