Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Association issues Certificates of Transparency to 20 

Texas state and local public pension funds

Photo: iStock/Michail Petrov
By Allen Jones
TEXPERS Communications Manager

A national public pension trade association is recognizing several state and local public pension plans in Texas for their efforts to improve public understanding of retirement systems.

The National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems is awarding Certificates of Transparency to 20 Texas plans that participated in the organization’s 2017 NCPERS Public Retirement Systems Study. The Texas plans are among 164 funds nationwide surveyed in the study, which assesses efforts of pension trustees, managers, and administrators to improve the finances and operations of their funds. NCPERS released its report in January and announced certificate recipients in a news release issued March 13.

“How well or bad a fund is doing should not be a secret,” says Tyler Grossman, executive director of the El Paso Firemen and Policemen’s Pension Fund. “That has never helped a fund out, to my knowledge.”

Grossman’s fund is among the 20 Texas public pension plans that participated in NCPERS’ nationwide transparency survey. The El Paso fund will receive two Certificates of Transparency. Although state statute permits the fund to operate as a commingled retirement system, for auditing purposes, the El Paso plan is separated into two public pension funds – one for firefighters and one for law enforcement. This is the second year the El Paso plan has been recognized for participating in the transparency study.

Grossman, who also serves as second vice president on the Texas Association of Public Employee Retirement Systems’ board of directors, says transparency among public pension funds is important because members of funds should know the sustainability of their plans.

“Transparency is never a bad thing, if consistently done,” he says. “This is something TEXPERS wants for itself and all the funds in the association. If there is going to be pension reform, it should be on a fund’s terms and, to do this, you must have all the cards on the table to do what’s best for your members.”

As part of the NCPERS transparency study, Grossman and other study participants were each required to fill out a five-page survey covering 22 topics. Participants provided detailed information about their funds including plan statistics, current and target asset allocation and investment returns, retirement benefits offered or planned, business practices and oversight practices. Transparency, according to NCPERS, means that the fund participants answered all applicable survey questions.

“Transparency and openness engender trust with the public and policymakers,” says Hank Kim, executive director and counsel for NCPERS. “As the attacks on public pensions continue and pump fake news about the opaqueness of public plans, we as a community need to respond forcefully and repeatedly.”

The collected survey data offers insight into how public pension systems adapt to legislative and regulatory developments and ups and downs in financial markets.

“The business intelligence provided by the 164 study participants supports efforts by the public pension community as a whole to comprehend and analyze challenges and find opportunities for steady improvement,” Kim says.

Of the 164 survey respondents, 62 were state funds, and 102 were local government funds. Together, the participants have more than 15.5 million active and retired members and market assets totaling $1.8 trillion.

NCPERS is providing pension plans online access to the study that will enable administrators to build models and evaluate their own data against the study’s findings. The full report is available online.

NCPERS is providing pension plans online access to the study that will enable administrators to build models and evaluate their own data against the study’s findings.
Kim says the vast majority of public plans are open and transparent, regardless of whether they participated in the NCPERS study and received a transparency certificate. He isn’t aware of a fund that doesn’t adhere to the minimum standards, which is a plan’s state or jurisdiction open meetings rules.

“We embarked on this survey because we wanted to know how plans are reacting to challenges and also how they were preparing for the next set of challenges,” Kim says. “The other unique aspect of our study is that it receives responses from state and local plans. Most other public pension surveys or reports focus exclusively on the largest state plans.”

One way for pension funds to be transparent: schedule regular meetings with the public and plan sponsors.

“The Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho and the Colorado Public Employees' Retirement Association are two examples of plans that do this,” Kim says.

Grossman, the El Paso fund recognized for its transparency, publishes a newsletter for its members that detail the fund’s sustainability. Grossman speaks at public events in El Paso, attends fire department and police officer shift meetings offering information on the fund, and hosts open house educational sessions at the fund’s office.

“At the open house sessions, we will share with the members the fund’s asset allocation to show what a conservative portfolio looks like,” he says. “In doing so, [members] can better judge how their personal portfolios stack up against it to give them a better gauge of where they are at.”

The El Paso fund is also utilizing technology and social media to help educate new generations about their pensions and to set them up to take advantage of all the retirement vehicles at their disposal.

