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Pension Funds

Public pension contributions grow, but so do liabilities — SOA analysis

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Public pension plans saw contributions grow dramatically between 2005 and 2016, but their pension liabilities also continued to rise, according to a Society of Actuaries analysis released Tuesday.

Contributions to 133 large state and municipal pension plans more than doubled to $88.1 billion in 2016 from $42.4 billion in 2005. At the same time, unfunded liabilities grew 245%, to $1 trillion in 2016 from $290 billion in 2005.

While 88% of large public plans had unfunded liabilities in 2009, that percentage grew to 97% in 2017, SOA's analysis found.

Most of the plans received insufficient contributions to reduce unfunded liabilities. In 2003, 55% of plans had insufficient contributions. That peaked at 84% in 2011 before falling to 63% in 2016-'17.

SOA officials measured public pension plan contribution indexes, comparing contributions to benchmarks that represent the contribution levels needed to reduce unfunded liabilities of state and large-city public pension plans from 2003 to 2017. Some plans received sufficient contributions to reduce unfunded liabilities when measured as a percent of payroll, but insufficient contributions when measured as a dollar amount. The percentage of plans in the latter group increased to 77% in 2017 from 36% in 2003. More than half in that group also fell short of their target or actuarially determined contributions.

In 2017, only 35% of large public plans received sufficient contributions to reduce unfunded liabilities on a dollar basis, while for the other 65%, unfunded liabilities either stayed the same or grew.