Which Special Interests Are Partisan?

December 15, 2011

An analysis we published earlier this year, “Is Union Reform Partisan,” documented the fact that about 95% of political contributions by unions go to the Democratic party. But is corporate political spending is less partisan than union political spending? Equally important, to what extent does corporate political spending outweigh political spending by unions?

Parsing data from OpenSecrets.org, again, “a nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit research group tracking money in U.S. politics,” what follows is information on all of the top 100 political spenders during the eleven election cycles between 1990 through 2010. These top 100 are divided into four categories; corporate, financial, union, and grassroots. The results were quite surprising, as summarized on the chart below:

The data used to generate these numbers comes from OpenSecrets.org’s “Top All-Time Donors, 1990-2010” table, which were downloaded onto spreadsheets and sorted into the four categories noted, while retaining in the far left column the rank of each contributor within the top 100. So the reader may view the assumptions, all four of these tables constitute the remainder of this post.

Readers are invited to mull the implications of these findings regarding the top 100 political spenders of the last 20 years in America:

1 – The corporate and financial sectors combined did outspend unions, by a ratio of almost exactly 2-to-1.

2 – Unions spent 95% of their contributions on Democrats.

3 – The corporate sector spent 56% of their contributions on Republicans, and the financial sector spent 53% of their contributions on Republicans. Their spending between the two parties was essentially nonpartisan.

4 – Overall, among the top 100 political spenders of the last 20 years, Democrats collected 62% of the takings, and Republicans only collected 38%.

It remains open to interpretation which party might be more beholden to special interests…

Here is the data:

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California's Public Safety Compensation Trends, 2000-2010

Today’s Wall Street Journal published an article by Phil Izzo entitled “Bleak News for Americans’ Income,” where, citing U.S. Census Data, it was reported that U.S. median household income – adjusted for inflation – fell by 7% over the past ten years. In constant 2010 dollars, the average household in the U.S. saw their income drop from about $54,000 per year in 2000 to just under $50,000 today.

When debating what level of compensation is appropriate and affordable for public safety personnel, the average income of private sector workers is an important baseline. It provides context for determining whether or not the premium paid to public safety employees – for the risks they take – is exorbitant or fair. The trend of the past ten years is also an important baseline when making this comparison. For example, if the level of risk, the value we place on safety and security, and the degree of training required for public safety personnel have all elevated over the past decade – and they have – does this justify their pay increases exceeding the rate of inflation? Even over this past decade, when ordinary private sector workers have seen their total pay and benefits decrease by 7% relative to inflation?

Here then, also relying on U.S. Census data (ref. 2010 Public Employment and Payroll Data, State Governments, California, and 2010 Public Employment and Payroll Data, Local Governments, California, along with 2000 Public Employment and Payroll Data, State Governments, California, and 2000 Public Employment and Payroll Data, Local Governments, California), are the rates of base pay and pension obligations for California’s public safety personnel in 2000 (adjusted for inflation and expressed in 2010 dollars), and 2010, starting with Firefighters:

Several points on the table above bear explanation. These numbers reference firefighters who, typically, work 24 hour fire suppression shifts, and do not include administrative personnel. These work schedules usually involve three 24 hour shifts on duty, followed by six days off. If a firefighter works more than three out of every nine days, they receive overtime, which is included in these numbers. Worth noting is that when adjusting for vacation, the average mid-career firefighter in California works two 24 hours shifts every seven days, earning overtime for whatever extra days they work beyond that. Not included in these figures are any current benefits, including health insurance, or funding set-asides to cover retirement health insurance. We published a complete work-up of the total compensation of firefighters in August 2010 in a post entitled “California Firefighter Compensation.” In that analysis, the total compensation of the average Sacramento firefighter was estimated at $180,000 per year.

It is also important to explain the rationale behind the higher pension costs (as a percent of salary) between 2000 and 2010. It was around 2000, and for several years afterward, that the “2.0% at 50″ benefit for public safety personnel was changed to the current “3.0% at 50″ formula – retroactively. The so-called “2.0% at 50″ formula meant that a firefighter was eligible to retire at any time after turning 50 years old, and would receive a pension equivalent to the number of years they worked, times 2.0%, times the salary they earned in their final year working. The “3.0% at 50″ formula increased this benefit, logically, by 50%. A firefighter now can retire any time after turning 50 years of age with a pension equivalent to the number of years they worked, times 3.0%, times the salary they earned in their final year working. The numbers shown on this table and the others, which represent the funding requirements per year expressed as a percent of salary, reflect the 50% increase required. These percentages assume 30 years working and 25 years retired, and they assume CalPERS will continue to earn 7.75% per year on their investments – 4.75% after adjusting for inflation. These are very conservative numbers, and indeed, most government agencies already set aside more than this into public safety pension funds. For much more on these calculations, refer to our analysis “What Payroll Contribution Will Keep Pensions Solvent?,” posted in July 2011.

Here are pay and pension trends between 2000 and 2010 for California’s police officers:


And here they are for California’s correctional officers:

Here is a summary of this data: During the decade between 2000 and 2010, a period when, adjusting for inflation, household income for private sector workers fell by 7.0%, California’s firefighters saw their pay and pension benefits (after adjusting for inflation) increase by 33%, police officers saw their pay and pension benefits increase by 28%, and corrections officers saw their pay and pension benefits increase by 19%.

The next table attempts to quantify these costs in terms of their impact on California’s taxpaying households. While there are 12 million households in California, once you eliminate the nearly 50% of households who pay no net taxes, and the 15% (estimate) of households whose primary income comes from a government job, you’re down to about 5 million households.  Corporate taxes, which presumably could cover some of these costs, are passed onto consumers in the form of higher prices. And these costs do not include anything other than pay and pensions – none of the other payroll overhead.

