The Coming Public Pension Apocalypse, and What to Do About It

When the next market downturn hits, every public employee pension fund in the United States will face severe challenges. Because public employee pension funds are not subject to the same rules that private pension funds have to adhere to – namely, the restrictions on risky investments as specified in the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 – they will be hit much harder in a downturn than private pension funds. Some states will face more significant challenges than others. California is destined to be one of the hardest hit.

This discussion of California’s coming public pension apocalypse has three sections. Part one will make the case, yet again, that public employee pension funds cannot possibly hope to earn the rates of return over the next 20 years that they earned over the past 20 years. Part two will show the precise impact that lower rates of return will have on the unfunded liability, the normal contribution, and the unfunded contribution – using projections that show all of California’s state and local public employee pension funds in a consolidated report. Those who are already convinced that pension funds are headed for trouble are encouraged to skip immediately to part two, to see exactly how many hundreds of billions we’re talking about.

Finally, this discussion will offer recommendations to mitigate the impact of the coming public employee pension apocalypse, and pave the way for more sustainable programs in the future. These recommendations are in three parts – how to restore the pension funds, how to restore economic vitality to Californians, and policies to advocate at the federal level.

PART ONE: WHY PENSION FUND RATES OF RETURN WILL FALL DRAMATICALLY

“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 Anne Stausboll’s admission, buried in 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 in America.

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, an 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.

Current events create volatility in the market and returns have been flat for the past 18 months. 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, showing the federal funds rate over the past 30 years, shows that when the stock market peaked in December 1999, the federal funds rate was 6.5%. Within three years, in order to stimulate borrowing that would put more cash into the economy, that rate was dropped to 1.0%. 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 2009, the federal funds rate was lowered to 0.15% and has stayed near that low ever since.

The point? As the stock market has recovered since February 2009 to the present, unlike during the earlier recoveries, the federal funds rate was never raised. This time, there’s no elbow room left.

Table 1-A
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 2009 and has slightly declined since then. The point here? Even 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.

Table 1-B
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 you can see from this graph and the preceding graphs, the market downturn between December 1999 and September 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.

Table 1-C
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 30 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 30 years the federal lending rate has dropped from high single digits in the 1980s 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 produced stock market growth over the past 30 years no longer exist. Public employee pension funds, starting with CalPERS, need to face this new reality. Debt and demographics create headwinds that have changed the big picture.

PART TWO: THE IMPACT OF LOWER RETURNS ON CALIFORNIA’S PENSION FUNDS

“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 easily understood compiled 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.

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.

Table 2-A
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 and 2016 so far, 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?

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?

Table 2-B
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.

The Effect of Lower ROI on the Unfunded Liability and Required Contributions

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:

Table 2-C
California State/Local Pension Funds Consolidated

2014 – Est. Funding Status and Required Contributions at Various ROI

20160516-CPC-Ring-pension-liabilities

The above table, column one, 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 second column in 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 the consequences of lower rates-of-return in terms of required annual payments. The first row shows the required normal contribution as a percent of payroll, based on an average retirement age of 57 and an average annual pension multiplier of 2.5%. To evaluate the methods used to arrive at these percentages, refer to the California Policy Center study “A Pension Analysis Tool for Everyone.” The second row shows the taxpayer’s share of the normal contribution, in billions, under the assumption the employees are paying one-third of the normal contribution via payroll withholding.

The final row in the lower portion of the table shows the required unfunded contribution under various ROI assumptions. Using standard amortization formulas, and a 20 year payback term, at a 6.5% rate-of-return assumption, it would take a payment of $34.5 billion per year to return California’s pension funds to 100% funded status by 2036. Since the total taxpayer payments into California’s pension funds – refer back to table 1 – were only 21.2 billion in 2014, it is pertinent to wonder just how much the official numbers would report for the normal contribution, in aggregate, in 2014, vs. the unfunded contribution.

