Reeder: Illinois lawmakers invest retirement dollars in junk bonds

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SPRINGFIELD – Years ago, when I was a reporter for a newspaper in Las Vegas, I encountered a homeless family living in a shelter.

The family consisted of a husband, wife and their four children who lost everything because of the husband’s gambling habits.

“When I lost the rent money, I decided it was time to go back to the casino and win it back,” the father explained.

The parents took more risks trying to win their money back; instead they became destitute.

This is the same mindset Illinois lawmakers have as they invest pension money.

The state is turning to increasingly risky investments in an effort to make up its shortfall.

For example, the Teachers’ Retirement System, or TRS, holds more than $1 billion in junk bonds, formally known as sub-investment grade securities. More than 14 percent of the TRS bond portfolio is tied up in junk bonds, according to its comprehensive annual financial report for 2012.

Companies in financial distress issue these bonds and try to lure would-be investors by offering high interest rates. Of course, if the company goes bust, speculators lose everything.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to invest any of my retirement savings in this type of scheme. But, apparently, some folks in state government think it’s a perfectly fine place to put our teachers’ retirement savings.

The problem is our state pension systems are underfunded to the tune of more than $200 billion, under new accounting standards. So those handling investments for the pension funds are feeling the pressure to get higher returns. And if those investments go south, Illinois taxpayers will be asked to make up the difference.

Investment losses are one factor in a complex formula that pension funds use when determining how much tax money to request from the Legislature each year.

It should frustrate not just teachers but all Illinois taxpayers that their money is being invested in this manner.

Even more frightening is that legislation has been introduced to make the state taxpayers explicitly responsible for pension systems’ shortfalls. Do taxpayers really want to be guaranteeing junk bonds?

So, who can be trusted?

I, for one, believe in the individual.

Eighty-five percent of private sector workers don’t have pensions. They use IRAs, 401(k) plans and other defined contribution plans to make investment decisions for themselves.

Why not government workers as well?

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at: sreeder@illinoispolicy.org. Readers can subscribe to his free political newsletter by going to Reederreport.com or follow his work on Twitter @scottreeder.

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