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The Chicago Tribune recently wrote about how the decision to reduce the expected-return assumption from 7.5% to 7.0% for the Illinois Teachers Retirement System resulted in the governor calling for approximately $400 million in additional taxes.

While the political positioning behind this small move of 0.5 percentage point is fascinating, it more importantly brings to the forefront the issue of how large future obligations are, and why there is a lot of fear and an incentive to hide.

If reducing the expected return assumption from 7.5% to 7.0% results in an additional $400 million- 500 million a year of taxes, then moving the liability discount rate to something closer to a risk-free rate of 3% may imply additional $5 billion in additional contributions (Note: the actual number is likely several times higher than this – see the illustration below for some simplified math).

The dilemma we face is that we have made future promises and don’t have enough money set aside today to pay them. Therefore someone has to make up the shortfall. Instead of trying to determine who makes up the shortfall, we try to bury our heads in the actuarial sand of high expected returns.
But where can Illinois get the additional $5 billion a year? And where can America get the additional $6 trillion?

Investment returns aren’t going to help:

The Teachers Retirement System assumes that investment returns over the long-term will average 7%. With liabilities of $108 billion, and assets of $41 billion, even if investments return 7% per annum, the hole will only continue to grow (see Illustration below). This is why using investment-return expectations to discount liabilities isn’t appropriate.
But investments don’t return 7% year-in, year-out. For simplicity, let’s assume the long-term horizon to be 10 years. Even if there is one year where returns are negative-20%, this results in an asset value that is over $20 billion lower (see illustration below).
When risk-free rates were around 6%-7%, generating 8%-10% expected returns required minimal risk and complexity. However, with risk-free rates at 2%-3%, generating even 7% is a lot harder. While investment teams at pension funds such as Teachers are extremely capable, high expected returns are forcing them to take on additional risk, either in the form of increased leverage or complex investments.

The Rockefeller Institute of Government points out that “taxpayers and citizens may or not want this risk taken on their behalf, but they have little say in the matter. And they have no easy way out: If they want pension funds to take less risk, they’ll have to increase government contributions by even more than contributions have gone up already”.

Inflation may not help either.

Arguments in favor of using higher discount rates tend to revolve around the “artificially low” level of interest rates fueled by central-bank actions, and a belief that discount rates would return to a more “normal” level in the future. However, a return to “normal” is likely to be accompanied by an increase in inflation. For public plans, higher inflation could actually be a problem, as benefits tend to be linked to inflation, and therefore liabilities would likely get larger, not smaller, with inflation.

Therefore, by not putting in the money today, we are effectively making a leveraged bet on the stock market, and hoping it pays off, and praying that inflation stays low.

If average returns are only 6%, state funds in aggregate will run out in 2024. That’s only eight years from now.
And if the bet doesn’t work then who will pick up the pieces?

In 2010, Stanford Prof. Josh Rauh estimated that if state pension funds earned an average return of 8% on their assets, then states would in aggregate run out of funds in 2028. If average returns are only 6%, then state funds in aggregate will run out in 2024. That’s only eight years from now.

According to Rauh, funds would need to earn at least 10% per annum out to 2045 in order to sufficiently meet their obligations.

Higher inflation and lower investment returns would only make this situation worse. Current taxpayers and lawmakers are either unwilling or unable to shoulder the burden, as recent events in Illinois have highlighted.

This then shifts the burden to future taxpayers. As this burden becomes more apparent, Rauh speculates that taxpayers may choose to relocate from states with high unfunded pension liabilities. This would, in his opinion, increase the likelihood of a federal taxpayer bailout. Failing that, states would have to resort to what has so far been unthinkable — cutting benefits. In the absence of a federal bailout or a cut in benefits, it’s likely that municipal-bond holders would have to take a hit, as tax dollars get used to fund pension benefits.

Quantifying the true extent of liabilities is the first step in recognizing the magnitude of the problem; the amounts involved are too large to ignore, and it impacts almost everyone. Hopefully policy makers can make informed decisions before its too late.

If decisions aren’t made, then our only hope is that we earn over 10% investment returns each year. Would you take that bet with your future?

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The revelations about offshore accounts that came to light in the so-called Panama Papers will reinvigorate government efforts to rein in not just tax evasion, which is illegal, but tax avoidance, too.

They will also add to popular frustration that will challenge the authority of some government officials. The uproar will bring about enhanced enforcement measures. Yet there also will be unintended consequences that will further erode the credibility and effectiveness of the political establishment, including its ability to govern from the center, which is already being tested.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, and given the alarming surge in wealth inequality, the governed will prove far less accepting of the legal distinction between tax evasion and tax avoidance. Both are now viewed not just as “tax dodges,” but also as the unfair perks of the better-off and more-connected members of society in many countries.

