Posts

How Fraudulently Low “Normal Contributions” Wreak Havoc on Civic Finances

Back in 2013 the City of Irvine had an unfunded pension liability of $91 million and cash reserves of $61 million. The unfunded pension liability was being paid off over 30 years with interest charged on the unpaid balance at a rate of 7.5% per year. Irvine’s cash reserves were conservatively invested and earned interest at an annual rate of around 1%. With that much money in reserve, earning almost no interest, the city council decided use some of that money to pay off their unfunded pension liability.

As reported in Governing magazine, starting in 2013, Irvine increased the amount they would pay CalPERS each year by $5M over the required payment, which at the time was about $7.7M. With 100% of that $5M reducing the principal amount owed on their unfunded liability, they expected to have the unfunded liability reduced to nearly zero within ten years, instead of taking thirty years. Here’s a simplified schedule showing how that would have played out:

CITY OF IRVINE, 2013  –  PAY $5.0 MILLION EXTRA PER YEAR
ELIMINATING UNFUNDED PENSION LIABILITY IN TEN YEARS

This plan wasn’t without risk. Taking $5 million out of their reserve fund for ten years would have depleted those reserves by $50 million, leaving only $11 million. But Irvine’s city managers bet on the assumption that incoming revenues over the coming years would include enough surpluses to replenish the fund. In the meantime, after ten years they would no longer have to make any payments on their unfunded pension liability, since it would be virtually eliminated. Referring to the above chart, the total payments over ten years are $127 million, meaning that over ten years, in addition to paying off the $91 million principal, they would pay $36 million in interest. If the City of Irvine had made only their required $7.7 million annual payments for the next thirty years, they would have ended paying up an astonishing $140 million in interest! By doing this, Irvine was going to save over $100 million.

Four years have passed since Irvine took this step. How has it turned out so far?

Not so good.

Referring to CalPERS Actuarial Valuation Report for Irvine’s Miscellaneous and Safety employees, at the end of 2016 the city’s unfunded pension liability was $156 million.

Irvine was doing everything right. But despite pumping $5M extra per year into CalPERS to pay down the unfunded liability which back in 2013 was $91M (and would have been down to around $64M by the end of 2016 if nothing else had changed), the unfunded liability as of 12/31/2016 is – that’s right – $156 million.

Welcome to pension finance.

The first thing to recognize is that an unfunded pension liability is a fluid balance. Each year the actuarial projections are renewed, taking into account actual mortality and retirement statistics for the participants as well as updated projections regarding future retirements and mortality. Each year as well the financial status of the pension fund is updated, taking into account how well the invested assets in the fund performed, and taking into account any changes to the future earnings expectations.

For example, CalPERS since 2013 has begun phasing in a new, lower rate of return. They are lowering the long-term annual rate of return they project for their invested assets from 7.5% to 7.0%, and may lower it further in the coming years. Whenever a pension system’s rate of return projection is lowered, at least three things happen:

(1) The unfunded liability goes up, because the amount of money in the fund is no longer expected to earn as much as it had previously been expected to earn,

(2) The payments on the unfunded liability – if the amount of that liability were to stay the same – actually go down, since the opportunity cost of not having that money in the fund is not as great if the amount it can earn is assumed to be lower than previously, and,

(3) the so-called “normal contribution,” which is the payment that is still necessary each year even when a fund is 100% funded and has no unfunded liability, goes up, because that money is being invested at lower assumed rates of return than previously.

That third major variable, the “normal contribution,” is the problem.

Because as actuarial projections are renewed – revealing that people are living longer, and as investment returns fail to meet expectations – the “normal contribution” is supposed to increase. For a pension system to remain 100% funded, or just to allow an underfunded system not to get more underfunded, you have to put in enough money each year to eventually pay for the additional pension benefits that active workers earned in that year. That is what’s called the “normal contribution.”

By now, nearly everyone’s eyes glaze over, which is really too bad, because here’s where it gets interesting.

The reason the normal contribution has been kept artificially low is because the normal contribution is the only payment to CalPERS that public employees have to help fund themselves via payroll withholding. The taxpayers are responsible for 100% of the “unfunded contribution.” CalPERS has a conflict of interest here, because their board of directors is heavily influenced, if not completely controlled, by public employee unions. They want to make sure their members pay as little as possible for these pensions, so they have scant incentive to increase these normal contributions.

When the normal contribution is too low – and it has remained ridiculously low, in Irvine and everywhere else – the unfunded liability goes up. Way up. And the taxpayer pays for all of it.