“Their defined benefits,” Grossman says, “is only one piece of the pie to set up a successful retirement portfolio.”

There is not a state mandate to participate in the NCPERS study. The El Paso fund joined the study, Grossman says, “because we are proud of what we do and what we have accomplished” – “the protection of benefits with consistent due diligence and at a low administrative cost.”

Texas public pensions funds receiving Certificates of Transparency:
  • Texas Employees Retirement System
  • Austin Fire Fighters Relief and Retirement Fund
  • Beaumont Firemen’s Relief and Retirement Fund
  • City of Austin Employees’ Retirement Fund
  • City of Dallas Employees’ Retirement Fund
  • City Public Service Employees’ Pension Plan
  • Conroe Firefighters’ Retirement Fund
  • Corpus Christi Firefighters’ Retirement Systems
  • El Paso Firemen’s Pension Fund
  • El Paso Policemen’s Pension Fund
  • Fire and Police Pension Fund, San Antonio
  • Fort Worth Employees’ Retirement Fund
  • Houston Municipal Employees Pension System
  • Houston Police Officers Pension System
  • Irving Firemen’s Relief and Retirement Fund
  • Laredo Firefighters Retirement System
  • Odessa Firemen’s Pension Board
  • Texarkana Firemen’s Relief and Retirement Fund
  • Texas Municipal Retirement System
  • San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Retirement Plan

Life expectancy is increasing, but not for everyone

Photo: iStock/RawPixel
By Allen Jones
TEXPERS Communications Manager

Although the average life expectancy of all Americans dropped slightly after decades of increases, data indicates that higher income earners are enjoying extraordinary longevity.

Between 1980 and 2015, life expectancy for all sexes and races in the United States increased roughly five years, from age 74 to age 79, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, mortality rates, especially among lower-income earners, have increased due to a number of causes of death, including opioid overdoses, creating a slight dip in life expectancy.

One demographic group, however, is living as much as 15 years longer than the rest – rich Americans. A research study released in April 2017, indicates the steepest life expectancy increases occurred among those with higher incomes. According to “Inequality and the health-care system in the USA,” published by The Lancet research journal, a widening economic inequality in the U.S. is “accompanied by increasing disparities in health outcomes” – meaning poor people are dying younger than the rich.

Since 1980, life expectancy for men at age 50 has diverged for the top and bottom income quintiles, says Peter Orszag, vice chairman and managing director at Lazard Freres & Co. LLC, a financial advisory and asset management firm based in Houston. Orszag spoke about the economics of retirement as a keynote speaker at the National Institute on Retirement Security’s annual conference held Feb. 27 in Washington, D.C.

He presented research he found by the CDC, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statics, and various researchers. His findings closely align with The Lancet study. For example, in 2010, the bottom quintile of 50-year-old men could expect to live roughly another 26 years, according to Orszag’s presentation. That same year, higher-income 50-year-olds could expect to live approximately an additional 38 years – more than a decade longer than their poorer cohorts.

“Life expectancy for the highest-earning 1 percent of men is now approximately 15 years longer than the lowest-earning 1 percent,” Orszag says.

The result, he says, is programs such as Social Security and public pensions, are becoming less progressive on a lifetime basis and more people working into their later years. He referenced a 2015 study, “The Growing Gap in Life Expectancy by Income.”

“The top quintile earns about $130,000 more in entitlement benefits at age 50 compared to the bottom,” Orszag says. “Why is this happening? We don’t have full answers.”

There is, however, a striking difference in stress and optimism across demographic and socioeconomic groups that could help explain the differential trends in life expectancy. It’s a little subjective, Orszag says, but the evidence is accumulating rapidly.

“You would think we have less inequality than in Latin American countries, but it is bigger in the U.S.,” he says.

According to a 2015 study based on Gallup World Poll data, American households across income quintiles had more stress than Latin American countries. Even among high-income earners, 42 percent of U.S. households reported experiencing stress on the prior day compared to 30 percent of the richest Latin American households. The poorest wage earners had the most stress in the U.S. and among Latin American countries. Of the Gallop Poll respondents, 48 percent of the poorest households in the U.S. reported experiencing stress on the prior day compared to 34 percent of the poorest Latin American households.

