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John Chiang

CalPERS victimized as California Treasurer John Chiang seeks union support for his campaign for Governor

Borrowing to fund pensions could make California the next Puerto Rico

Governor Brown’s proposal to borrow money to fund CalPERS is similar to a move by Puerto Rico in 2008. That step backfired and now Puerto Rico is bankrupt.

Put Public Employees on Secure Choice and Social Security

“The state shall not have any liability for the payment of the retirement savings benefit earned by program participants pursuant to this title.” – California State Senator Kevin De Leon, August 7, 2016, Sacramento Bee

This quote from Senator De Leon, one of the main proponents of California’s new “Secure Choice” retirement program for private sector workers, says it all. Because De Leon’s comment reveals the breathtaking hypocrisy and stupefying innumeracy of California’s legislature.

Let’s start with hypocrisy.

De Leon is careful to protect private sector taxpayers from having to bail out their new state administered “secure choice” retirement plan, but no such safeguard has ever been seriously contemplated for the state administered pension plans for state and local government workers. These plans, using official numbers, are underfunded by about $250 billion. If you don’t assume California’s 92 state and local government worker pension systems can earn 7.5% per year, they are underfunded by much more – at least a half trillion.

Underfunded government worker pensions are the real reason why Prop. 55 is offered to voters to extend the “temporary” “millionaires tax” till 2030. That will raise about $6 billion per year. Underfunded local government worker pensions are also the reason for 224 local tax increases proposed on this November’s ballot, which if passed will collect another $3.0 billion per year. And it isn’t nearly enough.

The following table, excerpted from a recent California Policy Center study, shows how much California’s state and local government pensions systems have to collect per year based on various rates of return. At the time of the study, the most recent consolidated data available was for 2014. As can be seen – at a rate of return of 7.5% per year, state and local agencies have to put $38.1 billion into the pension funds. And at a rate of return of 6.5% per year, which CalPERS has already announced as their new “risk free” target rate, they have to turn over $52.3 billion per year. How much was actually paid in 2014? Only $30.1 billion.

20160516-cpc-ring-pension-liabilities

To summarize, in 2014 the pension funds collected $8.0 billion less than they needed if they think they can earn 7.5% per year. But following CalPERS lead, they’re lowering their projected rate of earnings to 6.5%, which means they were $22.2 billion short. There are 12.8 million households in California. That equates to at least $1,734 in additional taxes per household per year just to keep state and local pensions solvent.

And it gets worse. Because in order to ensure this new “Secure Choice” program doesn’t get into the same financial predicament that California’s government pension systems confront, the “risk free” rate of return they intend to project is not 7.5%, or 6.5%, or even 5.5%. No, they intend to initially invest the funds in Treasury Bills, which currently pay at most 2.5%. In an analysis of Secure Choice’s proposed costs and benefits performed last April, we express what using a truly “risk free” rate of return portends for California’s private sector workers vs. public sector workers. These estimates are based on all participants, public and private, contributing 10% to the fund via withholding.

Public sector:  Teachers/Bureaucrats, 30 years work  –  pension is 75% of final salary.

Public sector:  Public Safety, 30 years work – pension is 90% of final salary.

Private sector:  “Secure Choice,” 30 years work – pension is 27.6% of final salary.

There are two reasons for this gigantic disparity. First, public pension funds collect far more than 10% of salary. While the employee rarely pays more than 10% via withholding, the employer – that’s YOU, the taxpayer – typically kicks in another 20% to 40% or more, that is, a two-to-one up to a four-to-one employer matching contribution. Second, to justify the optimistic projections that make such generous pensions appear feasible, public pension funds have assumed a “risk free” rate of return of 7.5% per year.

Which brings us to innumeracy.

During the fiscal year ended 6/30/2015, CalPERS earned a whopping 2.4%. That stellar performance was followed in fiscal year ended 6/30/2016 by a return of 0.6%. It doesn’t take a Ph.D economist to know that California’s pension funds are going to need to greatly increase their annual collections. It only takes horse sense. But even horse sense eludes California’s innumerate lawmakers.

So here’s a modest proposal. Why not freeze the employer contributions into California’s state and local employee pension funds at 20% of salary (that’s a two-to-one match on a 10% contribution via withholding), and then, constrained by those fixed percentages, lower all benefits, for all participants, on a pro-rata basis to restore solvency. Better yet, why not enroll every state and local government employee in the Secure Choice program? Either way, “the state shall not have any liability for the payment of the retirement savings benefit earned by program participants.”

Along with this modest step towards dismantling the excessive privileges of these unionized Nomenklatura who masquerade as California’s public “servants,” why not enroll all state and local government employees in Social Security? Because California’s public servants make far more, on average, than private sector workers, and because Social Security benefits are calibrated to pay relatively less to high income participants, this step will financially stabilize the program.

Senator De Leon, are you listening? When it comes to state administered programs, all of California’s workers, public and private, should get the same deal.

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

Average Costa Mesa Firefighter Makes Nearly $250,000 Per Year. Why? Pensions.

Does that fact have your attention? Because media consultants insist we preface anything of substance with a hook like this. It even has the virtue of being true! And now, for those with the stomach for it, let’s descend into the weeds.

According to payroll and benefit data reported by the City of Costa Mesa to the California State Controller, during 2015 the average full-time firefighter made $240,886. During the same period, the average full-time police officer in Costa Mesa made $201,330. In both cases, that includes the cost, on average, for their regular pay, overtime, “other pay,” the city’s payment to CalPERS for the city’s share, the city’s payment to CalPERS of a portion of the employee’s share, and the city’s payments for the employee’s health and dental insurance benefits.

And if you think that’s a lot, just wait. Because the payments CalPERS is demanding from Costa Mesa – and presumably every other agency that participates in their pension system – are about to go way up.

We have obtained two innocuous documents recently delivered to the City of Costa Mesa from CalPERS. They are entitled “SAFETY FIRE PLAN OF THE CITY OF COSTA MESA (CalPERS ID: 5937664258), Annual Valuation Report as of June 30, 2015,” (click to download) and a similar document “SAFETY POLICE PLAN OF THE CITY OF COSTA MESA (CalPERS ID 5937664258), Annual Valuation Report as of June 30, 2015,” (click to download). Buried in the bureaucratic jargon are notices of significant increases to how much Costa Mesa is going to have to pay CalPERS each year. In particular, behold the following two tables that appear on page five of each letter:

Projected Employer Contributions to CalPERS  –  Costa Mesa Police

20160920-uw-calpers-fire

Projected Employer Contributions to CalPERS  –  Costa Mesa Firefighters

20160920-uw-calpers-fire

In the rarefied air of pension arcana, pension systems can get away with a lot. If you’re a glutton for punishment, read these notices from CalPERS in their entirety and see if, anywhere, they bother to explain the big picture. They don’t. The big picture is this:  For years CalPERS has underestimated how much they are going to pay in pensions and they have overestimated how much their investments will earn, and as a result they are continuously increasing how much cities have to pay them. This notice is just the latest in a predictable cascade of bad news from pension systems to cities and other agencies.

Coming down to earth just a bit, consider the two terms on the above charts, “Normal Cost %” and “UAL $.” It would be proper to wonder why they represent one with a percentage and one with actual dollars, but rather than indulge in futile speculation, here are some definitions. “Normal Cost” is how much the city pays (never mind that the city also pays a portion of the employee shares – we’ll get to that) into the pension system if it is fully funded. The reason pension systems are NOT fully funded is because, again, year after year, CalPERS underestimated how much they would pay out in pensions to retirees and overestimated how much they would earn. Read this disclaimer that appears on page five of the letters: “The table below shows projected employer contributions…assuming CalPERS earns 7.5 percent every fiscal year thereafter, and assuming that all other actuarial assumptions will be realized….”