The significance of these numbers can’t be overstated. Even if pension funds earn 7.5% per year, taxpayers should be putting $38.1 billion into them each year, instead of only $21.2 billion. That’s a shortfall of $16.9 billion per year. If pension funds earn 6.5%, it will cost taxpayers $52.3 billion per year. That is an increase of 150% over what is currently being paid. And if they earn 5.5% per year – a return for which most ordinary savers would invest every spare penny they have – it will require a taxpayer contribution of $67.6 billion per year, over three times what is currently being paid.

The implications of this are staggering. A city that pays 10% of their total revenues into the pension funds, and there are plenty of them, at an ROI of 7.5% and an honest repayment plan for the unfunded liability, should be paying 17% of their revenues into the pension systems. At a ROI of 6.5%, these cities would pay 24% of their revenue to pensions. At 5.5%, 32%. And so on. It is impossible for these levels of payments to be sustained, but that’s exactly what will be necessary if the markets drop, and reforms are not implemented.

PART THREE: HOW TO MITIGATE THE IMPACT OF THE PUBLIC PENSION APOCALYPSE

Recommended Pension System Reforms to Maintain Solvency

(1) Make it possible to increase employee contributions. Social Security withholding can be increased or decreased at the option of the federal government. If collections into public employee pension funds are inadequate, increase the withholding from employee paychecks – not only for the normal contribution, but also to help pay the unfunded contribution.

(2) Make it possible to decrease benefits. Nothing in Social Security is guaranteed. Benefits can be cut at any time to preserve solvency. Decreasing benefits may be the only way to preserve defined benefit pensions. Equitable ways to do this must be spread over as many participant classes as possible. For example, the reform passed by voters in San Jose (severely reduced in scope after union litigation) called for suspending cost-of-living increases for retirees, and prospectively lowering the annual rates of benefit accruals for existing workers.

(3) Increase the retirement age. This has already been done several times with Social Security. Pension reforms to-date have also increased the age of eligibility for benefits.

(4) Calculate benefits based on lifetime earnings. Social Security calculates a participant’s benefit based on the 35 years during which they made the most. Public sector pensions, inexplicably, apply benefit formulas to the final year of earnings, or the final few years. These pension benefits should be calculated based on lifetime earnings.

(5) Make the benefit progressive. The more you make and contribute into Social Security, the less you get back. At the least, applying a ceiling to pension benefits should be considered. But it would serve both the goals of solvency and social justice to implement a comprehensive system of tiers whereby highly compensated public servants, who make enough to save themselves for retirement, get progressively less back in the form of a pension depending on how much they make.

Recommended Policy Initiatives to Increase Economic Vitality

(1) Massive Public/Private Investment in Infrastructure

(a) Rebuild California’s aqueducts and develop additional aquifer and surface storage for runoff harvesting. Build desalination plants on the southern California coast. Upgrade existing dams and pumping stations. Permit farmers to contract with California’s urban water districts to sell their water allocations. Build the Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs. Create water abundance and make water cheap.

(b) Build new power stations. Whether these are 5th generation nuclear power stations, or new natural gas fired power plants, the immediate establishment of an additional 20%+ of generating capacity in California would result in significant lowering of utility rates and make California a net exporter of electricity.

(c) Permit development of offshore oil and gas using slant drilling from land. It is no longer necessary to develop offshore drilling rigs to extract energy reserves. There are cost-effective ways to bring this energy onshore without the risk of an oil spill from an offshore platform.

(d) Permit development of natural gas and shale oil reserves in California.

(e) Permit development of new mines and quarries in California.

(f) Build additional pipeline capacity into California to import and export natural gas to and from elsewhere in North America.

(g) Permit development of a liquid natural gas terminal off the California coast. Get California onto the global LNG grid to import and export natural gas and further diversify sources of energy and income. Create energy abundance and make energy cheap.

(h) Upgrade existing roads, bridges, and freeways. Begin working on “smart lanes” that will facilitate cars and mass transit vehicles driving on autopilot.

(i) Upgrade California’s existing freight and passenger rail infrastructure. When practical, integrate passenger and freight service on common rail corridors in large cities where high population densities make passenger rail economically viable. Increase the speed of intercity passenger rail to 100+ MPH, which can be done on upgraded but already existing track. Improve the interstate rail links emanating from California’s major seaports, to help them remain competitive.