The stress of poverty can be toxic and is often very different than the stress the rich experience. Stress is bad for social mobility, according to a 2016 report by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C. There is a high cost to being poor such as lack of health insurance, unstable employment, and other factors, according to Brookings researchers. Higher-wage earners often have better jobs that allow them to have more control over their schedules as opposed to those who have lower paying jobs with more rigid work hours and also are unable to afford child care and other necessities higher-income earners can afford.

“For the U.S. poor, for example, common problems such as a sick child or a broken down car can result in the loss of a (typically low-quality) job and then a new spiral  of associated problems, often exacerbated by lack of health care and other kinds of insurance,” according to the Brookings report. “There can also be longer-term costs.”

Stress can have a negative impact on a person’s health, mood and behavior, according to the Mayo Clinic, a leading U.S.-based nonprofit clinical practice, education and research organization. Stress often manifests through illnesses such as headaches, muscle tension, chest pain, fatigue, stomach upset and sleep problems. Stress also impacts mood, producing anxiety, irritability, depression, and a feeling of being overwhelmed. And, it can impact behavior, such as overeating, angry outburst, drug or alcohol abuse, tobacco use, social withdrawal, and other problems. In turn, stressed out people are spending more on health care costs.

More health care expenses, coupled with low wages and lack of entitlements, means a greater number of older Americans often are working longer than wealthy retirees. And that is evident in population and labor force statistics.

Aging is changing America at a rapid pace. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics traced labor force participation rates by age groups in 1996, 2006, and 2016 as well as projected participation rates in 2026. Among the findings, the participation rates of persons age 65 and older increased each decade.  

In 1996, Americans 65 and older made up 12.1 percent of the labor force. By 2016, the age demographic made up 19.3 percent of the U.S. labor force. The participation rate of those 65 and older is expected to increase to 21.8 percent of the U.S. labor force by 2026.

The bottom line: Life expectancy is still on the rise, but not for everyone. Poor people are having to work longer while spending more on health care. That creates an increase in stress levels, which often leads to shorter lives.

Advisory Committee moves closer to designing 

new principles for benefit design

by Joe Gimenez

The Pension Review Board’s newest committee continued etching guidelines on how plans should design their benefits for members.

The advisory committee on “Principles of Retirement Plan Design” met March 1 to refine and adjust guidelines first discussed in October. At that meeting, committee members – PRB chairman Josh McGee, Vice Chair Keith Brainard, and Stephanie Leibe – focused primarily on broad guidelines for plans’ and sponsor relationships with employees. They arrived at conclusions such as “participation in plans should be mandatory” and “plans should provide a benefit that cannot be outlived.”

At the meeting, advisory committee members spent more time and energy discussing the relationship of benefits to governmental entities’ ability to pay them. In addition, Leibe asked the board to consider that some of the principles they discussed were not aligned with current laws. Brainard and McGee countered that the recommendations should be viewed as offering guidance to future public policy, or “how things ought to be.”

David Stacy, a TEXPERS Board member and trustee with Midland Firemen’s Relief and Retirement Fund, told the Board he did not think the committee should peg its recommendation for vesting periods to ERISA laws for private sector employees. The committee had agreed on the principle that “Vesting should be brief and should occur over a period not to exceed five years.” Stacy advocated for the longer-term vesting periods intended to keep public employees on the job for at least a decade. McGee countered by saying that shorter vesting periods work in favor of creating retirement security for people. Brainard said that plan design is a matter of balance, like retaining employees but also not sending employees off on their own with nothing to show for the time they spent on a job. McGee also contended that research shows there is no impact on pension systems by offering shorter vesting periods.

The advisory committee is slated to meet again on April 24 at which time staff will provide a revised version of the preamble and principles. The committee will consider public comment before and at the meeting.  Ultimately, the advisory committee hopes to approve staff work and recommend the guidelines for adoption by the full Pension Review Board at its June meeting.