And when the “Normal Cost” payments aren’t enough, and the system is underfunded, voila, along comes the “UAL $,” that bigger catch-up payment that is necessary to restore financial health to the fund. “UAL” refers to “unfunded actuarial liability,” the present value of all eventual payments to retirees, and “UAL $” refers to the payments necessary to reduce it to a healthy level. Notice that for firefighters this catch-up payment is set to increase from $4.2M in 2017 to $6.8M in 2022, and for police it is set to increase from $5.8M in 2017 to $10.1M in 2022. This is in a small city that in 2015 employed an estimated 125 full-time police officers and 75 full-time firefighters.

As always, it must be emphasized that the point of all this is not to disparage police or firefighters. No reasonable person fails to appreciate the work they do, or the fact that they stand between us and violence, mayhem, catastrophe and chaos. And it is particularly difficult for those of us who are part of the overwhelming majority of citizens who appreciate and respect members of public safety to have to disclose and publicize the facts of their unaffordable pensions.

The following charts, using data downloaded from the CA State Controller, put these costs into perspective:

Average and Median Employee Compensation by Department
Costa Mesa – Full time employees – 2015

20160920-uw-costamesa-ftcomp2015bydept

In the above chart, before sorting by department and calculating averages and medians, we eliminated employees who worked as temps or only worked for part of the year. This provides a more accurate estimate of how much full-time workers really make in Costa Mesa. Bear in mind that most part-time employees still receive pension benefits, as will be shown on a subsequent chart. As it is, during 2015 the average full-time police officer in Costa Mesa was paid total wages of $121,636, about 15% of that in overtime. But they then collected another $79,694 in city paid benefits, including $59,337 paid by the city towards their pension, AND another $11,562 that the city paid towards their pension that the State Controller vaguely describes as “Defined Benefit Paid by Employer.” Total 2015 police pay:  $201,330.

Also on the above chart, one can see that during 2015 the average full-time firefighter in Costa Mesa was paid total wages of $150,227, about 32% of that in overtime. They then collected another $90,659 in city paid benefits, including $72,202 paid by the city toward their pension, and as already noted, another $10,440 that the city paid toward the employee’s share of their pension. Total 2015 firefighter pay: $240,886.

To distill this further, the following chart shows, per full-time employee, just how much pensions cost Costa Mesa in 2015 as a percent of regular pay.

Average Employer Pension Payment as % of Regular Pay
Costa Mesa – Full-time employees – 2015
20160920-uw-costamesa-pension-as-percent-of-reg-pay

As the above chart demonstrates, employer payments for full-time employee pensions during 2015 already consumed a staggering amount of budget. For police, every dollar of regular pay was matched by 80.5 cents of payments by the city to CalPERS. For firefighters, every dollar of regular pay was matched by a staggering 94.4 cents of payments by the city to CalPERS.

The next chart shows the impact this has on the City of Costa Mesa budget. Depicting total payroll amounts by department, it compares the same variables, total employer pension payments as a percent of total regular pay. As can be seen, the percentages are nearly the same, despite this being for the entire workforce including temporary and part-time employees, some who may not have pension benefits (most do), and many who do not receive top tier pension formulas which the overwhelming majority of full-time public safety employees still receive. As can be seen, for every dollar of regular police pay, CalPERS gets 75 cents from the city, and for every dollar of firefighter pay, CalPERS gets 92 cents from the city.

Total Employer Pension Payment as % of Regular Pay
Costa Mesa – All active employees; full, part-time and temp – 2015
20160920-uw-costamesa-empl-pension-pmt-as-percent-of-reg-pay

At this point, the impact of CalPERS stated rate increases can be fully appreciated. And because this article, already at nearly 1,000 words, has violated every rule of 21st century social media engagement protocols – keep it short, shallow, simple, and sensational – perhaps the next paragraph should be entirely written in bold so it is less likely to be lost in the haze of verbosity. Perhaps a meme is in here somewhere. Perhaps an inflammatory graphic that shall animate the populace. Meanwhile, here goes:

Once CalPERS’s announced increases to the “unfunded payment” are fully implemented, instead of paying $10.9M per year for police pensions, Costa Mesa will pay $15.2M per year, i.e., for every dollar in regular police pay, they will pay $1.04 toward police pensions. Similarly, instead of paying CalPERS $6.4M per year for firefighter pensions, Costa Mesa will pay $9.1M per year, i.e., for every dollar in regular firefighter pay, they will pay $1.30 towards firefighter pensions.

Wow.

So just how much do Costa Mesa’s retired police and firefighters collect in pensions? Repeatedly characterized by government union officials as “modest,” shall we report and you decide? The following table, using data originally sourced from CalPERS and downloaded from Transparent California, are the pensions earned by Costa Mesa retirees in 2015. Excluded from this list in order to present a more representative profile are all pre-2000 retirees, since retirement pensions were greatly enhanced after the turn of the century, and it is those more recent pensions, not the earlier ones, that are causing the financial havoc. Also excluded because the benefit amounts are not representative and the retirement years are not disclosed, are all “beneficiary” pensions, which survivors receive.

Average Pensions by Years of Service
Costa Mesa retirees – 2015

20160920-uw-costamesa-pensions

While these averages are impressive – work 30 years and you get a six-figure pension – they grossly understate what Costa Mesa public safety retirees actually get. There are at least four reasons for this: (1) The data provided doesn’t screen for part-time workers. Many retirees may have put in decades of service with the city, but only worked, for example, 20-hour weeks. They would still accrue a pension, but it would not be nearly as much as it would be if they’d worked full time. (2) Nearly all full-time employees are also granted “other post-employment benefits,” primarily health insurance. It is reasonable to assume that for public safety retirees, the value of these other post employment benefits is at least $10,000 per year. (3) Because CalPERS did not disclose what department retirees worked in during their active careers, this data set is for all of Costa Mesa’s retirees. That means it includes miscellaneous employees who receive pensions that are, while very generous, are not nearly as good as the pensions that public safety retirees receive. (4) While recent reforms have begun to curb this practice, it has been common at least through 2014 for retirees to purchase “air time,” wherein for a ridiculously low sum they are permitted to claim more years of service than they actually worked. It is common for retirees, for example, to purchase five years of air time, so when their pension benefit is initially calculated, instead of multiplying, for example, 20 years of service times a 3.0% multiplier times their final salary, they are permitted to claim 25 years of service.

All of this, of course, is dense gobbledygook to the average millennial Facebook denizen, or, for that matter, to the average politician. To be fair, it’s hard even for the financial professionals hired by the public employee unions to acknowledge that maybe 7.5% (or even 6.5%) annual investment returns will not continue for funds as big as CalPERS, or that history is no indicator of future performance. And even if they know this, they’re under tremendous pressure to keep silent. So the normal contribution remains too low, and the catch-up payments mushroom.

Finally, to be eminently fair, we must acknowledge that since modest bungalows on lots so small you have to choose between a swing set or a trampoline for the kids are now going for about a million bucks each in most of Orange County, making a quarter million per year ain’t what it used to be. But there’s the rub. Because until the people who work for the government are subject to the same economic challenges as the citizens they serve, it is very unlikely we’ll see any pressure to lower the cost of living. Everything – land, energy, transportation, water, materials, etc. – costs far more than it should, thanks to deliberate political policies and financial mismanagement that creates artificial scarcity. But hey – artificial scarcity inflates asset bubbles, which helps keep those pension funds marginally solvent.

Cost-of-living reform, if such a thing can be characterized, must accompany pension reform. What virulent meme might encapsulate all of this complexity?

