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Report says Alaska has highest unfunded state pensions liability


November 26, 2012
Monday PM

(SitNews) - The challenges facing government pension plans have gained new public prominence and attention of late. There is no denying that the pension liabilities of our nation's states and local governments represent a significant financial challenge. Public pension costs and liabilities have escalated, pressuring the finances of state and local governments still hampered by the recession. These pressures are expected to persist and perhaps even intensify.

Morningstar, Inc. (NASDAQ: MORN), a leading provider of independent investment research, in a research report published today, "The State of State Pension Plans: A Deep Dive into Shortfalls and Surpluses," has analyzed current data for pension plans administered by all 50 states. Morningstar's municipal credit analysts found that based on two key funding metrics, the state of Wisconsin had the strongest-funded pension plan system, while Illinois had the weakest.

One of the key findings reported Alaska has the highest Unfunded Actuarial Accrued Liability (UAAL) Per Capita of $10,000, this is despite its higher, although still poor, funded ratio of 59.2%. This means, each person in Alaska would need to pay $10,000 to fully fund Alaska's unfunded pensions liability.

Morningstar's analysis of the fiscal health of state pension plan systems across the United States found that creditworthiness varied greatly and is heavily dependent on the funded ratio and the unfunded liability per capita - both key metrics to evaluate each state's system. The two key metrics focused on:

Funded Ratio:

the ability of a pension plan to meet its obligations, which is calculated by dividing the pension plan's assets by its liabilities, and

Unfunded Actuarial Accrued Liability (UAAL) Per Capita:

the unfunded liability per capita, representing the amount each person in the state would need to pay to fully fund this unfunded liability.

"We find the UAAL metric useful because it represents the burden on residents, though it isn't widely used in the industry as an evaluation tool," said Rachel Barkley, municipal credit analyst for Morningstar. "Not only do state pension plan systems represent the state's financial obligations, but they are often structured as umbrella plans that also cover employees in the state's local government bodies. Because pension liabilities represent significant long-term obligations for government entities, pensions are an important element in determining a municipal entity's credit quality."

Jeff Westergaard, Morningstar's director of municipal analytics, added, "We've heard much discourse on the subject of pensions over the last few years, resulting in more confusion than clarity on how to view this important area of municipal finance. Our hope is that Morningstar's analysis will help cut through the clutter and offer logical, clear analysis for investors to understand each state's situation and the broader implications of their pension system's financial status."

Key conclusions from Morningstar's review of state pension plan systems include:

  • Wisconsin had the strongest-funded pension system; the state's funded ratio is 99.8 percent and the liability per resident is $23. Illinois had the weakest-funded system, with a 43.4 percent funded ratio and a liability of $6,505 per resident;
  • Twenty-one states fall below Morningstar's fiscally sound threshold of a 70 percent "funded ratio;" Illinois has the lowest funded ratio;
  • Seven states have an aggregate funded ratio of 90 percent or more, led by Wisconsin;
  • Fourteen states have a UAAL under $1,500 per capita, Morningstar's threshold for "Good" unfunded liability levels. Wisconsin has the lowest UAAL per castate pensionspita;
  • Twenty states have a UAAL above $3,000 per capita; Alaska has the highest UAAL per capita, currently more than $10,000.

Morningstar's state pensions research report also includes an evaluation of trends across the country, challenges of comparing state pension plans, shortcomings in disclosure and transparency, and expectations about pension reform. Morningstar analysts also compiled aggregate pension data by state, including assets, funded ratio, and UAAL per capita, along with individual pension plan data by state.

What Can Be the Impact for Governments?

Morningstar notes that many governments have been able to manage their pension liabilities while continuing to maintain adequate fiscal solvency. However, state and local governments have been facing considerable budgetary pressure for the past few years. Labor-related costs, including pension payments, continue to account for a significant portion of total government spending. Required pension payments have escalated in many places as plans have absorbed investment losses associated with the recession, adding further stress to a government’s fiscal profile. Investment losses have also increased unfunded pension liabilities, which can create a looming fiscal obstacle that will have to be funded in future years. Failure to adequately manage pension obligations has led to a decline in overall credit quality for some entities.

Morningstar plans to update its research on state pension plans annually.

Morningstar, Inc. is a leading provider of independent investment research in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. The company has operations in 27 countries.

Edited by Mary Kauffman, SitNews

On the Web:

"State and Local Pensions 101" overview



Source of News: 

Morningstar, Inc.


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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska

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