The above figures, all extrapolated from the data presented on the previous charts or from the U.S. Census Bureau’s tables linked to earlier, show salary and pension costs for California’s nearly 200,000 public safety personnel, expressed in billions. The first figure, $21.8 billion, is the estimated amount currently expended per year for base pay (including overtime) plus pension funding. The second figure, $25.2 billion, shows how much that amount will increase if CalPERS lowers their pension fund return on investment projection from 7.75% to 5.75%. The third figure, $17.4 billion, is how much base pay and pension funding for public safety employees would cost taxpayers in California if their base pay and pension benefits had merely kept pace with inflation, instead of escalating at a rate between 19% (correctional officers), 28% (police officers), or 33% (firefighters) greater than the past decade’s inflation. Finally, the fourth figure, $16.2 billion, shows how much taxpayers would pay to fund public safety base pay and benefits in California if, instead of increasing their pay and benefits during a period when everyone else was getting paid less, they took 7% cuts to their pay and benefits – i.e., did not see their income rise quite as fast as the rate of inflation.

Between 2000 and 2010, not only public safety personnel, but all state and local employees in California saw increases to their pay and benefits that exceeded the rate of inflation. The reasons for the decline in real income in the private sector are many and complex; globalization, increased productivity and overcapacity, the obsolescence of middle-management and skilled jobs – lost to office automation and robotic manufacturing – unsustainable and maxed debt accumulation, over-regulation, under-regulation, and of course, insufficiently progressive taxation and insufficient taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations – or is it the lack of a universal flat tax and excessive taxes on everyone. It depends on who you ask. But for the five million households in California who do pay taxes, it is fair to wonder what level of compensation is equitable for public safety personnel, and why their compensation has increased by double-digits (after inflation) during a time when private sector incomes have gone down.

The Impact of Tax Exempt Disability Pensions

September 2, 2011

It is surprisingly difficult to gather data on just how many public safety employees claim disability in their retirements, but this should not prevent us from estimating what the benefits bestowed on disability claimants cost taxpayers.

A common program to compensate public safety workers for job-related disabilities is to grant them a tax exemption, whereby 50% of their retirement pension is exempt from state and federal taxes. While it is virtually impossible to collect data from pension fund administrators on exactly how many retired public safety workers have retired with this benefit, a 2004 investigative report by the Sacramento Bee found that among retired members of the California Highway Patrol, 66% of the rank and file officers, and 82% of the chiefs retired with service disabilities. Similarly, a 2006 investigative report by the San Jose Mercury found that two-thirds of San Jose Firefighters retired with service disabilities. Neither of these reports remain available online, although a Google search on the term “Chief’s Disease” (a term coined by the Sacramento Bee) will find dozens of secondary references to these studies; you can start here, and here.

The point of this analysis, other than to point out the shocking lack of comprehensive data on this issue, is to perform a what-if, based on assumptions that might be reasonably extrapolated from the available data.

The first section of the table below, “Impact per Worker,” shows what a person receiving a service disability tax exemption is really making annually, based on normalizing the take-home, after-tax earnings between the case with a 50% tax exemption vs. one with no tax exemption. Column one shows an average annual pension for a recently retired California public safety employee – probably low – of $75,000 per year. It then shows what their tax burden would be based on 50% of that income being exempt from taxes – leaving a taxable income of only $37,500, which invokes far lower withholding percentages. As can be seen, someone with a gross income of $75K per year who only pays taxes on $37.5K will have an after-tax income of $67,999 per year.

Still examining the “Impact per Worker” section of the table below, column two shows that in order to collect an after tax income of $67,999 per year, if one pays taxes on 100% of their income, would require an income of $90K per year, a 20% increase in gross income. This is the true value of the service disability 50% tax exemption. As retirement incomes increase, the disparity actually widens, because the tax brackets invoke higher withholding percentages. For example, a pension income of $100K – quite common among retired public safety workers – paying income taxes on only $50K, would deliver a take-home, after-tax income of $88,858. To earn this much while paying normal taxes without special exemptions would require an annual income of $128,363, a 28% increase. The reader is invited to verify these figures by referring to 2011 Federal Income Tax Brackets, and 2011 California Income Tax Brackets.

The second half of the above table, “Impact for California Taxpayers,” attempts to quantify what the prolific granting of service disability tax exemptions to retired public safety workers costs taxpayers. Based on updated 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau for California State Worker Payroll and California Local Government Worker Payroll, there were 222,898 full-time police, firefighters, and correctional officers working at the state and local level in California in March 2010. This amount does not include “full-time equivalents” who brought the total up to nearly 230,000 employees. On average, these full-time public safety workers earned $84,929 per year. Among firefighters, the average was $113,057 per year. Because public safety workers have life-expectancies that – according to CalPERS own actuarial data – meet or exceed national averages, and because they are eligible for retirement at age 50 (in some cases earlier), the calculations on the above table assume we are on track to have one retired public safety worker for every active public safety worker.

As can be seen, based on these assumptions – and the pension estimate of $75K per year is almost certainly quite a bit lower than the reality, since the average mid-career earnings of public safety workers is currently $85,000 per year, and pensions are calculated on end-of-career earnings – if 50% of public safety workers retire on service disability tax exemptions, the cost to California’s taxpayers is $1.7 billion per year.