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

Government Unions Benefit from the Asset Bubble that Harms Workers

Earlier this month the California Policy Center released a study that provided additional evidence that the U.S. stock indexes are overvalued by approximately 50%, along with calculations showing the impact of a major downward correction on the solvency of California’s state and local government pension systems. Stocks are now at unsustainable bubble valuations.

Not covered in this study, but equally overvalued, are bonds, which pension systems misleadingly categorize as “fixed income” investments in their portfolio disclosures. CalPERS even went so far as to trumpet their success in earning a 9.29% return on “fixed income” investments in their most recent press release – a healthy return that offset losses elsewhere and allowed them to earn a marginally positive return of 0.61% last year. But “fixed income” investments usually refers to bonds, and bonds are also at unsustainable bubble valuations.

Here’s why bonds are overvalued today: Whenever new bonds are issued at lower fixed rates of interest than the bonds that were issued before them, then those older bonds that pay higher fixed rates of interest can be sold for more money than their original price. This is because on an open market, buyers will price a resold bond at a value calculated to equalize returns. When rates go down for new bonds, the prices for existing bonds go up. The problem is that back in the 1980’s, bonds were being issued at rates as high as 16%, and today, they’re being issued at rates close to zero. After a thirty year ride, interest rate drops can no longer be used to elevate the value of bond portfolios.

At a macroeconomic level, every possible investment in the world is overvalued today, because central banks have lowered interest rates to zero in a desperate attempt to continue a decades long disease in which they have spent more than they’ve collected. Governments got to borrow money for next to nothing, and assets kept appreciating. But the binge is almost over, and unlike the savvy super-rich, pension funds can’t just take their winnings off the table.

New Bond Issues, Rates by Nation – June 2016 (red = negative)
20160719-UW-NegativeYieldsNegative coupon bonds, a desperate experiment that isn’t going to end well.

This is all tedious drivel, however, if you are a unionized public employee in California. Your retirement security is guaranteed by “contract.” It’s the result of deals cut between union “negotiators” and the politicians they make or break. As a government employee in California, if you’ve worked 30 years, the average annual retirement benefit you can expect if you retire this year is worth over $70,000. To honor that expectation, CalPERS is already mid-way through their latest reassessment, a 50% increase to their collections from participating agencies. And if there is a 50% market correction (“fixed income” and equity), expect them to double or even triple their collections from taxpayers.

If you are a private citizen trying to prepare for retirement today after, say, 45 years of work and saving, good luck. Because there is no safe investment left in the world. And while you are likely to have to cope with, for example, suspended dividend payments on stocks that are down 50%, expect your taxes to go up in every imaginable category – sales, property, income, and hidden taxes embedded in your utility bills and phone bills. It will be “for the children” and “for public safety.” And if there’s a vote required to increase the tax, it will usually pass, because most voters don’t pay property tax, or income tax, or if they do, the taxes are indirectly assessed and invisible to them.

This is the oppressive hoax that government unions have perpetrated on the working families they claim they want to protect. They have exempted their own members, government workers, from the consequences of a corrupt financial system where they are leading partners. When governments spend more than they make and have to borrow money, central banks lower interest rates to make it easier to work the payments into the budget. At the same time, lower interest rates goose the value of stocks and bonds, helping the pension funds claim they can earn 7.5% per year. And when the house of cards collapses, taxpayers bail out the banks and the government pension funds.

The next time a spokesperson for a government union speaks disparagingly about Wall Street corruption, remember this: They are partners with Wall Street. They support overspending for their own compensation and benefits, creating deficits that have to be covered by taxes and borrowing. Their pension funds demand high returns, and the bankers comply, with rates that encourage borrowing and deny ordinary people the ability to save. Now that interest rates have hit zero and are even going negative in an exercise of monetary chicanery that has no rival in history, the end is near.

Public sector union leaders need to start remembering they represent public servants, not public overlords who are exempt from the reality that you can only spend as much as you earn. As it is, these union leaders are the overpaid mercenaries of capitalism at its most corrupt.

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

SUITABLE FOR QUOTING: Expert Responses to CalPERS' Monday, July 18 Earnings Report

For Immediate Release
July 18, 2016
California Policy Center
Contact: Will Swaim
Will@CalPolicyCenter.org
(714) 573-2231

California Policy Center Responses to Monday, July 18, 2016 Earnings Report

For reporters and commentary writers, the California Policy Center can make available two public finance experts. We also offer for publication these immediate responses to the CalPERS report:

 

ED RING: is president of the California Policy Center. He directs the organization’s research projects and is also the editor of the email newsletters Prosperity Digest and UnionWatch Digest. His work has been cited in the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and other national and regional publications.

“Current gains in the market are engineered by low interest rates and stock buy-backs. It is an unsustainable bubble.”

“CalPERS claims that infrastructure investments helped their portfolio returns, but they have less than 1% of their assets invested in infrastructure.

“CalPERS claims ‘fixed Income earned a 9.29 percent return’ in their most recent fiscal year. This is impossible to do without extremely high risk. Most fixed income investments today have returns of 3% or less.”

“If CalPERS is truly committed to transparency, they’ll stop investing in private equity, which by its very nature is not transparent.”

“If CalPERS truly believes they can earn 7.5%, or even 6.5%, then they should set a ceiling on the percent of payroll they demand from cities and counties, instead of perpetually increasing it.”

“If CalPERS truly believes they can earn 7.5%, then they’ll use that rate, instead of 3.8%, when calculating how much to charge a city or county that wants out of their system.”

“CalPERS depends on a Fed engineered asset bubble to remain solvent. As such, they are complicit with the Wall Street financial interests that control our national politicians and whom their union board members regularly decry.”

 

MARC JOFFE is a California Policy Center financial analyst and founder of Public Sector Credit Solutions in 2011. PSCS research has been published by the California State Treasurer’s Office, the Mercatus Center and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute among others. Before starting PSCS, Marc was a senior director at Moody’s Analytics. He earned his MBA from New York University and his MPA from San Francisco State University.

“This is the second year of returns well below 7.5%. In 2015, CalPERS returned only 2.4%. The cumulative impact will be greater stress on local budgets as cities, counties and special districts will have to increase their pension contributions to make up for the shortfall.”

 

ABOUT THE CALIFORNIA POLICY
The California Policy Center is a non-partisan public policy think tank providing information that elevates the public dialogue on vital issues facing Californians, with the goal of helping to foster constructive progress towards more equitable and sustainable management of California’s public institutions. Learn more at CaliforniaPolicyCenter.org.

FOR PUBLICATION: Ed Ring Response to CalPERS' disastrous 2015-16 earnings report

For Immediate Publication
July 18, 2016
California Policy Center
Contact: Will Swaim
Will@CalPolicyCenter.org
(714) 573-2231

Latest earnings report is more evidence California retirement agency will reform or die

By Ed Ring | California Policy Center

The officials who run California’s public-employee retirement system should have released today’s earnings report with sound effects – a flugelhorn, maybe, or horror-movie screams.

Through the year ending June 30, the California Public Employee Retirement System earned just 0.61% on its investments – not even close to it 7.5% projection.

CalPERS is the nation’s largest public employee pension fund. Like all such funds, it relies on investment earnings to pay retired public employees far more in retirement benefits than those employees – along with their employers – deposited into those funds during their careers. The better the market, the less CalPERS has to lean on local government employers and employees for cash. But when the market goes south, as it has, CalPERs has to push its contributors for more cash.

Today’s report includes grim warnings about future earnings too. And that means everyday Californians should expect government service cuts, higher taxes, delayed maintenance of critical infrastructure, and a push to take on great government debt.