(2) Balance State and Local Government Budgets

(a) Lower the wages of all state and local government workers by 20% of whatever amount they make in excess of $50,000 per year. Lower the wages of all state and local government workers by 50% of whatever amount they make in excess of $100,000 per year. Include in “wages” ALL forms of compensation.

(b) In addition to the steps recommended in the previous section, solve the financial crisis facing pensions by imposing special tax assessments on state and local government pensions in the amount of 50% of all pension payments in excess of $60,000 per year and 75% of all pension payments in excess of $100,000 per year (in 2016 dollars). Adopt the same reformed financial rules governing pension liability estimates that already apply to private sector pension plans.

(c) Require 75% of all K-12 and Community College employees to be teachers in a classroom.

(d) Faithfully implement the federal welfare reforms already adopted by most other states in 1996 during the Clinton administration.

(3) Change the Rules in Sacramento

(a) Implement fundamental curbs on the rights of public sector unions, including: Grant all public sector workers the right to opt-out of union membership and payment of any union dues including agency fees. Prohibit government payroll departments from collecting union dues. Allow all public sector employees to negotiate their own wages and benefits and not be bound by collective bargaining terms if they wish. Prohibit public sector unions from negotiating over long term benefits, and require all current wage and benefit agreements to expire at the end of the term for the elected officials who approved the agreements. Prohibit public sector unions from engaging in political activity of any kind.

(b) Discontinue California’s “CO2 auctions,” which have devolved into a redistribution scheme, taking money from middle class ratepayers and giving it to bankers, politically connected green entrepreneurs, and public sector payroll departments. Repeal AB32. Crucially, lift the crippling burden of land use regulations that keep the prices of homes and commercial property artificially high in California.

(c) Revisit all business-friendly recommendations made by business associations such as the bipartisan California Chamber of Commerce. This would not include compromise positions in support of public sector unions and crony capitalist environmental regulations. This would include banning mandatory project labor agreements or requiring union only contractors on government funded projects.

Recommended Policies to Advocate at the Federal Level

(1)  Balance the Federal Budget. Until the federal government limits its spending to what it collects in tax revenue, it will continue to push for lower interest rates to help fund the deficits. This will stimulate borrowing and consumption instead of savings and production. The cycle of using debt accumulation to finance growth must be broken.

(2)  Restore Partner Liability to Banks. If consumer banks and investment banks were managed by partners who would be personally liable for losses, they would not engage in speculative activity, shielded from personal accountability. As it is, today’s financial firms are not only managed by officers who carry minimal personal liability for their actions, but they are publicly traded entities despite being nothing more than financial intermediaries.

(3)  Reintroduce the Provisions of Glass Steagall. Which the Clinton administration eviscerated in the 1990’s. In brief, this post-depression reform prevented banks from using consumer deposits for speculative investments. Consumer banks and investment banks were required to operate as separate entities.

(4)  End the War on Short Sellers and Harmonize Regulations. Short selling financial assets is one way that financial bubbles are identified and popped before they get too big. Short sales keep valuations realistic and expose financial charades. They should be properly regulated with a uniform set of international rules, but they play a vital role in a healthy market.

(5)  Increase Required Reserve Ratios. Banks are currently permitted to use customer deposits to advance loans to borrowers. Currently they are only required to hold cash equivalent to 10% of their total deposits. Increasing this ratio would increase the financial resiliency of banks.