Enter last week’s “Panama Papers,” the trove of more than 11 million pages of documents from Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm. The documents suggest that in both advanced and developing countries, some of those who hold power, and those with access to them along with the “rich and famous,” used the firm to establish and manage offshore entities that are designed to protect capital and minimize taxation.

The political repercussions were immediate, and are likely to spread. Already, the scandal has led to the resignation of Iceland’s prime minister, to a political outcry that has required U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to release his tax returns (a first for Britain’s top elected official), and has abruptly ended the political honeymoon of Argentina’s new president, Mauricio Macri.


In addition, countries including Germany are stepping up efforts to look into curbs on legal, but morally questionable tax avoidance schemes that benefit the wealthiest. As with earlier steps to limit money laundering, the focus will be on more stringent reporting requirements, better international sharing of data, and more closely coordinated cross-border verification and enforcement efforts.

These changes will be quite visible; and will have a meaningful impact for those who, until now, have found it easy to use offshore financial vehicles to reduce their tax payments. The measures’ effects on politics and governance, while they will be less visible, could be more consequential for broader segments of society.

The Panama papers are yet another blow to the political establishment. They amplify popular resentment toward governments that already are perceived by a significant segment of the population as turning a blind eye to tax-dodging. That anger is stoked by disclosures that some high-ranking officials also availed themselves of the shelters. And though no laws were broken in most cases, the documents will feed the perception that the privileged are allowed to play by different rules.

Indeed, for many, the Panama Papers are reminiscent of a broader phenomenon that played out in the run-up and the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis: The perception of a system run and managed by a political establishment that serves the rich and connected and fails to hold these elites accountable for the damage they cause to the rest of society. There is still notable residual resentment that very few bankers were brought to justice for their role in a financial debacle that caused significant misery and almost tipped the world into a devastating multiyear depression.

By stoking residual anger and fueling anti-establishment movements, the Panama Papers will make it even harder for the established parties to come together and implement policies aimed at overcoming years of sluggish economic growth, worsening inequality and artificial financial stability.

In addition, two other developments last week also eroded the credibility of the political establishment: the failure of the Dutch government to convince citizens to back a trade and cooperation agreement between the European Union and Ukraine, and the turnaround of a growing number of members of the Republican establishment (including Lindsey Graham, Mitt Romney and Scott Walker) who lined up behind Ted Cruz as their preferred candidate.

There will be even less appetite to govern from the bipartisan political center, thus making it more difficult to secure sufficient buy-in for pro-growth structural reforms, better demand management and more timely solutions for excessively high levels of over-indebtedness.

There’s no doubt that the Panama Papers will produce greater efforts to reduce tax minimization (whether through legal avoidance or illegal evasion). That is good news for liberal democratic systems that rely on a rule of law that is viewed as fair and credible. But in the short-term this will be accompanied by even stronger resistance to the kind of political unity that is needed in several countries to deliver high growth and genuine financial stability.



The fundamental relation of capital to income has been much discussed by economists, the former being likened to a tree on the land, the latter to the fruit or the crop; the former depicted as a reservoir supplied from springs, the latter as an outlet or stream to be measured by its flow during a period of time…Here we have the essential matter; not a gain accruing to capital; not a growth or increment of value to the investment: but a gain, a profit, something of exchangeable value proceeding from property, severed from capital.


Income concepts can be viewed as a pyramid. As one moves from the broad notion of psychic income through the foundation and accounting concepts of income to the legal concept, the interpretation of income continually narrows. More and more items are excluded from income as one progresses from one discipline to the next and in doing so one moves further away from the ‘ideal’ taxation target. Taxation is based on the legal concept of income – the concept farthest removed from the ‘ideal’ on the income pyramid.


Federal Revenues

The economy growing slowly as measured by tax receipts.

The cliff.

JPMorgan Chief U.S. Economist Mike Feroli believes small, periodic increases in a national sales tax, combined with parallel reductions in other taxes, would permanently right the ailing economy.

Here’s his idea in full: needless to say, I’ll have some comments later.

“One crazy idea I like is to institute a series of periodic, small increases in a national sales tax. This would have the effect of creating deeply negative real interest rates by increasing the incentive to pull forward demand into the current period when it is less expensive. To offset the disposable income drag it would need to be coupled with equal and offsetting decreases in income and other taxes. This idea has been kicked around by mainstream economists (Feldstein, Kocherlakota, etc.) and nobody has been able to poke any major theoretical holes in the argument, but at the same time people realize it is a politically tough sell, so it has remained in the realm of obscure academic journals even though it is a guaranteed demand igniter.”

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