Whether or not this is an accurate estimate, and available data suggests that this estimate is, if anything, on the low side, is almost beside the point. Where is this data? Why doesn’t CalPERS, and the other pension funds managing public safety employee retirement assets, release this data?

Nobody seriously questions that public safety workers deserve to make a premium for the work they do. The level of sophistication required to work in law enforcement and fire suppression today is far greater than it was 20 or 30 years ago. The value we place on life and personal security is also greater today than ever before. There is a price for this, and it is one taxpayers should pay without resentment. The question is how much of a premium is equitable, and how much of a premium is financially sustainable. A related question is how much of this premium paid to public safety workers, to the extent it is excessive, the result of powerful government worker unions who pool taxpayer’s money to control local elections with massive campaign contributions. How much is this pay premium elevated because public safety worker unions, and their PR firms, exploited their deserved hero status in inappropriate ways to manipulate the electorate to ignore fiscal reality?

When the question turns to pensions, however, the issue of whether or not a premium is appropriate for service in public safety may not be as justifiable. If public safety workers deserve a premium, it should be paid as part of their current compensation. This way they may share, along with all public employees, the same obligations to financially prepare for their retirement that face working private sector taxpayers. As for disability pensions, it strains credulity to think that over 80% of police chiefs and fire captains, and over 60% of other public safety workers are disabled in the course of their jobs. And even if they are, these disabilities can be remedied through far less expensive private disability insurance, not through the granting of service disability tax exemptions that increase the effective gross amount of their pensions by 20-30%.

Questioning whether or not we should offer pensions in excess of $75K per year to workers who retire in their early 50s, or then offer as many as half of these retirees with service disability tax exemptions, goes beyond questions of financial sustainability. It goes beyond questioning how much of a premium they deserve for the risks they take to protect the public. A deeper question is not how much we value the lives of those who protect us, but how much we value everyone’s life. Dozens of jobs are more dangerous than those in public safety. Logging, fishing, agriculture, and mining occupations claim thousands of lives every year, and maim thousands more. Few if any of these workers retire in their early 50s with pensions of $75K or more, and none of them receive service disability tax exemptions. Do we consume the products that these workers lose their lives and endure disabling injuries to provide for us? Can we live without those products? Are their lives any less significant than the lives of others who wear badges? For that matter, are the millions who toil in factories or in front of computers any less likely to wear out and become disabled through repetitive motions and eye strain? Are their injuries less debilitating? Is their life’s work undeserving of commensurate dignity?

Ultimately, we all share the fate of our mortality, the ultimate disability. We age, we wear out, we are progressively disabled, and then we die. Nobody escapes this verdict, whether our professions are public or private, intellectual or physical, noble or profane. This common denominator – tempered by considerations of what is financially realistic – should govern our common response to the challenges of disabilities, not privilege, nor political power, nor manipulative emotional appeals.

What Payroll Contribution Will Keep Pensions Solvent?

July 25, 2011

In a previous post “Pension Contributions Aren’t Enough,” the point is made that for every percentage point that an investment fund lowers their projected rate of return, the required annual pension fund contribution as a percent of salary goes up by over 10%. The assumptions underlying that analysis were 30 years working, 30 years retired, a pension equivalent to 90% of final salary, with the salary doubling (in inflation adjusted dollars) between the first year of employment and the final year of employment. Using the same assumptions, but for a pension equivalent to 60% of final annual salary, for every percentage point that an investment fund lowers their projected rate of return, the required annual pension fund contribution as a percent of salary goes up by a bit less than 10%. The implications of these facts should be clear to anyone involved in the issue of public employee pension benefits.

This post is in response to an email received from someone who, after reading the previous post, asked what the impact might be on required annual contributions to pensions if the assumptions are changed so that the years retired are shortened. The implication was that a 30 year working, 30 year retired scenario is an unlikely average, since on average, employees who log 30 years of government service do not survive an additional 30 years in retirement. But when analyzing the variability of required pension fund contributions based on 20 year and 25 year retirements, while assuming 30 years of work, the results are still noteworthy. Here they are:


In the above table, the first set of four rows show various scenarios based on a pension equivalent to 90% of final salary, the second set of four rows show various scenarios based on a pension equivalent to 60% of final salary. One might suggest the first set of rows depicts public safety workers, representing approximately 15% of California’s 1.85 million state and local government workers, and the second set of rows depicts everyone else working for state and local government agencies in California.

For each pension example, the fund return is calculated at a best case of 4.75% per year, which is the official rate used by CalPERS currently, and is the rate used by most public employee pension funds across the U.S. That return is then dropped by 1.0% in each of the next three rows. It is important to note that these are “real” returns, after inflation, which is typically projected at 3.0% per year. In nominal terms, CalPERS official long-term projected rate of return is 7.75% per year. So in nominal (before adjusting for inflation) terms, the four returns evaluated on this table are 7.75%, 6.75%, 5.75%, and 4.75%. To keep this in perspective, the “risk-free,” nominal rate of return on the 10 year Treasury Bill is 3.0% per year, nearly two percent lower than our worst case scenario in this analysis.

As can be seen by reviewing the first column in the boxed set of data on the table, when someone works 30 years and is retired 30 years, and has a pension equivalent to 90% of their final salary, if you drop just one-percent from CalPERS official long-term projection, you have to increase the annual pension fund contribution by 10.1% of salary – from 30.3% per year to 40.4% per year. But if you want to be more realistic (notwithstanding pension spiking, staggering losses to the funds over the past 10 years, or retroactive pension benefit increases, which this analysis does not take into account, and which make the required contributions much higher), you may consider the next two columns in the boxed area on the table.