 *   *   *

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

22 replies
  1. David C Brown says:

    Great article. One thing was left out. Research should be done regarding what benefit grants failed to comply with the law, especially section 7507 of the CA Government Code, which is mandatory. If grants didn’t comply with the law they should be reversed, certainly prospectively and perhaps retroactively. A recent Grand Jury report in Marin County highlighted a large number of such grants by agencies which are members of The Marin County Employees’ Retirement Association (MCERA). I estimate that for just these four agencies the amount of unlawful benefits is in the range of tens, and perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars. Marin is a tiny county, and generally well run. If it happened in Marin it likely happened all over the state, perhaps even at at CalPERS and CalSTRS. The amounts are GIGANTIC, perhaps in the billions. The agencies in Marin, especially the Board of Supervisors, dismissed the GJ report.Something must be done. I am trying to raise money for a lawsuit to challenge these benefits. It is likely that with delaying and stalling tactics, and then appeals, this process will cost around a million dollars in legal fees, expert witnesses, filing fees etc. That is a large amount of money. However, the potential reward is staggering. If such a precedent is set in Marin, especially if it gets to the Supreme Court, it will apply statewide. If you are interested in supporting such a law suit please contact me at ahb1027@yahoo.com. I will send you all the documentation you like. Thank you. David Brown

  2. SkippingDog says:

    As I recall, Ring and the other Chicken Little’s of the pension discussion told us the apocalypse was going to come in 2012, then it was 2013, 2014, 2015, etc., etc. I suppose fear sells – at least to some group of old people.

  3. Tough Love says:

    Skipping Dog,

    As a CA Public Sector retiree, clearly YOU would like that nothing be done …. and for CA’s taxpayers just accept the gross injustice now going on for 20+ years.

  4. S Moderation Douglas says:

    “But it would serve both the goals of solvency and social justice to implement a comprehensive system of tiers whereby highly compensated public servants, who make enough to save themselves for retirement, get progressively less back in the form of a pension depending on how much they make.”

    Probably the single dumbest thing I’ve read today, although, this is a target rich environment.

    “At the least, applying a ceiling to pension benefits should be considered.”

    Been there, done that. Even if you think they don’t go far enough, at least acknowledge the existence of PEPRA.

  5. LEretort says:

    “All defined benefit plans are ponzi schemes. Convert all db plans to dc plans NOW, all the moral hazard evaporates.”

    There will be no converting of plan to 401K because of a little thing called “vested rights”. It’s amazing you haters just keep pushing out all the old tired lines.

    Even the French have won more battles than you guys.

  6. LEretort says:

    These people sound like those wing nut preachers, always proclaiming the end of the world is near.

  7. S Moderation Douglas says:

    I don’t know, SD. This time he has charts. AND tables. Could be the real deal.
    And a real plan:
    “…..imposing special tax assessments on state and local government pensions in the amount of 50% of all pension payments in excess of $60,000 per year and 75% of all pension payments in excess of $100,000 per year (in 2016 dollars). ”

    Is that even (remotely) legal? If a CA retiree moves to Fla., can we still tax his pension? If a Fla. state or city retiree moves to CA, can we tax his excess pensions?

    If a California “think tank” buys their tinfoil hats on Amazon shipped from Illinois, do they still owe a use tax?

    Wake up and smell the peanut butter!!!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1mcAAgrCnw

  8. S Moderation Douglas says:

    “Preserving defined benefits will require hard choices. But defined contribution plans should supplement pensions or social security, not replace them. And comparing defined benefits – or social security, for that matter – to Ponzi schemes or Pyramid schemes are specious arguments that do not belong in serious debate.”

    Quoting Ed Ring again, from “Saving Defined Benefits Requires Lower Pensions for Existing Workers and Retirees” Dec. 6, 2112

    “comparing defined benefits …… to Ponzi schemes or Pyramid schemes are specious arguments that do not belong in serious debate.”

  9. Jay Seymour says:

    Go to http://www.transparentcalifornia.com

    Under, ‘Salaries’, to the left, type in ‘Scheff’, and look up Paul Scheff and his wife, Lisa Scheff. Add the salaries they make. Next, under, ‘Pensions’, to the right, type in ‘Scheff’. Check the same Paul Scheff’s pension. Between Paul Scheff and his wife, Lisa, they make about $450k a year. Is this fair?

  10. SkippingDog says:

    Have a special interest in the Scheff family? Sounds more like jealousy than anything else.