The earnings report directly contracts the system’s recent bullish assessments of fund performance. When the Orange County Register in January asked why CalPERS was still predicting a return of 7.5% when the stock market was producing more anemic results, fund officials offered a political rather than responsible financial response: even a modest downward estimate would force them to demand that local officials bail out the fund. That “would have caused financial strain on many of California’s local municipalities that are still recovering from the financial crisis,” CalPERS officials said in a press release.

In March, the agency was at it again, arguing that its projection of 7.5% returns was “not unrealistic” – is in fact historically reasonable because CalPERS has occasionally hit that number.

Then, reality began to set in. Last month, Ted Eliopoulos, the system’s Chief Investment Officer, warned the public that the next five years will be “a challenging market environment for us. It is going to test us.”

Our own recent analysis shows Eliopoulos is right.

Our analysis relies on three measures of stock-market health: ratios of price/earnings, price/sales, and price/GDP. They show the stock market is overvalued by about 50 percent, suggesting that pension funds are headed for a major correction.

At the moment, California’s state and local agencies contribute an average of about 33 percent of their payroll to CalPERS and other state/local pension funds. In the event of a market slide of 50 percent, followed by annual returns of 5 percent per year, with no changes to retirement benefits, we estimate the required annual contribution from local governments would rise to a crushing 80 percent of payroll. The total cost to California’s taxpayers of keeping CalPERS and the other state/local pension systems afloat: an additional $50 billion per year.

If market returns are just one point lower – 4 percent instead of 5 percent – we estimate local governments having to make annual payments equal to a staggering 113 percent of their payroll. That’s an additional $86 billion per year.

There are ways to preserve the retirement funds and protect taxpayers. But if investment performance falters, reducing the formulas used to calculate defined benefit pensions will have to be part of the solution. Lowering or even suspending cost-of-living increases for retirees and reducing the rate at which pension benefits are earned by new and existing employees would be a good start, as would capping pension benefits and raising the age of eligibility.

But implementing reforms is a political impossibility – unless the people running CalPERS and the other pension systems stop fighting to preserve the status quo. They need to work their client agencies and their union-dominated boards of directors to accept benefit reductions that will restore financial sustainability to these funds without crushing taxpayers. They might even exercise true creativity, and explore new portfolio strategies such as investing in California’s neglected infrastructure.

There’s little chance of that so long as denial characterizes the agency’s response. CalPERS officials accompanied today’s weak earnings report with cheery language. The near-zero return rate was a “positive net return” that the agency “achieved” “despite volatile financial markets and challenging global economic conditions.”

For his part, Eliopoulos, the fund’s top investment officer, expressed a kind of optimism about the future. So be it. But if he and his CalPERS colleagues truly want to prove their optimism – if they are so sure they can hit their numbers – they should freeze the amount they demand from cities and other agencies at a fixed percent of payroll.

That would mean putting an end to the blank checks Californians have sent to Sacramento. And that news could be heralded by something like a trumpet blast of angels or a marching band.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ed Ring is president of the California Policy Center. He directs the organization’s research projects and is also the editor of the email newsletters Prosperity Digest and UnionWatch Digest. His work has been cited in the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and other national and regional publications.

ABOUT THE CALIFORNIA POLICY CENTER
The California Policy Center is a non-partisan public policy think tank providing information that elevates the public dialogue on vital issues facing Californians, with the goal of helping to foster constructive progress towards more equitable and sustainable management of California’s public institutions. Learn more at CaliforniaPolicyCenter.org.

Red Flags: New Study Offers Grim Warning for California Pension Funds

For Immediate Release
July 12, 2016
California Policy Center
Contact: Will Swaim
Will@CalPolicyCenter.org
(714) 573-2231

Stock market overvaluation will lead to ‘major correction,’ trigger benefits cuts and tax hikes

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – There are more red flags for public-sector pension funds that rely on stock investments for most of their income, a new California Policy Center study finds.

Read the entire study here.

“Three key market indicators show that publicly traded U.S. stocks are overvalued by about 50 percent, suggesting that pension funds are headed for a tough correction,” says CPC President Ed Ring, author of “How a Major Market Correction Will Affect Pension Systems, and How to Cope.”

Ring says the likely downturn will have grave implications for all Californians – not just those who depend upon the pension funds for retirement income. Lower returns on their investments will force pension funds to cut payments to government retirees or require California governments to act dramatically to cover the revenue shortfall.

Using a long-range cash flow model that simulates pension fund performance, Ring calculated the impact on California’s state and local government employee pension funds based on a market slide of 50% in 2017, followed by annual returns of 5% per year. In this case, with no changes to retirement benefits, the required annual contribution from governments would rise to 80% of payroll, costing an additional $50 billion per year. In another case, with post-crash returns projected at only 4% per year, the model estimated annual payments to rise to a staggering 113% of payroll, costing an additional $86 billion per year. Currently, California’s pension funds collect from state and local agencies an amount equivalent to about 33% of their payroll.

The study also provides several specific estimates of how much pension benefits would have to be cut (retirement age, annual multiplier, and COLA) after a severe market correction in order to keep the annual contributions from state and local agencies level at 33% of payroll.

The CPC study includes a link to download Ring’s spreadsheet so that anyone can test a variety of pension-fund assumptions.

You can download the spreadsheet here.

Ring’s prediction of an impending correction cites three key stock market ratios:

  • Price/earnings, now at one of the market’s historic highs
  • Price/sales, now at a 50-year high
  • Stocks/GDP, now near its 60-year high

Ring predicts he’ll have many critics.

“It is easy enough to step back and claim that the rules have changed, that these unusually high stock-market multiples can be sustained for additional decades, and that productivity improvements will enable the U.S. economy to support both massive debt and an aging population,” Ring writes. “Those who argue this position are betting that the U.S. economy will remain a stable refuge for wealth fleeing far more tumultuous economies elsewhere in the world. Staking the future of pension fund systems on this argument is a dangerous gamble.”

Ring’s study appears even as officials at California Public Employees Retirement System, the nation’s largest retirement system, prepare Californians for a poor earnings report next week.

Analyst Ed Ring is available for media interviews. Direct press inquiries to:

Ed Ring
President, California Policy Center
Ed@CalPolicyCenter.org
(916) 524-7534

Or

Will Swaim
Vice President, California Policy Center
Will@CalPolicyCenter.org
(714) 573-2231

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ed Ring is president of the California Policy Center. He directs the organization’s research projects and is also the editor of the email newsletters Prosperity Digest and UnionWatch Digest. His work has been cited in the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and other national and regional publications.

ABOUT THE CALIFORNIA POLICY CENTER
The California Policy Center is a non-partisan public policy think tank providing information that elevates the public dialogue on vital issues facing Californians, with the goal of helping to foster constructive progress towards more equitable and sustainable management of California’s public institutions. Learn more at CaliforniaPolicyCenter.org.

 

California Pensions Take Above-Average Tax Bite

California pension funds take a bigger share of tax revenue than the national state average, a research website shows. Why the growing costs are outpacing the norm is not completely clear.

A prime suspect for some would be overly generous pensions, particularly what critics say is an “unsustainable” increase for police and firefighters widely adopted to match a big increase given the Highway Patrol by SB 400 in 1999.

The Public Pension Database does not have information on the formulas that determine pension amounts, like the Highway Patrol’s “3 at 50” or three percent of final pay for each year served at age 50.

One problem is the wide range of pension formulas, made even more complex by a recent national wave of cost-cutting reforms. Under a California reform three years ago, most new hires must pay more toward their pensions and work longer and retire at an older age to earn the same pension as workers hired before the reform.

 

Keith Brainard is the Research Director for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators (NASRA)

 

“Trying to compare plan benefits in one state with another state has become complicated,” said Keith Brainard, research director for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.

Brainard started the database now operated jointly by NASRA and the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and the Center for State and Local Government Excellence.