If someone works 30 years and retires for 25 years, with a pension equivalent to 90% of their final salary, if you drop just one-percent from CalPERS official long-term projection, you have to increase the annual pension fund contribution by 8.6% of salary, from 27.7% per year to 36.3% per year. If someone works 30 years and retires for 20 years, with a pension equivalent to 90% of their final salary, if you drop just one-percent from CalPERS official long-term projection, you have to increase the annual pension fund contribution by 7.1% of salary, from 24.4% per year to 31.5% per year. Clearly increasing the proportion of years working to years retired reduces the impact of lowered rate of return assumptions, but the impact of a mere 1.0% drop in the projected long-term rate of pension fund returns on the required contribution is still quite dramatic.

Anyone who wishes to explore this further is invited to review two example charts below this post, one that shows the derivation of the required pension fund contribution based on a 90% pension, a 4.75% real rate of return, and 30 years working, 25 years retired, and the other using the same assumptions except for the real rate of return, which is lowered to 3.75%.

The hyper-sensitivity of required pension fund contributions to a lower projected rate of return for the fund is something that terrifies actuaries who are under pressure to release sanguine assessments of pension fund viability. It is further evidence as to why pension fund managers continue to claim that 7.75% returns are achievable despite the fact that we live in an era when the cost of money in real terms is literally negative. In our debt saturated global economy, bubble assets and zero real interest rate are a last, desperate ploy to stave off deflation. As the major currencies of the world – all representing economies that carry debt up to their eyeballs – compete to out-devalue each other, the debt eating panacea of inflation shall remain elusive. Yet the masters of the universe on Wall Street, and in their public employee pension fund bridgeheads throughout America, claim they can still earn the returns they earned when the credit binge was in full bloom.

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Quantifying the Impact of Pension Spiking

July 25, 2011

While much has been made of the impact of pension “spiking,” it is helpful to quantify just exactly how much pension spiking will cost taxpayers, and how ill-prepared an otherwise adequately funded pension account is for this practice. In the two sets of examples below, the same assumptions and the same analytical model is used as in the previous post “What Payroll Contribution Will Keep Pensions Solvent?“; 30 years working, 25 years retired, pay in real dollars doubling between the hire date and the retirement date, and various rates of return.

In this analysis, each block of data has three rows. The first row shows the amount by which the final pay is “spiked,” i.e., increased by a disproportionate amount through a large pay raise, cashing in of accumulated sick time, or other methods that increase pay more than it would ordinarily increase. The second row shows how much would have to be set aside as a percent of payroll each year and contributed into the employee’s pension fund, in order to ensure the fund would have sufficient assets to pay out the calculated retirement pension for 25 years. The third row puts this another way, by showing how much money would need to be in the employee’s pension fund at the time they retire. There are three sets of three rows, representing the results under three different return on investment scenarios; a 4.75% rate of return over the life of the fund (after adjusting downwards for 3.0% inflation), which is CalPERS official rate of return, along with most other public employee pension funds, then a 3.75% real rate of return, then a 2.75% real rate of return. One is encouraged to remember that a 2.75% “real” rate of return equates under these assumptions to a 5.75% actual, or nominal return. To keep this in perspective, the risk-free 10 year treasury bill earns a 3.0% annual rate of return.

In the example immediately below, this model is applied to calculate the impact of a 10%, 20% and 30% spiking of final year pay (columns 2, 3, and 4) for a public safety employee, retiring after 30 years with a pension equivalent to 90% of their final year of pay. The baseline case of zero spiking is provided in column one. This analysis is not to suggest that all public safety workers, who represent about 15% of California’s roughly 1.85 million state and local government workers engage in spiking, or, for that matter, that the other 85%, the “non-safety” government employees in California, engage in spiking. Pension spiking is a reality that is pervasive in some agencies and jurisdictions, and nonexistent in others. In some cities and counties in California it is having a dramatic impact on pension fund solvency and the rates of contribution necessary to compensate for it. The purpose of this analysis is not to identify where and when spiking is occurring, only to quantify how much it costs when it does occur. The worst case example of spiking used here of 30% is not unusual.

To understand the above table, compare the 2nd row in each three-row block of numbers, starting with the case that uses a 4.75% real rate of return for the pension fund. The impact of an employee collecting a pension equivalent to 90% of their final pay who successfully increases their final year of salary by 30%, in order to increase their pension by the same amount, is to require their employer to contribute not 27.7% of their salary into a pension fund every year for the entire 30 years they work, but 35.7%. That is, when an employee collecting a 90% pension manages to spike their final salary by 30%, it means an additional 8.0% of salary would have had to have been contributed to their pension fund every year for their entire 30 year career working. Referring to the 3rd row in each three-row block, one can see that the impact of a 30% final year spike in pay is to require the pension fund at the time of retirement to have nearly $1.7 million accumulated, vs. $1.3 million in the baseline case.

The next table provides this same information for non-safety government employees, in cases where after a 30 year career they collect a 60% pension. This would represent pretty much the absolute lowest pension a state or local government employee in California might expect after 30 years. Teachers, for example, after 30 years of service are eligible to apply a 2.5% factor to the number of years they worked, which equates to a pension equivalent to 75% of their final salary. In this example, again referring to the first three-row set of data, which represents our best case, since it utilizes CalPERS official 4.75% real rate of return on invested funds, without spiking, the employee would have to contribute 18.5% of their pay into their retirement plan for 30 years, and would have to accumulate $870K at the end of their career in order to fund a 25 year retirement. If they manage to spike their final year of pay by 30%, they would have had to contribute 23.8% of their salary into their retirement plan for 30 years, and they would have to amass $1.13 million in their retirement fund by the end of their career.