Here are some of the benefit principles being proposed by the advisory committee.
  • Public employers should offer a retirement benefit
  • Participation in the employer-sponsored primary plan should be mandatory
  • Contributions should be made in a manner consistent with PRB Pension Funding Guidelines.
    • Contributions should be adequate to the benefits being promised, no matter who is making the contributions.
  • Assets should be pooled, professionally invested and in a manner that minimizes costs.
  • Assets should be diversified and invested in a manner consistent with prudent investor standards.
  • Vesting should be brief and should occur over a period not to exceed five years.
  • A portion of retirement benefits should be mandated to be annuitized.
  • Access to loans, lump sums, or anything resembling ‘leakage’ of retirement assets before retirement, should be discouraged or minimized, with the exception of very severe individual circumstances.
  • Annuities should be protected against inflation and paid for in advance.
  • With regard to governance, language should mention stakeholders, transparency, and accountability and includes a cost element.
  • Sponsor-supplemented savings should be encouraged.

Author Bio: Joe Gimenez is a business management and communications counselor to business unit directors for Fortune 500 companies and public employee pension funds for the past 20 years. His clients include TEXPERS, San Antonio Fire and Police Pension Fund, Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund, Microsoft, Capgemini, Dell, Eli Lilly, and others. He has a Master’s degree from George Mason University in International Trade and Transactions. 

Funds must report payments to alternate payees 

as ordinary taxable income

Photo: iStock/Andrey Popov
By Gary Lawson

So, your fund has been paying a service-connected disabled retiree a disability pension that is exempt from Federal Income Tax under Internal Revenue Code Section 104. But now your retiree is getting divorced and you just received a domestic relations order that directs that your fund pay some of that disability benefit to the former spouse/alternate payee.

How will you report the annuity payments to the alternate payee, former spouse?

Is she or he entitled to treat that qualified domestic relations order payment as exempt under the Internal Revenue Code Sec. 104 exemption, the same as when it was paid to the disabled retiree?  

The answer may surprise you. The answer is, no. You must report the payments to the alternate payee as ordinary taxable income.

In a 2012 Tax Court decision called Fernandez v. Commissioner of Social Security, the court held that the former spouse must report the pension she receives as taxable income. Again in 2015 the IRS won a similar case in a U.S. District Court decision, Walker, Helena v. U.S., (2015, DC MD) holding that accidental disability retirement benefits paid pursuant to eligible domestic relations orders to former spouses of state employees/participants in tax-qualified pension plans weren't excludible under Code Sec. 104(a)(1) from that former spouses' gross income. The court held that all income was taxable under Code Sec. 61 unless specifically excluded and Reg § 1.104-1(b) explicitly limited exclusion to employees and their survivors.

In addition, we found a similar interpretation in two IRS private letter rulings, or PLRs. While PLRs don’t bind the IRS and are technically of no precedent value to any other taxpayer than the one to whom it was issued, PLRs are published to help us understand the IRS position on a tax question and sometimes there is nothing else available.

You may want to consider informing the lawyers for both sides if you face a similar issue.

But, you should be careful not to give either your member or the alternate payee any tax advice, as that can boomerang in any number of ways. Their lawyers might want to consider these cases and see if there is some alternative arrangement that might preserve the favorable tax treatment. Perhaps the member still gets paid 100 percent of the tax-exempt disability benefit and he/she (not the fund) pays the former spouse some other equal amount of money, as a non-taxable division of property?

As far as fund reporting, you should report any payment to the alternate payee as taxable income. 

When you have a tax or benefits question you might want to seek the advice of experienced pension tax counsel.

About the Author: Gary Lawson is a partner with law firm Fisher Broyles. He specializes in pension, executive compensation and transactional law and regularly represents government pension systems and other governmental entities in matters.

Room Blocks are Expiring Soon!
If you haven't made your hotel reservations, now's the time.

Room blocks expire this month.

TEXPERS attendees will want to stay at one of the TEXPERS hotels! We have great rates at wonderful hotels and transportation to TEXPERS events, so why stay anywhere else?

·    The Pearl - Room block expires this Friday, March 23rd and is the perfect selection for those wanting a little more up-scale stay and is close to the Isla Grand.

·    The Schlitterbahn Resort and Water Park - Room block expires on Saturday, March 24 at this fun, family-oriented resort. This resort is great for those that would enjoy a terrific lazy river and water park (attractions are open Saturdays and Sundays in April).

·    La Copa - Room block expires March 30 at this lovely seaside resort in close proximity to the Isla Grand.