Several web-based seminars have been held to show how the “big data” can be used by researchers, government officials, media, and others. Trends and patterns can be identified, comparisons made, and the findings displayed in charts.

A chart on the database shows the amount of tax revenue taken by California public pensions was slightly below the national average in 2001. Then from 2003 to 2005 the California pension tax bite climbed well above the national average, maintaining a gap that by 2013 was about a third higher.

In rough terms, the public pension share of California tax revenue in fiscal 2013 was 8 percent by fiscal 2013 compared to a national average of 6 percent.

 

Source: Public Plans Database and Census of Governments.

Source: Public Plans Database and Census of Governments.

 

 

In an interview, Brainard mentioned two factors for the above-average share of tax revenue taken by California pensions. Most California government workers, including teachers and many police and firefighters, do not receive Social Security.

Only 40 percent of state and local government employees in California receive Social Security, according to the database. The Social Security coverage in some other large states: New York 99 percent, Florida 95 percent, and Texas 47 percent.

The cost of using the federal Social Security program to provide part of the retirement benefit (6.2 percent of pay each from the employer and the employee) would not show in data about the share of tax revenue taken by state and local pensions.

Another factor: The period covered by the research begins around 2000 when the three big state pension funds were spending a “surplus” from a stock-market boom not only on increased benefits but on lower employer contributions.

The California Public Employees Retirement System, which covers about half of all non-federal government workers in the state, sponsored the retroactive SB 400 rate increase for all state workers and dropped employer rates to near zero in 1999 and 2000.

Then as the stock market dipped, CalPERS had to begin raising employer rates not only to cover pension increases (AB 616 in 2001 authorized a bargaining menu for local government employees) but also to regain funding lost by the big employer rate cuts.

In addition to CalPERS, the California plans in the database include the California State Teachers Retirement System, the University of California Retirement System, the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association, and 11 other local systems.

The data covers most of the public pension members in California, but far from all of the pension systems. An annual report from the state controller lists 131 separate California retirement systems, many of them relatively small.

California systems in the database, with two major exceptions, paid their full Annual Required Contribution (ARC) to cover the annual or “normal” cost of pensions earned each year and the large debt from previous years, the “unfunded liability.”

Debt often is created when pension fund investments, expected by big California funds to earn 7.5 percent a year, fall short of the target, which critics contend is overly optimistic. Among other factors that can create debt is longer than expected life spans.

The California State Teachers Retirement System is listed on the database as paying only 50.9 percent of the ARC in 2013. Unlike other systems, CalSTRS could not raise employer rates. Now long-delayed legislation two years ago to pay the full ARC will more than double school rates by 2020, cutting deep into budgets.

CalSTRS spent its small and brief “surplus” around 2000 on several benefit increases and rate cuts. The pension fund was shorted when a quarter of the teacher contribution, 2 percent of pay, was diverted for a decade into a supplemental 401(k)-style individual investment plan for teachers with a guaranteed minimum return.

Three years ago, a Milliman actuarial report said if CalSTRS had kept its 1990 structure without the rate and benefit changes around 2000, pensions would have been 88 percent funded instead of 67 percent. A much smaller rate increase could have closed the funding gap.

The UC Retirement Plan is listed on the database as paying 63.9 percent of the ARC. A large surplus prompted the plan to give employers and employees a remarkable two-decade contribution “holiday.”

Most made no payments to the UC pension fund from 1990 to 2010. The surplus, driven by investment returns and other factors, peaked with a 156 percent funding level in 2000.

As painful rates were set to resume in a time of tight budgets, a UC task force said in 2010 that if normal cost contributions had been made during the two decades, the system would have been 120 percent funded instead of 73 percent.

CalPERS has not calculated how much of its current funding gap results from the pension increases and rate cuts during the surplus years. But a CalPERS chart showed that SB 400 accounted for 18 percent of the state worker employer contribution increase between 1997 and 2014.

Nearly half of the state worker contribution increase, 46 percent, was due to investment gains and losses, demographic and actuarial changes, and higher employee contribution rates. Payroll increases accounted for 31 percent of the change.

Critics say the SB 400 “3 at 50” formula has the most impact in local government, where police and firefighters are a major part of the budget. The big cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, and Oakland) have their own pension systems and are not in CalPERS.

Public pensions have not recovered from huge investment losses during the recession. The Center for Retirement Research reported last monththat the 160 plans in the Public Pension Database were 74 percent funded last year, 72 percent under new accounting rules.

The Center’s report showed that from 2001 to 2015 the CalPERS funding level dropped from 111.9 percent to 74.5 percent. During the same period, the CalSTRS funding level fell from 98 to 67 percent and UC funding plunged from 147.7 to 81.7 percent.

About the Author: Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He is currently a Publisher for CalPensions.com.

Major-party presidential candidates offer no solutions on federal retirement crises

For Immediate Release

June 2, 2016
California Policy Center
Contact: Will Swaim
Will@CalPolicyCenter.org
(714) 573-2231

SACRAMENTO — Californians may be accustomed to living with the specter of a public pension crisis. But the federal government’s problem with its retirement systems – including Social Security – is far worse, and yet none of the three remaining major-party candidates for president has a plan to do anything about it.

The California Policy Center offers “Comparing Federal and California State Retirement Exposures,” a comparison of California and federal exposure to pension liability. You can read Marc Joffe’s full study here.

Key findings include:

On Social Security
DEBT VS. ASSETS: “Although discussion of Social Security often revolves around the trust fund, this emphasis is misplaced. Unlike CalPERS or CalSTRS, the Social Security trust fund does not contain real assets. Instead, it holds special-issue U.S. Treasury bonds. Total federal assets of $3.2 trillion are easily exceeded by $13.2 trillion of federal debt securities held by the public and $8.2 trillion of other liabilities. So the IOUs held by the Social Security trust fund compete with claims held by many external parties for a relatively small pool of federal assets.”

IMPACT ON FEDERAL DEFICIT: Using projections from the Social Security Actuaries, Joffe reports that the Social Security program is expected to add $371 billion to the annual federal budget deficit (in constant 2015 dollars) by 2040. The Social Security Actuaries say that projecting higher costs (for example, an increase in life expectancy), adds $640 billion (again, in constant dollars) to the annual deficit.

On Federal Employee Retirement Programs
UNFUNDED LIABILITIES: “The Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund, paid $81 billion of retirement benefits in fiscal year 2015, or 2.49% of federal revenues. The system reported an Unfunded Actuarial Liability of $804.3 billion and Assets of $858.6 billion, implying a funded ratio of only 51.6%.” The Defense Department also offers pensions, and its system is worse than the Civil Service program with a funded ratio of just 35%.

Washington has Bigger Problems – and More Powerful Financial Tools
Joffe concludes that the federal government has tools to deal with a public pension crisis that the states do not:

Constitutional: “In an emergency, Congress and the president can cut or even terminate benefits to Social Security recipients, federal civilian retirees or veterans. This is not the case for the state of California.”

Currency control: “A central government controlling an international reserve currency does have more fiscal flexibility than a state which is legally obligated to balance its budget each year. So the federal government’s ability to absorb pension obligations is greater than California’s. This is fortunate, because the federal governments exposure is so much greater.”

The complete California Policy Center study is available here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Study author Marc Joffe is the founder of Public Sector Credit Solutions and a policy analyst with the California Policy Center. Joffe founded Public Sector Credit Solutions in 2011 to educate policymakers, investors and citizens about government credit risk. PSCS research has been published by the California State Treasurer’s Office, the Mercatus Center and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute among others. Before starting PSCS, Marc was a senior director at Moody’s Analytics. He earned his MBA from New York University and his MPA from San Francisco State University.