These examples indicate that the impact of spiking is dramatic. Whenever a government employee exploits loopholes in their pension formulas and rules in order to spike their final year’s pay, there is a huge cost to taxpayers. Referring to the charts again, if a retiree earning a 90% pension only spikes their final year of pay by 10%, their payroll contribution for the 30 years they worked would still need to have been increased by nearly 2.7%. If they spike their final pay by 20%, their payroll contribution for the 30 years they worked would need to have been increased by over 5.4%. In many cases, just these relatively small amounts of spiking, 10% and 20%, spell a required increase to the annual contribution to the pension fund that is greater than the entire amount they themselves contribute via payroll withholding. The taxpayer pays nearly everything.

A final disquieting observation can be had by referring to the two boxes in each example, one in the upper left corner of the data set, and one in the lower right corner. The boxed datapoints in the upper left indicate how much is typically set aside for pensions based on the official projected real rate of return, 4.75%, and zero spiking of final salary. In the case of the 90% pensioner, 27.7% of payroll must be set aside, and at retirement those accumulated set asides, plus interest, must equal $1.3 million. In the case of the 60% pensioner, 18.5% of payroll must be set aside, and at retirement those set asides, plus interest, must equal $871K. But what happens if both pension spiking occurs, and the pension fund is required – by the intervention of reality – to lower their projected real rate of return for their funds by 2.0%, down to a real rate of return of 2.75%, or a nominal rate of return of 5.75%? The compounding effect of these combined outcomes is truly frightening.

In the case of the 90% pensioner who spikes their final salary by 30% at the same time as the pension fund reduces their long-term earnings projection to 2.75%, instead of setting aside 27.7% of payroll each year, they would have had to set aside 61.4% of payroll each year. Instead of accumulating $1.3 million in their pension account by the year of their retirement, they would have had to accumulate $2.1 million.

In the case of the 60% pensioner who spikes their final salary by 30% at the same time as the pension fund reduces their long-term earnings projection to 2.75%, instead of setting aside 18.5% of payroll each year, they would have had to set aside 40.9% of payroll each year. Instead of accumulating $871K in their pension account by the year of their retirement, they would have had to accumulate $1.4 million.

This is not an extreme scenario. While pension spiking is not pervasive, it is common. And anyone who thinks the worst case investment returns contemplated here are unlikely – a nominal return of 5.75% – needs to consider how long public sector pension funds that manage over $3.0 trillion in assets can continue to rely on hedging and other high-risk Wall Street tricks to outperform the risk-free rate of the 10 year U.S. Treasury bill, which is only 3.0% per year. Pension spiking causes dramatic increases to the amount necessary to fund pensions all by itself. When viewed in combination with what may well be an inevitable reduction in the projected rate of return for pension funds, pension spiking can play a material role in making an extraordinarily challenging situation even worse.

How Rates of Return Affect Required Pension Contributions

April 27, 2011

In the post “How Rates of Return Affect Required Pension Assets,” the point is made that depending on the rate of return achievable by the pension fund, there are significant changes to what level of assets are required for that fund to remain solvent. This post takes a slightly different approach; looking at an individual pension participant, how do pension fund rates of return affect how much they will have to contribute into their pension each year?

To make this estimate, the same set of assumptions are used in this post as in the previous post; they are:

  • The participant works for 30 years and they are retired for 30 years.
  • The participant earns a pension equivalent to 66% of their final salary.
  • The participant’s salary, in real (inflation adjusted) dollars, doubles at an even rate between the time they begin working and when they retire.
  • The rate of return and the rate of inflation are held constant throughout the 60 year period under analysis.
  • The rate of inflation is assumed to be 3.0% per year (this is CalPERS official projection, and is consistent with the historical average for the last 90+ years).

Here’s what we get:

There are a lot of takeaways here, but the most important is this:  Even at a return of 7.5% per year, which is actually slightly below CalPERS official long-term projected annual return of 7.75% per year, using these assumptions there is a contribution requirement of 24% of salary per year. This is well above what most cities and state agencies contribute to their employee pension funds each year. But what if pension funds acknowledge they will NOT be earning 7.75% per year any more? What if their earnings merely keep up with inflation?

As shown on the chart, for every 1.0% the real rate of return drops, the annual pension fund contribution as a percent of salary will go up by 10% or more, i.e., if the fund’s real rate of return drops from 3.5% to 2.5%, the amount required to be contributed into the fund as a percent of salary will go from 33% to 43%.

CalPERS spokespersons love to tout the “computer models” and “investment experts” who are confident they can continue to extract a long-term 7.75% return per year. But notwithstanding the fact that these are a lot of the same experts who had computer models that predicted the Dow Jones Average would reach 35,000 by 2005, or that there “might” be a housing bubble,  their confidence ignores several factors:

– The long-term inflation adjusted performance of publicly traded equities in the United States is not quite 3.0% per year, even taking into account dividend reinvestment. The Dow Jones average in 1930 was 286 (ref. Yahoo Finance), and the CPI was 17.1 (ref. Bureau of Labor Statistics). The Dow Jones average at the end of 2010 was 10,856, but the CPI had risen to 216.7. This means the inflation adjusted long-term performance of the Dow Jones average over the past 80 years was a paltry 1.4%. Compare this to CalPERS official long-term, inflation adjusted projection of 4.75% per year.

