California's Pensions Are An Economic Burden, Not Benefit

California's Pensions Are An Economic Burden, Not Benefit

Last month an article entitled “Pensions as Economic Stimulus” was posted to Fox & Hounds Daily. The author, Charles Beckwith, is a former CalPERS senior financial manager. Beckwith’s article, while thoughtful, invites a response. Because California’s pension systems may stimulate the economy in some ways, but equally significant ways, they are killing the economy.

Beckwith’s primary argument is this: California’s pension systems pay out over $3.0 billion per month to retired state and local government workers, who go out and spend this money, “at auto repair shops, home improvement centers, tuition for grandchildren, hair salons, rent, and at a thousand other small and large businesses.”

The problem with this reasoning rests on a fundamental assumption Beckwith makes, which is that all the money taken from taxpayers to fund these pension investments would not have created a similar economic stimulus if they had been free to spend it themselves. Mr. Beckwith goes on to extol the virtues of professional financial managers placing pension fund investments around the world, then pouring the returns back into California’s economy, but when he does this, he ignores the actual cash flows in and out of California’s state and local pension systems.

To dive deeper into the cash flows of California’s pension systems, unfortunately we must rely on the scandalously outdated, yet most recent available consolidated financial report for California’s pension systems, the Public Retirement Systems Annual Report for the fiscal year ended 6-30-2011, released over two years ago. But the proportions have probably not changed all that much in the last four years. And as can be seen on page xxii, figures 12 and 13, during that fiscal year taxpayers contributed $27.6 billion to California’s state and local government pension funds, and retirees collected $36.2 billion. This is a net benefit of $8.6 billion per year – IF you assume 100% of retirees still live in California.

A May 2015 analysis conducted by the Sacramento Bee on CalPERS retiree payments showed that 15% of their participants live outside California – if we assume that percentage is true for all California’s state and local government retirees, then that $36.2 billion shrinks to an in-state total of $30.8 billion. This more likely net benefit, $3.2 billion per year, represents a mere 0.14% of California’s $2.3 trillion economy.

That’s nothing, Mr. Beckwith. In the most recent year for which we have consolidated numbers, pension funds took $27.6 billion from taxpayers, then gave 30.8 billion back to retired government workers living in California. That’s $3.2 billion, net, that trickled down to private sector participants in an economy over 700 times larger.

With benefits come costs, and in this area, Beckwith, along with virtually every other defender of state and local government pensions, skirts the unpleasant realities. A California Policy Center study completed earlier this year, “California City Pension Burdens” used State Controller data to compile the employer pension contributions as a percent of total revenue from taxes and fees for every city in California. It estimated that pension fund contributions in 2015 for all California’s cities would amount to 6.9% of ALL revenue into those cities – including cities who run their own utilities – water, power, waste management. Equally significant, using figures provided by the pension systems, it showed that on average, these pension contributions would increase by 50% between now and 2020, to eventually constitute 10.3% of all revenues to California’s cities. These estimates do not take into account the current and projected funding for retirement healthcare, certain to add additional costs. Nor do they take into account the inadequate funded status of CalSTRS, or the many independent pension systems serving California’s counties, which are also supported by taxpayers in those cities.

In many cities, of course, pension burdens cost far more than 6.9% of all revenues. In San Jose, the total is 13.9% of all revenue. San Diego, 9.3%. And the already announced 50% increase to these employer pension contributions depends on a perilously weak assumption; that markets will continue to deliver 7.5% average annual returns on investment for the next several decades. Good luck with that.

At what percent of total revenue will everyone agree that funding public employee retirement benefits are “crowding out” other services and constitute the hidden agenda behind ALL proposed increases to taxes and fees? 10%? We’re already there. 20%? That’s reality already in many cities and counties. 30%? That’s where we’re headed.

Mr. Beckwith goes on to defend the defined benefit, writing that “the structure and strategy of a defined benefit plan cannot be debunked. It is a social benefit that should be available to all Americans in both private and public employment to assure a stronger American economy and social stability.” But he doesn’t explain what he means by “structure and strategy,” providing yet another frustrating example of why most reformers have given up on the defined benefit and almost universally advocate moving state and local workers onto individual 401K plans.

Constructive solutions to California’s state and local government worker defined benefit plans would include a “structure” that permits reductions to benefits – such as a suspension of retiree cost-of-living increases, or a reduction in rates of future annual benefit accruals – when market returns fail to meet expectations. And they might include a “strategy” that would return to the financially sustainable system that existed prior to Prop. 21, passed in 1984, which greatly loosened restrictions on investing in stocks, enabling much higher and much riskier rate-of-return projections, and before SB 400, passed in 1999, that started the process of retroactively increasing pension benefit formulas for what eventually became nearly all of California’s state and local government workers.

In an otherwise nuanced article, Beckwith’s one foray into demagogy was when he characterized investment setbacks as the result of the “Wall Street induced economic recession.” Because ever since Prop. 21 passed over 30 years ago, pension funds and “Wall Street” have been joined at the hip. When you’ve got nearly $4.0 trillion in state and local government pension funds chasing 7.5% annual returns, with no consequences other than to cut services and increase taxes to cover your shortfalls, you are indelibly part of the problem with financial special interests in America.

Pensions as they are today, Mr. Beckwith, are an economic burden to everyone in California who doesn’t have one, but has to pay for it anyway.

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

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