Returning to Irvine, where the city council has recently decided to increase their extra payment on their unfunded pension liability from $5 million to $7 million per year, depicted on the chart below is their new ten year outlook. As can be seen (col. 4), just the 2017 interest charge on this new $156 million unfunded pension liability is nearly $12 million. And by paying $7 million extra, that is, by paying $20.2 million per year, ten years from now they will still be carrying over $35 million in unfunded pension debt.

CITY OF IRVINE, 2017  –  PAY $7.0 MILLION EXTRA PER YEAR
REDUCTION OF UNFUNDED PENSION LIABILITY IN TEN YEARS

This debacle isn’t restricted to Irvine. It’s everywhere. It’s happening in every agency that participates in CalPERS, and it’s happening in nearly every other public employee pension system in California. The normal cost of funding pensions, which employees have to help pay for, is understated so these employees do not actually have to pay a fair portion of the true cost of these pensions. If this isn’t fraud, I don’t know what is.

It gets worse. Think about what happened between 2013 and 2017 in the stock market. The Wall Street recovery was in full swing by 2013 and by 2016 was entering so-called bubble territory. As the chart below shows, on 1/01/2013 the value of the Dow Jones stock index was 13,190. Four years later, on 12/31/2017, the value of the Dow Jones stock index was up 51%, to 19,963.

Yet over those same four years, while the Dow climbed by 51%, the City of Irvine’s unfunded pension liability grew by 71%. And this happened even though the City of Irvine paid $12.7 million each year against that unfunded liability instead of the CalPERS’s specified $7.7 million per year. Does that scare you? It should. Sooner or later the market will correct.

DOW JONES INDUSTRIAL AVERAGE
PERFORMANCE FOR THE PAST FIVE YEARS, 2013-2017

While the stock market roared, and while Irvine massively overpaid on their unfunded liability, that unfunded liability still managed to increase by 51%. Perhaps that normal contribution was a bit lower than it should have been?

Irvine did the right thing back in 2013. CalPERS let them down. Because CalPERS was, and is, understating the normal contribution in order to shield public sector workers from the true cost of their pensions. The taxpayer is the victim, as always when we let labor unions control our governments and the agencies that serve them.

REFERENCES

CalPensions Article discussing CalPERS recent polices regarding pension debt repayments:
https://calpensions.com/2017/09/25/calpers-considers-paying-down-new-debt-faster/

Irvine 2017-18 Budget – discussion of faster paydown plan on UAAL
http://legacy.cityofirvine.org/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=29623

Irvine Consolidated Annual Financial Report FYE 6/30/2016
http://legacy.cityofirvine.org/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=28697

Irvine – links to all Consolidated Annual Financial Reports
http://www.cityofirvine.org/administrative-services-department/financial-reports

CalPERS search page to find all participating agency Actuarial Valuation Reports
https://www.calpers.ca.gov/page/employers/actuarial-services/employer-contributions/public-agency-actuarial-valuation-reports

CalPERS Actuarial Valuation Report – Irvine, Miscellaneous
https://www.calpers.ca.gov/docs/actuarial-reports/2016/irvine-city-miscellaneous-2016.pdf

CalPERS Actuarial Valuation Report – Irvine, Safety
https://www.calpers.ca.gov/docs/actuarial-reports/2016/irvine-city-safety-2016.pdf

Governing Magazine report on Irvine
http://www.governing.com/columns/public-finance/col-irvine-california-plans-prepay-pension-bill.html

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.

The Amazing, Obscure, Complicated and Gigantic Pension Loophole

“The bottom line is that claiming the unfunded liability cost as part of an officer’s compensation is grossly and deliberately misleading.”
– LAPPL Board of Directors on 08/07/2014, in their post “Misuse of statistics behind erroneous LA police officer salary claims.”

This assertion, one that is widely held among representatives of public employees, lies at the heart of the debate over how much public employees really make, and greatly skews the related debate over how much pension funds can legitimately expect to earn on their invested assets.

Pension fund contributions have two components, the “normal contribution” and the “unfunded contribution.” The normal contribution represents the present value of future retirement pension income that is earned in any current year. For example, if an actively working participant in a pension plan earns “3% at 55,” then each year, another 3% is added to the total percentage that is multiplied by their final year of earnings in order to determine their pension benefit. That slice, 3% of their final salary, paid each year of their retirement as a portion of their total pension benefit, has a net present value today – and that is funded in advance through the “normal contribution” to the pension system each year. But if the net present value of a pension fund’s total future pension payments to current and future retirees exceeds the value of their actual invested assets, that “unfunded liability” must be reduced through additional regular annual payments.