– Don’t rely on inflation to bail out pensions. The 2.0% annual cap on COLAs automatically lifts when pensioners have lost 20% of their purchasing power; the liability will then remain proportionally intact. This means it remains the fund’s real rate of return, after inflation, that has to be maintained.

– The potential of the U.S. economy to grow over the past 60 years, fueling these higher-than-sustainable historical returns for CalPERS and other pension funds was for two reasons that will not apply today: (1) the U.S. economy 60 years ago was the world’s only intact post-WWII economy, and grew at an extraordinary rate as we exported manufactured goods to the recovering economies elsewhere in the world. Today our manufacturers face formidable competition from developed and emerging economies all over the planet, (2) as the U.S. began to encounter global competition over the more recent decades, the U.S. embarked on a debt binge that is coming to an end.

– In past decades pension funds represented a smaller slice of the economy, meaning that they could beat the market without causing distortions. Today pension funds are the single biggest source of new investment in the U.S. They can no longer expect to beat the market. They are too big.

– A related challenge is the fact that pension funds are now servicing a growing number of retirees. The ratio of pensioners to active workers who participate in pension funds is approaching 1-to-1, meaning that fund withdrawals to make pension payments is reducing demand for equities because the pension funds are doing more selling than ever before. This, too, puts downward pressure on equities.

– The recent rise in equity values has to be viewed in the context of the above factors, which means what goes up may be coming down, but also in the context of the strength of the dollar. As the dollar devalues, the real value of U.S. equities shrinks apace. But if the underlying viability of these companies has not changed, their dollar denominated equity value has to adjust upwards in order for their value to stay neutral when compared to foreign currencies. And if the dollar strengthens (since all nations are competing to devalue their currencies these days), the value of U.S. equities – all else being equal – will fall again. And, to complete the thought, if the dollar doesn’t eventually rebound against foreign currencies, domestic inflation will offset any gains in equity values driven by dollar devaluation.

A serious discussion about what rate of return gigantic pension funds can really earn in America in this era, as opposed to previous eras, has not yet taken place. The performances of massive government worker pension funds hold dire implications for taxpayers who are on the hook to cover the difference whenever expectations do not meet reality. For these reasons, it would behoove CalPERS and other pension funds to trot their economists into the limelight to defend their assumptions, instead of hiding behind soundbites uttered by public relations specialists with well-modulated voices.

How Rates of Return Affect Required Pension Assets

April 15, 2011

While pension finance is a relatively obscure discipline that requires of its practitioners expertise both in investments and actuarial calculations, it is a mistake to think the fundamentals are beyond the average policymaker or journalist. One policy question of extreme importance to discussions about the future of public worker pensions is how much pension funds can legitimately expect to earn over the long term. The reason this question is critical is because the more the pension fund earns, the lower the annual contribution will have to be. Just how much lower each percentage point gain offers is startling.

In the first table (below), conservative assumptions are offered towards estimating how much the pension funds of California’s state and local workers must earn each year. The number of active state and local government workers is fairly well documented at 1.85 million (including K-12 and higher education). The $68,000 per year annual salary is actually low, since that is the average salary, and pension fund calculations are based on the higher final salary. This means the $68,000 figure is accurate for estimating the money flowing into the pension system, but will understate the amount of money flowing out of the pension system to retirees. Similarly, the 33% average pension fund contribution is on the high side – typically only public safety employees, who are only about 15% of the state and local government workforce, receive employer contributions equivalent to over 30% of their salary into the pension funds. But based on these numbers, each year California’s state and local workers pour $41.5 billion into the state and local government worker pension funds.

The second half of the table (above) estimates how much money comes out of the state and local government pension funds each year. This projection shows a ratio of retirees to active workers of 1-to-1, based on the assumption that – using full-career-equivalent workers and retirees – the average worker is employed for 30 years, and is then retired for 30 years. This is an important concept to linger on, because the concept of “full-career-equivalent” is crucial to understanding why CalPERS spokepeople are accurately able to claim the “average” pension is only $25,000. In reality, that is only true when considering all employees who ever passed through the CalPERS system – even if they only worked for five years and barely vested a pension.

This concept also applies when calculating the “average pension as percent of salary,” where based on existing pension formulas, 67% is on the low side when dealing with full-career-equivalent numbers. Typical government pensions in California accrue between 2.0% and 3.0% per year – teachers, who are 40% of the public workforce, who work 30 years receive 2.5% per year, public safety workers, who are 15% of the workforce, receive 3.0% per year. It is common for public utility workers to receive 2.7% per year. So estimating an average pension of $45K per year, based on 67% of $68K, is almost certainly on the low side. This means California is projected to pay out $83 billion per year to their retired state and local workers. In reality, current formulas and data suggest they will pay out a lot more than that.

The point of the first chart is that the money going into the government worker pension funds in California is estimated to be $41.5 billion per year, and the amount of money being paid out of these pension funds to retired state and local government workers is projected to be $83.8 billion per year. This means $42.3 billion per year will have to be earned on the market through investment returns.

The second chart (below) shows what the necessary asset balance is based on various rates of return. The calculation is extremely straightforward – take the amount that has to be earned each year, and divide that amount by the rate of return the fund is going to deliver:

As can be seen, at a rate of return of 7.75%, which is CalPERS (and most other government worker pension funds) official long-term projected rate of return, “only” $545 billion in assets are necessary for these funds to be “fully funded.” But if this rate of return is dropped by a few percentage points, the necessary assets mushroom. What if pension funds were required to stop making risky investments and instead had to buy treasury bills? Don’t be surprised if that is necessary someday – for example when nobody else will buy T-bills… What an elegant solution to the challenges posed by quantitative easing. But California’s pension funds would go from being fully funded at $545 billion to being only 39% funded – and the necessary asset balance would increase by $864 billion to $1.4 trillion.