  11. SkippingDog says:

    You’re right, SMD. Ring has a number of crackpot fringe proposals, none of which are ethical or legal. I truly wonder who’s footing the bill for him to keep putting out this nonsense. He’s an educated man, at least according to his website bios. Even he must know how much BS he’s slinging.

  12. SkippingDog says:

    Okay, I looked them up and it appears Paul retired from the City of Palo Alto after nearly 31 years of police service. After that, he went to work for the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office in a completely different retirement and government system. Lisa is a senior manager who appears to still work for Palo Alto. Sounds like the City had a good run of service from Mr. Scheff, and now the County is getting the benefit of his experience and maturity. It’s also impressive that he can still pass a law enforcement physical after more than three decades as a police officer.

    There’s nothing underhanded about a couple working for the same employer, nor for one of them to retire and take on another demanding job in his 50’s. Sounds like you’ve been spending a little too much time coveting your neighbor’s income or other stuff.

  13. S Moderation Douglas says:

    Sayeth SMD,

    The problem is perspective. One can look up the salary, OT, benefits, and later, the pension for (almost) any state or local worker. TransparentCalifornia sorts them by total compensation, highest to lowest, for maximum dramatic effect.

    If there were a similar database (without names, please) of private sector salary plus benefits, ranked highest to lowest, I dare say it would make TransparentCalifornia look like amateur hour. I’m not just talking about the CEO of major corporations.

    Modesto is a city of 200,000 in central CA. The police chief has a salary of $175,000 and total compensation of $254,000. It’s a safe bet that if all compensation, public and private, were listed highest to lowest, he wouldn’t even make the top one hundred list.

    My wife worked for a medium size company (100+ and growing) in Modesto, and at least six people in her company made more than the chief. Managers and salesmen. Three of them made about twice what the chief makes. We’re not talking rocket scientists, were talking produce distribution.

    If you are a forklift operator making the CA average $53,000 a year (plus another $22,000 in benefits, average, whether you knew that or not), it may look like the chief is making a lot of money. But he could have made more in produce.

    “Between Paul Scheff and his wife, Lisa, they make about $450k a year. Is this fair?”

    It’s fair for senior management in the public sector. Private sector it’s chickenfeed.

  14. Ed Ring says:

    S Moderation Douglass,
    It’s a challenge to respond to all of your comments here. You’re to be thanked for reminding readers that our organization’s support for defined benefit plans is well documented. But in order to support defined benefits, you have to have ideas about how to make them sustainable. This means that unless the market continues to turn in returns in the high single digits for the next 10-20 years, either downward adjustments will have to be made to benefits, or taxes will have to be dramatically increased. Table 2-C makes this explicit. You are welcome to criticize our work, but you are also invited to prepare suggestions of your own if you think ours are out of line. The suggestion to tax pensions, for example, was presented as a last resort if the first five suggestions we offered didn’t suffice. And in a fiscal emergency of sufficient magnitude, an in-state assessment could probably be legislated even if the recipient were out of state. But again, what’s your idea, if indeed the sky falls? Let’s all hope the global economy just keeps chugging along. History suggests otherwise, as do the carefully argued points in the first section of this report.

  15. S Moderation Douglas says:

    No hay problema.

    To claim that all DBs are Ponzi schemes and should be converted to Defined Contribution is just nonsense, but apparently it’s very popular nonsense. I could quote Keith Brainard, Alicia Munnell, or even David Crane, but maybe quoting the California Policy Center would get those like talltalk to research or rethink his position, if for no other reason, at least to be able to present a better argument.

    As far as taxing pensions, I should think it would be a legal as well as a moral problem. I’ll use the Michael Genest example, because it’s instructive and because it’s typical, I think, of many of the higher California pensions. And, because, so far, he hasn’t seemed too upset with my posts.

    In a nutshell, Mr. Genest was a 30 year CA employee, most recently finance director under Gov. Schwarzenegger, now retired with a pension over $100,000. After retiring, he formed a company which, among other things, did a study comparing public and private compensation. Roughly speaking, he determined state workers had a total compensation about 30% higher than equivalent private sector workers.*
    When asked about his own salary, though, he stated “We could have made a lot more money in the private sector. We are making more money.”