ABOUT THE CALIFORNIA POLICY CENTER
The California Policy Center is a non-partisan public policy think tank providing information that elevates the public dialogue on vital issues facing Californians, with the goal of helping to foster constructive progress towards more equitable and sustainable management of California’s public institutions. Learn more at CaliforniaPolicyCenter.org.

 

City Contributions to CalPERS Continue to Rise

Last year, CPC published a study on California City Pension Burdens. Most of the data for that study came from plan-specific actuarial valuation reports published by CalPERS. These reports show how much local government employers must pay CalPERS in the coming fiscal year and projects contributions for several years into the future.

At the end of 2015, CalPERS published updated valuations, and we at CPC have started to study them. The message buried in these reports is that many California public agencies face sharply increased pension expenses that are likely to crowd out money for other services or even tip them into bankruptcy.

Pension contributions are often expressed as a percentage of covered payroll. Local governments calculate how much they must pay CalPERS by applying this percentage to their employee’s salaries. In the case of four cities, CalPERS now projects that their contribution rates for certain public safety employees will exceed 70% by fiscal year 2022. Those four cities are Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, Torrance and Vallejo.

In our original study, we found that Costa Mesa had the second highest ratio of pension contributions to revenue among all California cities. Based on the trajectory of its public safety contribution rates, the city’s pension burden can be expected to become even heavier in the coming years. CalPERS projects that contributions to the city’s police pension plan will rise from 55.6% of payroll in FY 2017 to 70.9% in FY 2022.

Santa Ana’s relatively high public safety contribution rate appears to be the result of the consolidation of the city’s fire department into the Orange County Fire Department in 2012. The city now has fewer public safety employees – police only – over which to allocate the pension costs of retired safety officers. Relative to city revenue, pension costs are less worrisome than in they are in Costa Mesa. In our 2015 study, the city’s pension contribution to revenue ratio ranked 150th.

Torrance’s contribution rate is projected to reach 70% for its police officers only; the projected 2022 contribution rate for the city’s firefighters is only 59.7%. The city ranked 51st in our pension burden study.

Vallejo is notorious for its Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing in 2008. It was the harbinger of a minor wave of insolvencies that hit American cities during and after the Great Recession. Although bankruptcy should provide a window for filers to adjust their obligations to make them sustainable, Vallejo does not seem to have taken advantage of this opportunity. While bondholders took a haircut, police officers and firefighters retained their platinum benefits. The city’s safety plan contribution rate is now projected to rise from 59.8% in FY 2017 to 74.8% in FY 2022.

CalPERS projected contribution rates could overstate the actual rates that will be imposed in FY 2022. The projections assume a 7.5% annual return on CalPERS portfolio. Given adverse stock market conditions in recent months, we can be almost certain that FY 2016 CalPERS returns will be well below that level. The result will be higher-than-expected contribution rates. On the other hand, CalPERS projections do not include the effects of California’s 2013 Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act (PEPRA). Under PEPRA new hires receive less generous pension benefits. As these new hires replace older officers, the growth in overall contribution rates will be restrained.

We will continue to study the CalPERS reports and share other findings in the coming weeks.

California's Pension Contribution Shortfall At Least $15 Billion per Year

“Pension-change advocates failed to find funding for a measure during the depths of the 2008 recession and the havoc it wreaked on government budgets, so they won’t pass (a measure) when the economy is doing well.”
–  Steve Maviglio, political consultant and union coalition spokesperson, Sacramento Bee, January 18, 2016

It’s hard to argue with Mr. Maviglio’s logic. If the economy is healthy and the stock market is roaring, fixing the long-term financial challenges facing California’s state/local government employee pensions systems will not be a top political priority. But that doesn’t mean those challenges have gone away.

One of the biggest problems pension reformers face is communicating just how serious the problem is getting, and one of the biggest reasons for that is the lack of good financial information about California’s government worker pension systems.

The California State Controller used to release a “Public Retirement Systems Annual Report,” that consolidated all of California’s 80 independent state and local public employee pension systems into one set of financials, but they discontinued the practice in 2013. The most recent one issued, released in May, 2013, was itself almost two years behind with financial data – using FYE 6-30-2011 financial statements, and it was almost three years behind with actuarial data – used to report funding ratios – using FYE 6-30-2010 actuarial analysis. Now the state controller has created a “By the Numbers” website, but it’s hard to use and does not provide summaries.

No wonder it’s so easy to assert that nothing is wrong with California’s pension systems!

The best source of raw data on California’s pensions comes from the U.S. Census Bureau. Since that data is better than nothing, here are some critical areas where roughly accurate numbers can be reported.

(1)  The Cash Flow, Money In vs. Money Out

What is the net cash flow of these pensions funds? How much are they collecting in contributions and how much are they distributing in pension benefits? This information, especially if it can be compiled over a period of years, determines whether or not pension funds are net buyers or sellers in the markets. The reason this matters is because if America’s pension funds, with over $4.0 trillion in assets, are net sellers, they put downward pressure on stock prices. They’re that big.

California State/Local Pension Funds Consolidated
2014 – Cash Flow

20160201-UW-Ring-1

This cash flow (above) shows that during 2014, California’s state/local pension funds, combined, collected 30.1 billion from state and local agencies, and paid out $46.1 billion to pensioners. They are paying out 50% more than they’re taking in, and this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Historically, pension funds have been net buyers in the market. Now, pension funds across the U.S., along with retiring baby boomers, are sellers in the market. This is one reason it is difficult to be optimistic about securing a 7.5% average annual return in the future, despite historical results. And as for that healthy 15.4% return on investments in 2014? That was offset in 2015, when the markets were flat. It is also noteworthy that employee contributions of $8.9 billion are greatly exceeded by the $21.2 billion in employer (taxpayer) contributions. How many 401K recipients get a 2.5 to 1.0 matching from their employer?

(2) The Asset Distribution and Portfolio Risk

What is the asset distribution of these pension funds? How much have they invested in relatively risk free, fixed income bonds, vs. their investments in stocks and other variable return assets?

California State/Local Pension Funds Consolidated
2014 – Asset Distribution

20160201-UW-Ring-2

This asset distribution table (above) indicates that the ratio of riskier, variable return investments to fixed return investments is nearly four-to-one. What if stocks fail to appreciate for a few years? What if real estate values don’t continue to soar? What if there simply aren’t enough high-yield investments out there to allow these assets, valued at a staggering $751 billion in 2014, to throw off a 7.5% annual return? This is a precarious situation. If these projected 7.5% returns were truly “risk free,” the ratios on this table would be reversed, with most of the money in fixed return investments.

(3) The Unfunded Liability and the “Catch-up” Payments

What is the amount of the unfunded liability for these pension funds? And of the total amount collected and invested each year in these funds, how much is the “unfunded contribution” – the amount allocated to pay down the unfunded liability and eventually restore the systems to 100% funding – and how much is the “normal contribution” – the amount required to fund future pension benefits just earned in that particular year by active workers?

This question, for which neither the State Controller, nor the U.S. Census Bureau, can provide timely and accurate answers, is the most complex and also the most important. While consolidated data is not readily obtainable for these variables, by assuming these pension systems, in aggregate, are officially recognized as 75% funded, we can compile useful data:

California State/Local Pension Funds Consolidated
2014 – Est. Required Unfunded Contribution

20160201-UW-Ring-3a

The above table estimates that at a 75% funded ratio, at the end of 2014 the total pension fund liabilities for all of California’s state and local government pension funds was just over $1.0 trillion, with unfunded liabilities at $250 billion. The middle portion of the table shows, using conventional formulas adopted by Moody’s investor services for analyzing public pensions, that if the annual rate-of-return projection is lowered to a slightly more realistic 6.5% (already being phased in by CalPERS), the unfunded liability jumps to $380.1 billion, and the funded ratio drops to 66%. For a detailed discussion of these formulas, refer to the California Policy Center study “A Method to Estimate the Pension Contribution and Pension Liability for Your City or County.”