The reason we don’t hear more about the serious discussions over what the real long-term rate of return should be for these massive funds is because they are occurring behind closed doors, and the reason for that should be clear by studying the above table. How on earth would Californian taxpayers cough up $864 billion? How and when will the actuaries and investment experts deliver this shock to the system?

Because current pension benefits have a cost-of-living-adjustment cap of 2% that is lifted as soon as the purchasing power of the pension benefit erodes to between 75% and 80% of the original award, don’t expect inflation to bail out the government worker pension system. Even more alarming than the nominal projection of 7.75% used by CalPERS is their real rate of return – they assume 3.0% inflation and expect an inflation-adjusted return of 4.75%. That may have been possible in the days when asset bubbles were inflating which collateralized what is now $50 trillion in debt (commercial, household and government combined) in the U.S., but those days are done.

Even if pension funds – that in aggregate in the U.S. currently manage about $3.0 trillion in assets – could earn a 4.75% (long-term, after inflation) return, they would do so by beating the market. This means other market participants, i.e., individual small investors with their 401Ks, would lose. This predatory relationship between large public sector pension funds and the small investors is ignored by apologists for public sector pension funds, who both claim “Wall Street” is to blame for the 2007 market crash, yet rely on Wall Street to deliver for them, decade after decade, higher than market rates of return.

Finally, if taxpayers are to fund market investments for the purposes of augmenting the retirement assets available to workers in the United States, it should be for ALL workers, not just government workers. As it is, however, the existence of gigantic, aggressively managed funds whose entire risk is borne by taxpayers creates a dangerous distortion in the investment market. It is ridiculous that in an era of unavoidable debt reduction, when the federal composite borrowing rate is less than 1% per year, taxpayer supported Wall Street entities – i.e., government worker pension funds – are claiming they can earn 7.75% per year. The longer they cling to this fiction, elevating their portfolio risk to achieve the unachievable, the more volatile the entire market will become.

Policymakers have to face the fact that when these projected rates of return come down, and they will, government worker pensions as they are currently formulated will disappear. Hiding behind the “complexity” of this issue, and instead echoing the sanguine talking points of CalPERS spokespersons who have not sat in the closed door meetings, is simply irresponsible.

California Voter Attitudes Towards Reforming Special Interests

March 11, 2011

The California Policy Center has completed another survey of California voters to measure attitudes towards special interest politics, with an emphasis on the influence of big corporations and public employee unions. Here are the principal findings and conclusions. Interviews with 605 randomly selected individuals were conducted between February 27th and March 3rd, 2011. The margin of error associated with the results is +/- 4.0%.

General voter attitudes towards Sacramento and special interests:

  • 60% of voters believe “things in California have gotten off on the wrong track,” 21% believe “things in California are going in the right direction,” and 20% aren’t sure.
  • Asked to note the “top three” issues in California of most concern, the following top issues were selected: state government spending 40%, unemployment 38%, education 36%, health care 18%, state taxes 16%, crime 8%, the environment 5%.
  • 78% of voters believe “major changes” are needed in the way state government is run.

The survey found voter attitudes strongly in favor of reforming all special interests, evidenced by 81% of respondents agreeing with the following: “Corporations and unions are spending millions of dollars to get their way in Sacramento; we need to cut off campaign contributions so politicians will pay attention to the voters instead of catering to special interests.”

Surprisingly, California voters appeared quite open-minded about whether or not Republicans could fix the problem of special interests, shown by only 43% agreeing with, and 53% disagreeing with the following statement: “Corporations and Republicans can’t be trusted to write a proposal that would limit their own influence; this proposal is really about hurting the Democratic party by crippling labor unions who represent average working families.”

It is also interesting that even in California, a significant number of voters, 40%, believe that collective bargaining should be banned in the public sector. Only 50% of California voters currently support collective bargaining for government workers.

Voter attitudes towards specific special interest reform options:

(1) A proposition to prohibit state and local governments from collecting union dues used for political purposes through paycheck withholding?

Favor 46%
Oppose 51%
Undecided 3%

(2) A proposition to ban all corporate and labor union contributions to candidates and political parties, and prohibit government employers from deducting from employees’ paychecks any amount used for political purposes?

Favor 65%
Oppose 31%
Undecided 4%

(3) A proposition to make all political contributions by government employees voluntary, and prohibit government employers from deducting from employees’ paycheck any amount used for political purposes?

Favor 75%
Oppose 23%
Undecided 2%

(4) A proposition to prohibit collective bargaining by labor unions on behalf of state and local public employees?

Favor 40%
Oppose 50%
Undecided 10%

To view the entire survey results, click here. To read about the earlier surveys, click here and here.

What Percent of California's State and Local Budgets Are Employee Compensation?

February 11, 2011

Earlier this week the California Policy Center posted an analysis that estimated about two-thirds of California’s state budget covers state employee compensation expenses. This was in response to a widely quoted estimate that the number was only about 12%. Due to the huge disparity in these claims, and the implications having the correct number may have on the debate over public employee compensation, we decided to dig a little deeper.

For expert information, we talked with two individuals at the California Office of Legislative Analyst, Jason Sisney, the Director of State Finance, and Nick Schroeder, Public Employment and Fiscal Oversight. Both of them confirmed that state government employees compensation consumes about 12% of the state general fund budget. But the devil is in the details.