    No argument there, actually. While working for California, participation in PERS was mandatory. He had five percent deducted from salary, and, according to the AEI study, on average, in the private sector, could/would have made much more in wages (perhaps 40-50% more) and much less in benefits. Now we have two Michaels; the private Michael and the public one. Public Michael, according to your plan, should pay a tax surcharge because his income comes from a pension, while private Michael, if he was smart enough to invest his a good portion of his higher salary, could have a greater retirement income than public Michaels pension, but NO tax surcharge.

    According to all the human capital studies, in total compensation, private sector professionals and PHds make about fifteen to twenty percent more than those in the public sector.

    How could it be legal or moral to tax public Michael more just because more of his compensation was deferred rather than taken up front in higher wages?

  16. Tough Love says:

    Skipping DOg,

    Skipping Dog,

    Likely, “covet” is is wrong word, the correct one being “disgust”. Disgust that the Taxpayers are responsible for paying for 80% to 90% of the total anticipated cost of Public Sector pensions that are ROUTINELY 3 to 6 times greater in “value at retirement”* than those of comparable Private Sector workers who retire at the SAME age, with the SAME pay, and the SAME years of service.

    * “value at retirement” …. the composite of VERY generous per-year-of-service pension “formula-factors”, being able to collect an unreduced pension at a VERY young age (especially for Safety workers), and post-retirement COLA increases (almost unheard of in Employer-sponsored Private Sector pension Plans).

    AND with free or heavily taxpayer-subsidized retiree healthcare that THEY very rarely get from their private Sector employers.

  17. Tough Love says:

    Quoting SMD ….

    “According to all the human capital studies, in total compensation, private sector professionals and PHds make about fifteen to twenty percent more than those in the public sector. ”

    Yes, isolating the less than 5% of Private Sector workers in the “professional” and PHD categories. The remainder ….. AND, all workers when taken together as one group ….. get royally screwed by the FAR FAR greater Public Sector “Total Compensation”

    Than THAT is what financially impacts the Private Sector.

  18. S Moderation Douglas says:

    Good point, sir, or ma’am. I’m glad you brought that up!!!

    First, it’s ten percent of state workers in those categories who are definitely paid less. Much less. And, according to Biggs and Richwine, the 18% of state workers with Masters degrees are underpaid by about 2% (which they call statistically insignificant) and the 32% of state workers with Bachelor’s degrees overpaid by 2% (also statistically insignificant). That makes 60% of state workers who are …either… underpaid, …or…”roughly equal”.

    To the extent the “average” state employee is “overpaid”, the entire average is driven only by those 40% of workers with high school or “some college”. Ironic, hey?

    Which brings us to the asterisk in my previous post:

    “he determined state workers had a total compensation about 30% higher than equivalent private sector workers.*”

    Virtually every compensation comparison I have read, somewhere includes a phrase like “lower skilled public WORKERS earn about the same cash wages as equivalent private sector workers, but their greater benefits make total compensation higher. At the professional and doctoral level, benefits are not enough to compensate for lower wages. Private sector workers at this level have higher total compensation. Somewhere in the middle, total compensation is “nearly equal”. According to Mr. Genest, and AEI, the “average” state worker makes 30% more. According to the other major studies, average state workers are roughly equal.

    Which is why, as I posted before, Ed’s idea for progressive pensions makes absolutely no sense. The progressively is already there, in the wage and benefits. State and local compensation is much more egalitarian than that in the private sector. Which is also why we don’t want to tax higher pensions. These workers are, ironically, already underpaid.

    Caveats; although most of the human capital studies roughly agree on the relative compensation, and wage compression, of state and local workers, the Biggs study mentioned included only state, not local workers, and did not include safety workers. The specific numbers are nationwide averages, not California specific. All these studies are based on data now four to eight years old. Eight very volatile years.

  19. Tough Love says:

    Are you comfortable with “LE” for “Law Enforcement (which is part of your online handle), now being synnymoyus with insatiable pension /benefit GREED rather than heroism ?

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