Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Public pensions are not sustainable, even in Norway

By now, everyone must be aware that populations are getting older and that this puts some serious strain on pension systems. Unless one plans far ahead or is blessed with substantial sustained growth, some problems in financing retirement will appear. But there must be some place that is going to do fine, say a country with a forward-thinking government, a recently reformed pension system, a well managed endowment of natural resources and a small and smart population, like Norway. Right?

Wrong, say Christian Hagist, Bernd Raffelhüschen, Alf Ering Risa and Erling Vårdal. To come to this conclusion, they use generational accounting, which measures the fiscal sustainability of the public sector and in particular the publicly funded retirement pensions. The latter went this year through a significant reform, which includes pension indexation below wage growth, benefits adjusted to be actuarially fair if life expectancy increases further, and work incentives for elderly. It turns out the pension reform has helped substantially for the sustainability, about as much as the presence of the endowment of oil and natural gas. But that is not going to be enough, even with higher oil prices and an exceptionally well managed petroleum wealth. And for those hoping that future growth of the economy or higher fertility would help, well at least in the case of Norway this would barely help. To close the gap, a 17% increase in taxes would be needed, and they are already very high in this country. So, if Norway cannot make it, how could countries with inactive governments and little or poorly managed endowments make it?

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