Probably the best source for information on state expenditures in California is available at “California Budget Information,” produced by the state Dept. of Finance. Using this data, and corroborating this data with other sources, this post will produce another, more in-depth estimate of what percentage of the state budget is consumed by personnel expense, as well as what percentage of state and local budgets combined are consumed by personnel expenses. Both Sisney and Schroeder, who ought to know, stated that arriving at a meaningful figure is “nearly impossible,” but they agreed with the rough percentages that will be arrived at in this analysis.

Beginning with how much state employees make in average salary; sources of information include the following:

State Finance Department: Personnel Years and Salary Cost Estimates, 2009-2010, which shows 345,777 full-time state employees in that year, collectively paid $23,104,763,000 in that year, which averages $66,820 each. This does not include benefits.

U.S. Census Bureau: California State Government Employment Data, March 2008, which shows 338,725 full-time employees who were collectively paid in that month $2,002,723,495, which averages $70,950 per year each, not including benefits. This page includes important additional information, the “full-time equivalent” number of part-time employees, 48,212, collectively making an additional $2,798,685,61, which averages $58,050 each. Using this data, the composite average of full-time plus full-time equivalent employees working directly for the state of California is $68,102 per year for 393,989 employees, which costs $26.8 billion per year. What about benefits?

To reprise the data presented in our last post, the overhead rate we used came from a 2010 study entitled “The Truth about Public Employees in California: They are Neither Overpaid nor Overcompensated,” from the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. In this study, the authors found “Public employers underwrite 35.7% of employee compensation in benefits.” If 35.7% of compensation is in the form of benefits, this means 64.3% of compensation is in the form of wages. To develop an overhead rate, you would determine what percentage 35.7 is of 64.3, i.e., the value of state employee benefits is equal to 55.5% of their compensation. This means total state worker compensation is $26.8 billion plus 55.5% of that number ($14.9 billion), which equals $41.7 billion.

What percentage of the total state budget does this represent? Here the numbers become even more subjective, because the state budget includes vast categories of “pass throughs” which are monies not used by the state, but passed on to local governments and agencies. A breakdown of the major categories of state revenues can be found at the Dept. of Finance’s “Chart B, Historical Data, Budget Expenditures,” where for the 2009-2010 year they report total revenue of $206.1 billion, breaking down into $87.2 billion into the General Fund, $23.5 billion into “Special Funds,” $6.3 in Bond Funds, and 89.1 of Federal Funds.

When speaking with Jason Sisney at the California Dept. of Finance, he claimed that virtually 100% of the Bond Funds and Federal Funds were pass-throughs to local governments and agencies, and that about 70% of the General Fund are passed through to local governments and agencies. This leaves between 30% of the General Fund and 100% of the Special Funds to pay for state employees, i.e., $49.7 billion. Using these numbers, state employee compensation consumes 84% of the state revenues that are retained by the state and not passed through to local governments.

To remain fair, the amount that employee overhead truly costs the state is debatable. One may argue it is overstated here, since it is applied to full-time equivalent figures for part-time employees. But typically part-time state employees accrue benefits at the rate they work; if they work 50% of the time, for example, their pension benefits accrue at half the rate they might accrue if they were working full time. One may also argue the Berkeley study was estimating an overhead rate of 37.5%, not that benefits consume 37.5% of compensation – which is what they said. But even if that is the case, realistic reductions to the estimated long-term returns on pension funds will pump that overhead rate right back up from 37.5% to 55.5%.

While this analysis attempts to estimate the percent of state spending consumed by employee compensation, the discussion would not be complete without at least considering what costs the state imposes on taxpayers by virtue of better-than-market benefits that are so-called soft costs. For example, if the state did away with the “9/80″ program, a benefit that is, after all, unheard of by the ordinary private sector worker, how many fewer bureaucrats (40% of the state workforce) could they hire? The 9/80 program essentially provides state bureaucrats with an extra 26 days off per year, which means if all of them got this benefit and it were eliminated, the state could eliminate 10% of their bureaucrats, or 4% of the entire state workforce. This is just one example of hidden costs of staggering magnitude.

Since such a high percentage of state revenues are passed directly through to the local governments and agencies in California, what percentage of their spending is to compensate local government employees? This is a very difficult question to answer, since there are over 400 incorporated cities, 58 counties, and countless administrative districts for, for example, K-12 schools and public utilities. But let’s try:

The average local government worker, using the Census Bureau as the source; Public Employment Data 2008, Local Governments, indicates 1,451,619 (full time equivalent) local government workers made on average $64,285 per year, which totals $93.3 billion. Add 55.5% benefits overhead to that amount and you have a total of $145.1 billion in local government employee compensation per year in California. How much did local governments spend?

For this data it is again necessary to rely on census data, referencing compilations put together by analyst Chris Cantrill on the website USGovernmentSpending.com. His chart (click the tab “Local”), Local Government Spending California, 2009 estimate, shows local government spending totaling $270 billion. This suggests that spending for employees in local governments in California, on average, consumes about 54% of the total local government budgets.

With respect to local government, however, a collective figure can be quite misleading. At the county level where social services agencies issue direct payments to needy citizens, or in the case of public utilities and construction projects where there is substantial allocations for capital investments, the percentage of funds allocated to employee compensation may be relatively minute. In smaller incorporated cities, on the other hand, the percentage of funds used for employee compensation may be 90% or more.

Readers are invited to review these calculations and the underlying assumptions. But given California’s state and local governments combined spend nearly $200 billion per year to compensate state and local workers, a discussion of whether or not their compensation might be reduced to market rates is not only relevant from the standpoint of fairness, but may also be a meaningful option towards reducing budget deficits.