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Pension Reform Comes to Ventura County

“401Ks carry no guarantee, and that’s the distinction between a defined contribution system and a defined benefit system.”  – Rick Shimmel, executive director of the Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, February 20, 2014, Fox News Soundbite

Truer words were never spoken, Mr. Shimmel. But when the “guarantee” can’t be lowered to levels that are merely unfair and burdensome, as opposed to monstrously unfair and financially catastrophic, then replacing “guarantees” with uncertainty and risk becomes the only option.

The latest attempt at pension reform in California is the Ventura County Pension Reform Initiative, affecting an affluent and idyllic coastal region that includes cities to the north of Malibu and south of Santa Barbara. It’s hard to imagine a nicer place to serve as the latest battleground in the pension wars.

What Shimmel objects to is the provision of the pension reform that creates a 401K “defined contribution” plan for all new hires to the county. The virtue of such as system is that the only commitment the employer makes is to deposit an agreed percent of each participant’s salary into a tax-deferred retirement account. Once the employee retires, they will draw on the retirement account until it’s gone. And if they run out of money, the employer – i.e., the taxpayer – doesn’t have to replenish their account.

How could it not have come to this? Despite well-orchestrated statewide protests against reformers who threaten the “modest pensions” of “working families,” Ventura County is no exception in terms of just how out of proportion their retirement benefits are compared to private sector norms. Take a look at this “VCERA Retirement Benefit Calculator” to do some informal Ventura County pension analysis:  A public safety employee making final compensation of $100,000 with 30 years service can retire at age 55 with a pension of $78,594 per year. Many of us look at these numbers too much. Exactly what part of $78,594 for the rest of your life, starting at age 55 – “guaranteed” and including COLA adjustments – doesn’t sound rather excessive? If you wanted to save enough to pay yourself that much for 30 years using a 401K account, according to the conventional wisdom of responsible investment advisors, you would have to save between $1.97 and $2.59 million. How many 55 year old workers can save that kind of money? But wait, there’s more. While on the VCERA retirement benefit calculator webpage, take a look at their “Retirement Compensation Definition:”

“In addition to base salary, compensation earnable may include, but is not limited to:
Flexible Benefit Credit (total)

Educational Incentives
Employer-paid employee retirement contributions
Employer-paid FICA
Assignment and shift bonuses

Automobile allowance
Annual Leave or Vacation Redemption, limited to the hours you actually redeemed during the normal course of active service, and within the 12 or 36 month period to be used for the measurement of final compensation, not to exceed the number of hours actually accrued during that measurement period, reduced by the number of hours you were required to use in order to qualify to redeem annual leave or vacation.
30 year incentives
Uniform Allowances
Overtime that is scheduled as part of your normal work week”

“Employer-paid employee retirement contributions” and “employer paid FICA” count as “Retirement compensation” for the purposes of calculating a pension. Is this a joke? Automobile allowance? Uniform allowances? Vacation time? “Scheduled overtime”? Using this assortment of criteria, it must be common for full-time senior employees to break $100,000 in eligible final compensation, and many will break $200,000. Skeptical? Go to the TransparentCalifornia website and look up “Ventura County Pensions.” Too bad they didn’t provide the researchers with “years of service,” to debunk the absurdly low averages that are continuously used to mislead voters – averages that include people who only worked a few years.

Ventura’s pension reform has a good chance of being passed by voters, should it make it onto the ballot. But it represents not so much an ideal solution as the only solution that might be expected to survive court challenges. This is a shame. Here is a summary of some pension reform options:

(1) Move to a 401K plan for new hires and make marginal reforms to existing defined benefit plans. Benefits: It will probably survive a court challenge. Drawbacks: It won’t beneficially impact pension fund cash flows for decades, and it creates two very distinct tiers of public servants. An example of this is the Ventura County Pension Reform Intiative (text).

(2) Require all new employees to earn pensions according to lower benefit formulas that are financially sustainable, make marginal reforms to existing defined benefit plans.  Benefits: It will survive a court challenge. Drawbacks: It still won’t beneficially impact pension fund cash flows for decades, if ever. An example of this is CalSTRS “2% at 60” plan for participants hired after 1-1-2013.

