State pension + debt = big numbers

chart_pension.top.gif By Tami Luhby, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- States' debt loads are high enough, but when you combine them with their pension obligations, the numbers are really eye-popping.

Hawaii's debt, for instance, is $5.2 billion. But so is its pension obligation. Combined, the dual obligations make up 16.2% of the state's economy, according to a report released Thursday by Moody's Investors Service. That's the nation's highest total liability as a share of the state's gross domestic product.

With state economies continuing to reel from the Great Recession, their pension and debt loads are garnering greater attention. States are having a hard enough time just paying for schools and social services, leaving many struggling to make big pension payments as well.

"These are expensive obligations," said Robert Kurtter, Moody's managing director for public finance. "Not crushing burdens, but they add to states' financial stress at a very difficult time."

Just how deep states are in the hole for their pension payments is a matter of debate. A Pew Center on the States report last year pegged the figure at $452 billion. Overall, state pension systems are 84% funded.

Other experts, however, have said the unfunded liability is much greater. Even Kurtter acknowledges that the pension hole is likely understated because of the rules governing states' accounting for retirement benefits.

While Moody's has always taken pension obligations into account when rating a state, this is the first time it has released a report showing the combined debt and pension liability levels in each one. The rating agency said it was important to show investors a state's total obligations, especially since pension liabilities have been growing more swiftly in recent years.

For instance, New York and California have high debt levels. But since they have well-funded pensions, they are not among the top states in terms of total liabilities as a share of the economy. That honor goes to Mississippi, Connecticut, West Virginia and Massachusetts, in addition to Hawaii. See the chart above for the full picture.

The new reporting method will not prompt any credit rating changes, Kurtter said. To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 18,132.70 -81.72 -0.45%
Nasdaq 4,963.53 -24.36 -0.49%
S&P 500 2,104.50 -6.24 -0.30%
Treasuries 2.00 -0.01 -0.69%
Data as of 11:38am ET
Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 15.81 -0.23 -1.43%
Apple Inc 128.46 -1.96 -1.50%
General Electric Co 25.99 0.10 0.39%
Microsoft Corp 43.85 -0.20 -0.47%
Chesapeake Energy Co... 16.68 -0.52 -3.02%
Data as of Feb 27
Sponsors

Sections

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett released his 50th annual letter to shareholders. The Oracle of Omaha thinks the next 50 years will be great and knows who will replace him. More

Potential presidential candidate says that improvement in unemployment rate is due to millions of jobless not being counted. More

With the death of Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Star Trek's Spock, we remember his character's legacy: The technology we use every day. More

The top 5 consumer complaints have to do with identity theft, debt collectors, imposters, telephone companies and banks. More