Without going further into the obscure and complicated weeds of pension finance, this means that if you claim your pension plan can earn 7.5% per year, then your “normal contribution” is going to be a lot less than if you claim your pension plan can only earn 5.0% per year. By insisting that only the cost for the normal contribution is something that must be shared by employees through paycheck withholding, there is no incentive for pension participants, or the unions who represent them, to accept a realistic, conservative rate of return for these pension funds.

This is an amazing and gigantic loophole, with far reaching implications for the future solvency of pension plans, the growing burden on taxpayers, the publicly represented alleged financial health of public employee pension systems, the impetus for reform, and the overall economic health of America.

Governor Brown’s Public Employee Reform Act (PEPRA) calls for public employees to eventually pay 50% of the costs to fund their pensions, this phases in over the next several years. But this 50% share only applies to the “normal costs.”

In a 2013 California Policy Center analysis of the Orange County Employee Retirement System, it was shown that if they reduced their projected annual rate of return from the officially recognized 7.50% to 4.81%, the normal contribution would increase from $410 million per year to $606 million per year. In a 2014 CPC analysis of CalSTRS, it was shown that if they reduced their projected annual rate of return from the officially recognized 7.50% to 4.81%, the normal contribution would increase from $4.7 billion per year to $7.2 billion per year.

The rate of 4.81% used in these analyses was not selected by accident. It refers to the Citibank Liability Index, which currently stands at 4.19%. This is the rate that represents the “risk free” rate of return for a pension fund. It is the rate that Moody’s Investor Services, joined by the Government Accounting Standards Board, intends to require government agencies to use when calculating their pension liability. As can be seen, going from aggressive return projections of 7.5% down to slightly below 5.0% results in a 50% increase to the normal contribution.

No wonder there is no pressure from participants to lower the projected rate of return of their pension funds. If under PEPRA, a public employee will eventually have to contribute, say, 20% of their pay via withholding in order to cover half of the “normal contribution,” were the pension system to use conservative investment assumptions, they would have to contribute 30% of their pay to the pension fund.

Moreover, these are best case examples, because the formulas provided by Moody’s, used in these studies, make conservative assumptions that understate the financial impact.

In another California Policy Center study, “A Pension Analysis Tool for Everyone,” the normal contribution as a percent of pay is calculated on a per individual basis. One of the baseline cases (Table 2) is for a “3.0% at 55” public safety employee, assuming a 30 year career, retirement at age 55, collecting a pension for 25 years of retirement. At a projected rate of return of 7.75% per year, this employee’s pension fund would require 19.6% of their pay for the normal contribution. Under PEPRA, half of that would be about 10% via withholding from their paychecks. But at a rate of return of 6.0%, that contribution goes up to 31%. Download the spreadsheet and see for yourself – at a rate of return of 5.0%, the contribution goes up to 41%. That is, instead of having to pay 10% via withholding to make the normal contribution at a 7.75% assumed annual return, this employee would have to pay 20% via withholding at a 5.0% assumed annual return. The amount of the normal contribution doubles.

This why not holding public employees accountable for paying a portion of the unfunded contribution creates a perverse incentive for public employees, their unions, the pension systems, and the investment firms that make aggressive investments on behalf of the pension systems. Aggressive rate of return projections guarantee the actual share the employee has to pay is minimized, even as the unfunded liability swells every time returns fall short of projections. But if only the taxpayer is required to pick up the tab, so what?

Adopt misleadingly high return assumptions to minimize the employee’s normal contribution, and let taxpayers cover the inevitable shortfalls. Brilliant.

Public employee pension funds are unique in their ability to get away with this. Private sector pensions were reformed back in 1973 under ERISA rules such that the rate of return is limited to “market rates currently applicable for settling the benefit obligation or rates of return on high quality fixed income securities,” i.e., 5.0% would be considered an aggressive annual rate of return projection. If all public employee pension funds had to do were follow the rules that apply to private sector pension funds, there would not be any public sector pension crisis. And when public employees are liable through withholding for 50% of all contributions, funded and unfunded, that basic reform would become possible.

This is indeed an obscure, complicated, amazing and gigantic loophole. And it is time for more politicians and pundits to get into the weeds and fight this fight. Especially those who want to preserve the defined benefit. Until incentives for public employees and taxpayers are aligned, pension funds will cling to the delusion of high returns forever, until it all comes crashing down.

*   *   *

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