“CalSTRS has a $70-plus-billion unfunded liability – even with assumed investment earnings that Brown deems ‘highly unlikely’ – and says it needs about $5 billion more a year to regain solvency.”
– Dan Walters column, “Brown budget reflects state’s massive debt,” May 25, 2014, Sacramento Bee
Those “investment earnings” that Walters quotes Brown as finding “highly unlikely,” refer to the long-term annual return on investment projection of 7.5% used by CalPERS (ref. FYE 6-30-2013 CalSTRS Annual Report, page 29).
So what happens if investment earnings generated by CalSTRS are destined to, as even California’s union-friendly Governor Brown attests, achieve more “likely,” lower returns? In November 2013, using data from CalSTRS FYE 6-30-2012 Annual Report, the California Policy Center released a study “Are Annual Contributions Into CalSTRS Adequate?,” that examined this question.
The first objective of this study was to calculate how much CalSTRS was actually paying down on their unfunded liability. Here’s what it found:
“For the fiscal year ended 6-30-2012 the California State Teachers Retirement System, CalSTRS, collected $5.8 billion. Of this $5.8 billion, $4.7 billion was the normal contribution and the remaining $1.1 billion was a ‘catch-up’ payment to reduce the unfunded liability, which as of 6-30-2012 was officially estimated to be $71.0 billion.”
Based on these numbers, which are all pulled directly from CalSTRS official disclosures, it should come as no surprise that Gov. Brown’s CalSTRS bailout plan requires annual contributions into CalSTRS to double. When you are paying down mortgage of $71 billion – the imperfect analogy that nonetheless applies quite accurately in this context – and in a given year you only pay $1.1 billion (one seventieth), you will never pay off your mortgage. Rather, you will incur negative amortization, owing more every year.
Where will this money come from?
To put this challenge in perspective, it is relevant to note just what CalSTRS retirees are getting. According to 2012 data provided by CalSTRS, as summarized in a March 2014 California Policy Center study “How Much Do CalSTRS Retirees Really Make?,” the average CalSTRS employee after a 30 year career currently retires with a pension of $51,500 per year; their average retirement age is 62. How many private sector employees can work 180 days a year for 30 years and retire with a guaranteed annuity this big – including annual cost-of-living adjustments? The conventional wisdom of retirement planners is to save approximately 25 times the amount you intend to eventually withdraw each year to live on. That’s $1.3 million. How many people can work 180 days a year for 30 years and save $1.3 million?
The idea that CalSTRS participants can save this much money via their 8.25% payroll withholding is ludicrous. And the idea that contributing 8.25% to CalSTRS vs. 6.4% to Social Security justifies a pension benefit this much higher than what participants can expect from Social Security is equally unfounded. Here is the conclusion of a February 2014 California Policy Center study “Comparing CalSTRS Pensions to Social Security Retirement Benefits.”
At age 62, the average CalSTRS retiree collects 56% of their final salary in the form of a pension, whereas, depending on their income, the average Social Security recipient collects between 29% and 36% of their final salary in the form of a retirement benefit. At age 65, the oldest age necessary to collect the full CalSTRS benefit, a CalSTRS retiree with 35 years experience will collect a retirement benefit equal to 84% of their final salary. At age 65 a Social Security recipient will collect a retirement benefit between 30% and 35% of their final salary.
The CalSTRS bailout – and it is a bailout – will cost California’s taxpayers an additional $5.0 billion per year, and only if, as Governor Brown says, the “highly unlikely” average returns of 7.5% per year are realized. But as documented in the aforementioned study “Are Annual Contributions Into CalSTRS Adequate?,” using a 20 year payback period, here’s what lower rates of return mean for California’s taxpayers:
- At 7.5% per year, unfunded contribution = $7.0 billion per year (increase of $5.9 billion over what was actually paid).
- At 6.2% per year, unfunded contribution = $9.6 billion per year.
- At 4.8%, unfunded contribution = $12.2 billion per year.
The 20 year amortization period, recommended by Moody’s investor services, used in the study, resulted in an estimate $900 million over the latest figures from Governor Brown. This minor discrepancy validates these calculations more than anything else – they probably used a 30 year payback period. Fine. Let’s continue.
- At 7.5% per year, the normal contribution necessary to CalPERS, i.e., not the “catch up” payment on the underfunding of prior years, but just the payment necessary to cover future pensions earned in each most recent year, is $4.7 billion per year.
- At 6.2% per year, the normal contribution = $5.8 billion per year.
- At 4.8%, the normal contribution = $7.2 billion per year.
To summarize: In the FYE 6-30-2012 CalPERS, assuming a long-term return of 7.5% per year, received contributions (normal and unfunded) of $5.8 billion; they should have collected total contributions of $11.7 billion ($10.7 billion using Brown’s numbers). But if their rate of return going forward drops to 6.2% per year, they would have had to collect $15.4 billion. Got that? If the highly unlikely 7.5% average annual return isn’t realized, and only 6.2% is realized instead, taxpayers will pitch in nearly $10 billion more per year, just to bail out CalSTRS.
The money is not there.
And why is the 7.5% return “highly unlikely?”
(1) Pension funds are starting to pay more in benefits than they collect via contributions, for the first time ever. As a result, pension funds, who own over 20% of all U.S. equities, are becoming net sellers in the market instead of net buyers, pushing prices down.
(2) The U.S. population is aging, with citizens over age 65 projected to represent 22% of the population by 2020, compared with just 11% in 1980. All of them will be slowly selling off their retirement assets instead of buying and saving assets for retirement – twice as many people as a generation ago – also pushing prices down.
(3) A major factor in the market rise of the past 40 years was the accumulation of debt and progressively lower interest rates, which flooded the economy with cash and caused rapid stock price appreciation as companies profited from debt-fueled consumer spending – those days are over.
(4) Pension funds are now too big to consistently beat the market, assuming they ever could.
There is a larger question, however. Why is it that government unions, and their progressive partners, are so anti-corporate, when it is corporate profits that fuel the high returns of their pension funds? Why is it they urge us to blame pension challenges on banks, when it is the banks that lowered interest rates to literally zero (accounting for inflation), in order to create the asset bubble that keeps their pensions marginally solvent? Why is it they blame corporations for caring more about shareholders than workers, when their pensions are dependent on the pension funds reaping massive shareholder benefits from this supposedly misplaced priority?
Ultimately, the solution to the pension crisis facing CalSTRS that is most consistent with progressive principles would be for teachers from now on to collect Social Security instead of pensions, and for existing participants in CalSTRS to collect a pension benefit that is reduced by precisely the amount CalSTRS is underfunded – i.e., a 30% cut to benefits, across the board, to everyone. That solution would epitomize “fairness,” a concept of which they speak so eloquently, and so often.
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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.