At its March meeting, the State Teachers Retirement Board voted to approve changes to the actuarial assumptions used to calculate pension liabilities. The vote follows the five-year experience review conducted this winter by the board’s actuarial consultant, Segal Consulting. The experience review measures the system’s economic and demographic assumptions versus the actual experience over the past five years. Based on this review, Segal recommended adjustments to assumptions about expected investment returns, mortality, inflation, salary growth, payroll growth and teacher retirements, disability inceptions and terminations. In total, the new assumptions outlined below have a negative overall impact on the system’s funding. When applied to the July 1, 2016, valuation of the pension fund, the new assumptions would add about $6.5 billion to STRS Ohio’s accrued liabilities (benefits earned by active and retired members).
The most common ways to express the system’s financial condition are through the funded ratio and the funding period. The funded ratio is the value of assets compared to accrued liabilities. The gap between the assets on hand and what is owed in benefits is called the “unfunded liability.” The funding period is the amount of time needed to pay off, or amortize, the system’s unfunded liability, assuming current contribution rates. When measured with the new actuarial assumptions in place, STRS Ohio’s funded ratio at fair value drops to 62.4% from 66.4%, and the funding period increased to 59.5 years from 26.6 years. The funding period falls outside of the state of Ohio’s 30-year funding target, and will require STRS Ohio to present a plan to reduce its funding period to 30 years or less.
Following is a summary of the key changes to the assumptions and how each impacts the system’s funding:
When adopting the assumption changes, the board recognized that benefit plan design changes are now necessary to preserve the fiscal integrity of the pension fund. Models of possible plan design changes indicate the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) is the most effective means possible to preserve the fiscal integrity of the fund because it by far has the biggest impact on liabilities. The COLA has a significant financial impact because it affects active and retired members of the retirement system. Substitute Senate Bill 342, passed in 2012, gives the Retirement Board authority to set the COLA. The board can choose to indefinitely suspend or reduce the COLA and can vote to restore the COLA when the pension fund is healthy enough to do so. Discussion on potential benefit plan design changes will continue at the April meeting, when a vote on these changes is likely.