US public pension gap at least $2 trillion: Moody's

The U.S. public pension gap has tripled to at least $2 trillion in less than a decade, Moody's Investors Service said in a report on Thursday.

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Moody's measured the unfunded liabilities for the 25 biggest public retirement systems between 2004 and 2012. The total future shortfall is more than half the size of the $3.7 trillion municipal bond market, which comprises all the outstanding debt issued by U.S. states and cities.

People protest in front of the U.S. Courthouse in Detroit during the city's bankruptcy eligibility trial.
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The gap has widened in spite of the fact that average investment returns over about the same period were 7.45 percent, roughly in line with targets, according to the Wall Street credit rating agency.

"Part of the problem for the level of overall funding is that it is inherently difficult to recover an overall asset position after the double-digit losses seen during the recession,'' Al Medioli, a Moody's vice president, said in a statement.

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In fiscal years 2008 and 2009, at the depth of the economic downturn, the plans' assets dropped nearly 22 percent cumulatively on average, Moody's said.

Other contributing factors include inadequate contributions from plan sponsors and the burden of an aging population across the country.

Federal pension problem
Federal pension problem

In Michigan, for example, the ratio of active employees to retirees has fallen by more than 50 percent. It now has slightly more than one active employee for each retiree.

The 25 systems analyzed by Moody's cover 40 percent of the $5.29 trillion in total assets managed by all U.S. public pensions.

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Moody's uses a more conservative method to calculate pension gaps than most of the systems themselves.