The lower portion of the table spells out just how deep a hole California’s state and local public employee pension systems have dug for themselves. Using standard amortization formulas, and a quite lengthy 30 year payback term, at a 6.5% rate-of-return assumption, it would take a payment of $29.1 billion per year to return California’s pension funds to 100% funded status by 2046. Since the total payments into California’s pension funds – refer back to table 1 – were only 30.1 billion in 2014, it is pertinent to wonder just how much the normal contribution was, in aggregate, in 2014, vs. the unfunded contribution.

One promising pension transparency project is being directed by professors Joshua Rauh and Joe Nation via Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy Research. Their “Pension Tracker” website has already compiled an impressive body of data, especially useful at the local level. Hopefully they, or someone, will get eventually compile and present accurate data, both locally and statewide, not only showing cash flows, but differentiating between the normal contributions and the unfunded contributions.

In the absence of data, here’s a rough guess: Approximately 1.5 million active state and local government workers in California probably earned pension eligible income of at least $100 billion in 2014. If the “normal contribution” is 16% of payroll, that equates to $16 billion per year. This is a very conservative estimate.

Mr. Maviglio, and all of his colleagues who wish, like many of us, to save the defined benefit pension, are invited to explain how California’s pension systems will ever become healthy, if, best case, their required unfunded contribution is $29.1 billion per year, their required normal contribution is $16 billion per year, and the total payments actually being made per year are only $30.1 billion. That’s a shortfall of $15 billion per year.

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

How Government Unions Are Destroying California

California was once the State that everyone looked up to. With the best weather and natural resources, we were full of hope and innovation. We had the best public schools, a world class system of higher education, the best freeways, infrastructure to provide fresh water to our growing population, which also doubled as a source of clean energy through hydro-electric power, a business-friendly environment where entire industries grew in entertainment, aerospace, and technology, making our economy virtually recession-proof.

Then in 1978, then-governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order that imposed union-shop collective bargaining on public agencies in California, and the rise of public sector union power began.

Today, public sector unions are the most powerful political force in our State. They control a majority of our State Legislature and might control a supermajority in November if a few swing districts fall their way.  No politician, Democrat, Republican or Independent, acts without considering how it will affect the union agenda.

These government unions press 100% for a progressive agenda, and they consistently agitate for increased spending. In two areas, the quality of our public education system, and the financial health of our cities and counties, the consequences of government union power have been catastrophic.

Public Schools

The teachers’ unions, usually a local affiliate of the California Teachers Association, control most of our school boards, leading to control of our public schools. It is more than a coincidence that our public schools rank near the bottom in every category in the fifty United States.

As lobbyists for staff and teachers, who are paid to run our public schools, public sector unions fight to maintain the status quo. They protect incompetent teachers, they permit excellent teachers to be dismissed in layoffs, they actively oppose charter schools, they fight poor parents who try to employ Parent Trigger Laws, and they conduct an active campaign 24/7 against any form of school choice.

The financial power of teachers unions:

  • There are over 266,255 public school teachers in California.
  • Each pays at least $1,000 in union dues annually.
  • The CTA acknowledges spending up to 40% of those dues explicitly on politics. That is $106 million per year.
  • If the lawyers in Friedrichs are right—that all public union spending is political—the actual total is $266 million per year.
  • Unions for non-teacher staff also are active. There are 215,000 school staff employees who are members of the CSEA (California State Employees Association), who each pay approximately $500 annually in dues. If all of those dues are spent on politics, that adds $107 million more for political spending annually.
  • The total spent by public education unions alone is estimated to be $373 million per year – just in California.

Pensions

Police and firefighter unions do the most damage at the local level. They have attained unsustainable pensions, known as “3%@50”, meaning that a member of that bargaining unit is eligible at age 50 for a pension equivalent to 3% of his highest salary times their number of years of service. While the age of eligibility has been raised for new public safety employees entering the workforce, the vast majority of active police and firefighters still retain these “3%@50” benefits. So at age 50, a 20-year veteran can retire with a pension equivalent to 60% of their highest year’s salary, which can be manipulated through spiking, and a 30-year veteran is eligible for 90% of his or her highest salary.

These pension requirements are held under the “California Rule” to be irreversible. In other words, once they have been adopted, democracy is incapable of turning off the spigot. With the spigot running constantly, communities go bankrupt. First, they cut other services. Then they increase taxes. Then they refuse to pay bondholders, so no one will invest again.

Current unfunded liabilities in California:

At CalPERS: $93.5 billion (ref. page 120, “Funding Progress,” CalPERS 6-30-2015 financial report).

At CalSTRS: $72.7 billion (ref. page 118, “Funding Progress,” CalSTRS 6-30-2015 financial report).

Local Unfunded Liabilities add considerably to this total, since CalPERS, with assets of $301 billion, and CalSTRS, with assets of $158 billion, only constitute 62% of California’s $752 billion in state and local pension fund assets. If all of these systems in aggregate were 75% funded, which is probably a best case estimate given the poor stock market performance since the official numbers were released, the total unfunded pension liabilities for California’s state and local government workers would be $256 billion.

And $256 billion in unfunded liabilities, a staggering amount, still understates the problem for two reasons: First, these pension funds may not succeed in securing a 7.5% average annual return in the coming decades. If not, then they will not earn enough interest to prevent their funding ratios from getting even worse. Also, this doesn’t take into account “OPEB,” or “other post employment benefits,” primarily health insurance. The unfunded OPEB liability just for Los Angeles County is officially recognized at over $30 billion.

A realistic estimate of the total unfunded liabilities for retirement obligations to state and local workers in California is easily in excess of $500 billion. These benefits, which are financially unsustainable and far more generous than the taxpayer funded benefits available to ordinary private sector workers, were forced upon local and state elected officials through the unchecked p0wer of government unions.

 *   *   *

Bob Loewen is the chairman of the California Policy Center.

Why Investment Realities Will Compel Pension Reform

“For the first time in the pension fund’s history, we paid out more in retirement benefits than we took in contributions.”
–  Anne Stausboll, Chief Executive Officer, CalPERS, 2014-2015 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report

There are few examples of a seemingly innocuous statement with more significance than Stausboll’s admission, buried within her “CEO’s Letter of Transmittal,” summarizing the performance of CalPERS, the largest public employee retirement system in the United States. Because what’s happening at CalPERS – they now pay more in benefits than they collect in contributions – is happening everywhere.

For the first time in history, America’s public employee pension funds, managing well over $4.0 trillion in assets, are becoming net sellers, not buyers. And as any attentive student of economics will tell you, when there are more sellers than buyers, prices drop. Behind this mega economic trend is a mega demographic trend – across the developed world, certainly including the United States, a relentlessly increasing percentage of the population is retired. The result? An increasing proportion of people who are retired and slowly liquidating their lifetime savings – also driving down asset values and investment returns.

Last week’s sell-off in the markets has immediate causes that get most of the attention. Turmoil in the middle east. A long overdue slowdown to China’s overheated economy. Depressed energy prices. But there are two long-term trends that will keep investment returns down. Demographics is one of them: The more retirees, the more sellers in the market. The other mega-trend, equally troubling to investors, is that debt accumulation, which stimulates spending, has reached its limit. We are at the end of a long-term, decades long credit cycle. The next three charts will illustrate the relationship between interest rates, debt formation, and the stock market during two critical periods – the first one following the stock market peak in December 1999, and the second following the stock market peak in September 2007.