(3) Require all active employees, new and existing, to earn pensions from now on according to lower benefit formulas that are financially sustainable.  Benefits: This program will create immediate significant reductions to required annual contributions.  Drawbacks: It still creates two tiers of employees, favoring veteran employees and retirees, because it does not retroactively reduce any formulas or benefits. Also, even though this reform only impacts future pension benefit accruals, by affecting existing employees it is an allegedly unconstitutional violation of “vested contractual rights.” An example of this reform is the state pension reform initiative “Pension Reform Act of 2014” (text) championed by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed – and probably tabled till 2016, thanks to the power of public sector unions and their political partners, the public employee pension funds.

(4) Suspend cost-of-living adjustments for all pensions for all retirees collecting in excess of, say, $75,000 per year, and concurrently, lower pension formulas on a pro-rata basis, retroactively affecting vested pension benefits and prospectively affecting ongoing pension accruals, for all new and all existing employees, by the additional amount necessary to restore 100% solvency to the fund. Benefits: Solves the problem overnight, and spreads the sacrifice equitably among ALL public servants, rather than punishing the new employees to protect the veterans. Drawbacks: There are legal arguments supporting the position that such measures violate “vested contractual rights.” For examples of this option, look to Detroit and Rhode Island. But the sooner this option is exercised, the less onerous the sacrifices.

An aside: It’s funny how the questionable legality of retroactive pension benefit enhancements never bothered the defenders of defined benefits.

What defenders of defined benefit pensions such as Rick Shimmel should consider is this:  What options three and four accomplish – however unpleasant they may be to veterans accustomed to the current system – is preservation of the defined benefit. What option four offers is conversion to an “adjustable defined benefit” that “adjusts,” whenever necessary, in a manner that preserves solvency, protects taxpayers, and spreads the sacrifice among all participants – new hires, active veterans, and retirees – in an equitable manner, minimizing the sacrifice any single class of participants might have to experience. Social Security, by the way, is an adjustable defined benefit.

What reformers who focus on conversion to 401k plans are doing, unfortunately, is facing reality. The reality is that unions and pension funds refuse to accept meaningful compromises – leaving nothing but the nuclear option of 401K conversions to detonate amidst the palm trees and sandy beaches of Ventura County. Many of the union spokespersons can be forgiven for some of their intransigence, because they are being mislead by spokespersons and strategists representing pension funds into thinking the financial challenges these funds face are manageable without major upheaval. They are not.

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

Union Controlled Illinois Politicians Consider Tax Increases to Fund Pensions

Editor’s Note:  This post by regular UnionWatch contributor Mike Shedlock documents the latest bad news for the Illinois Teachers Retirement System. And of course, union-controlled Illinois politicians have a solution: More taxes in one of the most overtaxed states in America. Like many if not most pension reformers, Shedlock advocates a scrapping of defined benefit plans, presumably in favor of defined contribution plans. But it doesn’t have to be that way. An adjustable defined benefit plan could work, eliminating the mortality risk and much of the market risk that make 401K plans undesirable for many individuals. To convert defined benefits to adjustable defined benefits, you would have to (1) use lower rate of return assumptions, (2) lower benefits across the board – to retirees, existing workers, and new employees – on a pro-rata basis, to levels that would restore solvency to the funds. Floors for workers in low-paying jobs with modest pensions could be established, along with ceilings for beneficiaries whose pensions are, say, more than twice the maximum social security benefit. If unions representing public sector workers would accept these tough reforms, they could keep their defined benefits.

In spite of a 12.8% annual return, with an 8% return assumption, the Illinois Teachers Retirement System (TRS) fell another $3.5 billion in the hole. TRS pension underfunding grew to $55.73 billion as of June 30, 2013.

Via email, the Illinois Policy Institute explains the growing liability.

 First, TRS only has $0.40 in the bank for every dollar it should have today to make necessary pension payouts in the future. That means the high investment returns in 2013 were earned on less than half of the assets that TRS should have

TRS acknowledged this in a recent press release:

“Despite these strong returns, TRS cannot invest its way out of the funding hole we are in,” Ingram added. “This increase in the System’s unfunded liability, even with good investment results, is another wake-up call to state officials and our members that TRS long-term finances continue to head in the wrong direction.”

“Without changes to the pension code to ensure sustained and adequate funding, TRS faces the very real possibility that in a few decades the System will not have enough money to pay benefits to retirees. We cannot guarantee that TRS will have enough money to pay the pensions promised to every member in the System.”

