If Bernie Madoff taught us anything it’s that every successful ponzi scheme requires precisely one critical component to keep it afloat: a steady stream of fresh capital to fund redemptions. Absent that key component, even the most carefully crafted ponzi, with the best, most creative accounting fabrications in the world, will inevitably fail from a lack of real, cold, hard cash to keep the illusion going.
Unfortunately, it seems that Kentucky’s public pensions are now running into the very same problem that ultimately brought down Madoff’s multi-billion dollar ’empire’. As the Lexington Herald Leader points out today, it’s no coincidence that the Kentucky public pension system is suddenly collapsing just as the number of retirees (redemptions) has surged beyond the number of active employees (fresh capital) required to keep the ponzi going.
It’s impossible to know exactly who, where or when, but one day in 2016, a Kentucky state employee packed up her desk, said goodbye to her colleagues and retired.
Once she hit the exit, the number of retirees drawing a pension from the Kentucky Employees Retirement System (Non-Hazardous), the struggling $2.6 billion fund that serves most of state government, officially topped the number of active workers paying into it.
The 60-year-old fund has been mathematically upside down from that day forward.
Social Security, by comparison, has a roughly 3-to-1 ratio of workers supporting retirees, but KERS’ ratio is less than 1 to 1. Its numbers are expected to worsen as state government continues to cut its work force and aging baby boomers keep heading into retirement. The average age of a worker in KERS is 45, up from 43 just a few years ago. And they retire at age 57 on average to draw a lifetime pension.
“You just can’t depend on this model anymore,” said state Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro.
As Senator Joe Bowen notes, “it creates a cash flow problem”…
Bowen is working with Gov. Matt Bevin and other GOP lawmakers on proposed changes to Kentucky’s public pension systems, which face tens of billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities due to inadequate contributions and unrealistic financial assumptions by state government over much of the past two decades.
Bowen said Wednesday that an outline of their pension proposals could be unveiled within the next week, with a special legislative session to enact those changes possible later this year.
“The model of a defined-benefits plan doesn’t work for us anymore because we can’t raise enough money from this work force to pay for everyone who is going into retirement,” Bowen said. “This is why moving to 401(k) accounts, moving to defined-contribution plans, and then committing to paying down the existing liabilities … that’s really the only option we have.”
“It creates a cash-flow problem,” said David Eager, interim executive director of Kentucky Retirement Systems, which manages KERS (non-hazardous) and other state and local government pension funds. “The benefit payments are going to continue to go up. The contributions are going to continue to go down. That’s just the math of it.”
Of course, the demographics of the Kentucky pension system are hardly unique. A surge in Baby Boomer retirements over the next couple of decades, combined with technological advancements that ensure that only a fraction of those retirees will have to be replaced with actual human workers, will inevitably result in a wave public pension ponzi failures as they meet with the same “cash flow problem” as Bernie Madoff.
That said, unlike the Madoff ponzi, no one will go to jail when the public pension ponzi schemes of the U.S. are exposed because, for some reason, defrauding taxpayers, as opposed to investors, is perfectly legal.