The first chart shows the federal funds rate over the past 30 years. As can be seen, when the stock market peaked in December 1999, the federal funds rate was 6.5%. Within three years, in order to stimulate borrowing which would put cash into the economy, that rate was dropped to 1.0%. Similarly, once the stock market recovered, the rate went back up to 4.25% until the stock market peaked again in the summer of 2007. Then as the market declined precipitously for the next 18 months through February of 2009, the federal funds rate was lowered to 0.15% and has stayed near that low ever since. The point? As the stock market recovered since February of 2009 to the present, unlike during the earlier recoveries, the federal funds rate was never raised. This time, there’s no elbow room left.

Effective Federal Funds Rate – 1985 to 2015
20160111-UW-ER-fedrate

To put these low interest rates in context requires the next chart which shows total U.S. credit market debt as a percent of GDP over the past 30 years. Consumer debt, commercial debt, financial debt, state and federal debt (not including unfunded liabilities, by the way), is now estimated at 340% of U.S. GDP. The last time it was this high was 1929, and we know how that ended. As it is, even though interest rates have stayed at nearly zero for just over seven years, total debt accumulation topped out at 366.5% of GDP in February of 2009 and has slightly declined since then. The point here? Low interest rates, this time at or near zero, no longer stimulate a net increase in total borrowing, which in turn puts cash into the economy.

Total U.S. Credit Market Debt – 1985 to 2015
20160111-UW-ER-debtGDP

Which brings us to the Dow Jones Industrial Average, a stock index that tracks nearly in lockstep with the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq, and is therefore an accurate representation of the historical performance of U.S. equities over the past 30 years. As can be seen from this graph and the preceding graphs, the market downturn between December 1999 and September of 2002 was countered by lowering the federal funds rate from 6.5% to 1.0%. Later in the aughts, the market downturn between September 2007 to February 2009 was countered by lowering the federal funds rate from 5.25% to 0.15%. But during the sustained market rise for the seven years since then, the federal funds lending rate has remained at near zero, and total market debt as a percent of GDP has actually declined slightly.

Dow Jones Industrial Average – 1985 to 2015
20160111-UW-ER-DJIA

It doesn’t take a trained economist to understand that the investment landscape has fundamentally changed. The trend is clear. Over the past thirty years debt as a percent of GDP has doubled from 150% to over 350%, then remained flat for the past seven years. At the same time, over the past thirty years the federal lending rate has dropped from high single digits in the 1980’s to pretty much zero by early 2009, and has remained there ever since. The conclusion? Interest rates can no longer be used as a tool to stimulate the economy or the stock market, and the capacity of the American economy to grow through debt accumulation has reached its limit.

For these reasons, achieving annual investment returns of 7.5%, or even 6.5%, for the next several years or more, is much harder, if not impossible. Conditions that stock market growth has relied on over the past 30 years no longer apply. Public employee pension funds, starting with CalPERS, need to face this new reality. Debt and demographics create headwinds that have changed the big picture.

In the case of CalPERS, of course, it isn’t mere demographics that has turned them into a net seller in a market that’s just given up two years of appreciation. It’s the fact that their retiree population is increasingly comprised of people who are retiring with benefits that have been enhanced in the past 10-15 years. This fact accelerates and augments the demographically driven disparity between collections and disbursements. Take a look at the past three years of CalPERS collections and disbursements:

CalPERS Cash Flow (not including investment returns)
2013 to 2015, $=Billions
20160111-UW-ER-CalPERS

These figures, drawn from CalPERS 6-30-2015 CAFR (page 26) and CalPERS 6-30-2014 CAFR (page 24), show the system to be a net seller at a rate of about $5.0 billion per year for the past three years. Interestingly, during that time, employee contributions to CalPERS have actually declined by 4.6%, at the same time as the employer, or taxpayer, contributions have risen by 24.1%.

The idea that CalPERS cannot lobby for equitably reduced pension benefits is a fallacy. Because the financial problems with pensions began when Prop. 21 was narrowly passed in 1984, deleting constitutional restrictions and limitations on the purchase of corporate stock by public retirement systems. The financial problems got worse when California’s legislature passed SB 400 in 1999, which set the precedent for retroactive pension benefit increases. And in both cases, CalPERS was there, lobbying for passage of what were ultimately ruinous decisions.

Now that an aging population delivers millions of sellers into a market already challenged by epic deleveraging, CalPERS can do the right thing, and lobby for meaningful pension reform. They can start by supporting policies that reverse the impact of Prop. 21 and SB 400. If they do this sooner rather than later, they may be able to save the defined benefit. Anne Stausboll, are you prepared to stand up to your union controlled board of directors, and tell them the hard truth?

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

The Alliance Between Wall Street and Public Unions

“It’s [private equity investments] generating real returns for our members, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do,” said Joe DeAnda, a CalPERS spokesman. “It’s real value that we don’t feel there’s another way to achieve.”
–  “Are private equity investments worth the risk?,” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2015

The alliance between government unions and America’s overbuilt financial sector is one of the most unreported stories of our time. It is a story saturated in greed, drowning in delusion, smothered and marginalized by an avalanche of taxpayer funded propaganda. If this story were known and appreciated by the people most victimized by its effects, it would fundamentally shift the political landscape of the nation. The most obvious example of this alliance are the government worker pension systems, Wall Street’s biggest players, controlled by union operatives.

The problem with public sector defined benefit pensions can be boiled down to two cold facts: They are too generous, and they rely on rate-of-return assumptions that are too optimistic. The first is the result of greed, the second of delusion. To indulge these vices requires corruption, and it is a rot that joins public sector unions with the most questionable elements of that Wall Street machine they so readily demonize.

In an attempt to earn in excess of 7.0% per year, government pension systems have increasingly turned to hedge funds, whose charter, essentially, is to earn over-market returns. To do this, they do all the things that public sector unions are supposedly opposed to – opaque private equity deals, currency speculation, high-frequency trading – all those manipulative tools used by the super-wealthy, super empowered Wall Street players to siphon billions out of the economy. Except now they’re using tax dollars, channeled to them via government pension systems. And if it goes south? Taxpayers pay for the bailout.

Which brings us to sheer abuse of power. Hypocrisy aside – and how much more hypocritical can it be for union leaders to rhetorically demonize “profits,” yet ignore the fact that only profits can permit pension funds to appreciate at rates of 7.0% per year or more – it is raw power, sheer financial and legal might, that enables pension systems, with unions cheering them on every step of the way, to sue city after faltering city to ensure their “contracts” are inviolable, that relentlessly escalating pension contributions keep pouring in, even if it means raising taxes via court order, then selling the parks, selling the libraries, closing government offices and “furloughing” public servants, and giving raw deals to their new hires.

The alliance between Wall Street and public sector unions isn’t restricted to the over $4.0 trillion in government pension assets that they’ve wagered in a volatile investment market with taxpayers on the hook to guarantee perpetual winnings. The alliance extends to bond underwriters, who join with government unions to sell overpriced, often unnecessary projects to taxpayers, collecting billions in fees. It even extends to auctions of government permits to emit CO2, which when fully implemented will guarantee Wall Street firms a cut on virtually every energy transaction in America, while quietly pouring a huge portion of the proceeds into funding public sector jobs – redefined to meet “mitigation” criteria: code inspectors enforcing energy retrofits, entire cities who zone ultra-high density which presumably lowers transportation related emissions, bus drivers and other mass transit workers, police and fire agencies who confront higher crime rates and more wildfires during hot weather. And, of course, the bullet train.

Whether it’s financially unsustainable government pension systems, who are the biggest players on Wall Street, or financing overpriced public construction projects of dubious value, or imposing billions in hidden taxes on energy users to supposedly save the planet, public sector unions receive formidable political, legal and financial support from their partners in the financial sector, corrupt, crony capitalists who indeed give capitalism a bad name.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center.