Second, the inherent flaws of the state’s defined benefit pension system have driven up the shortfall significantly. According to the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, the state’s pension shortfall grew by $41 billion from 1996 to 2012.

Of that amount, nearly $23 billion came from some form of missed “assumption” that continually plagues defined benefit pension plans:

  • The investment returns for the state’s five pension funds were lower than their assumed 8% expectation. Cost to taxpayers: $9.5 billion.
  • Unplanned benefit increases for employees. Cost to taxpayers: $1.1 billion.
  • Changes in actuarial assumptions. Cost to taxpayers: $4.9 billion.
  • “Other” actuarial factors. Cost to taxpayers: $7.2 billion.

TRS fails to acknowledge the failures of the defined benefits plan and instead chooses to blame taxpayers for not contributing enough to the system.

Who is to Blame for Shortfalls?

Please consider the Illinois Policy Center report State pension contributions: Taxpayers bear the brunt of increasing pension costs

 A common refrain sounded by public sector unions is that government workers have consistently “paid their share” into Illinois’ pension systems and the state has not. However, the facts tell a different story.

While government worker contributions to Illinois’ five pension systems have increased by 75 percent since 1998, taxpayer contributions have increased by 427 percent over the same period. In 2012 alone, Illinois taxpayers contributed $3.5 billion more to the pension systems than state workers did.

Government workers’ share, as a percentage of total contributions, has continued to decline when compared to taxpayers’ contributions. In 1998, government workers paid for 47 percent of the state’s total pension contribution; today, they only pay 21 percent. By 2045, government workers will be expected to pay only 17 percent of total pension contributions.

Illinois’ Five Pension Systems

Illinois has five state pension systems, and all of them are seriously underfunded:

  1. The Teachers’ Retirement System, or TRS, manages pensions for teachers across Illinois (excluding Chicago).With more than 130,000 active members and nearly 95,000 retirees, TRS is the largest pension system in the state. Unfortunately, TRS also has the highest unfunded liability of the state’s pension systems. In 2012, TRS was only 40.6 percent funded and officially had more than $53.51 billion in unfunded liabilities. TRS members contribute 9.4 percent of their salary to the pension system.
  2. The State Employees’ Retirement System, or SERS, manages pensions for state-level employees across Illinois. It has 62,000 active members and 50,000 retirees. In 2012, SERS was only 33.1 percent funded and had officially $22.13 billion in unfunded liabilities. Under its regular pension formula, SERS members covered by Social Security contribute 4 percent of their salary, and those not covered by Social Security contribute 8 percent of their salary to the pension system.
  3. The State Universities Retirement System, or SURS, manages pensions for employees working at state universities. It has 71,000 active members and more than 45,500 retirees. In 2012, SURS was only 41.3 percent funded and had officially $19.46 billion in unfunded liabilities. SURS members contribute 8 percent of their salary to the pension system.
  4. The Judges’ Retirement System, or JRS, manages pensions for judges throughout the state. It is one of the two smaller pension systems, with only 968 active members and 725 retirees. Despite its small size, in 2012 JRS was only 28.6 percent funded and officially had $1.44 billion in unfunded liabilities. JRS members contribute 11 percent of their salary to the pension system.
  5. The General Assembly Retirement System, or GARS, manages pensions for members of the Illinois General Assembly. Despite having only 176 active members and 294 retirees, GARS has the dubious honor of being the worst-funded pension system in the state. In 2012, GARS was only 17.4 percent funded and officially had $251 million in unfunded liabilities. GARS members contribute 11.5 percent of their salary to the pension system.

All Five Systems Bankrupt 

TRS, SERS,SURS, JRS, and GARS are all insolvent. None of them can possibly meet their pension obligations. With 10-year treasuries yielding a scant 2.5%, plan assumptions of 8% are preposterously high on a sustained basis.

Yet, TRS went another $3.5 billion in the hole in spite of a 12.8% annual return.

What the hell is TRS going to do in the face of a stock market plunge, a bond market plunge, or both?

GARS, the General Assembly Retirement System is only 17.4% funded. Is it any wonder that state legislators are pressing for more tax hikes?

Beware Tax Hikes!

On October 18, I reported Illinoisans Beware: “Progressives” Seek Massive Tax Hike Again; Fight the Hike!

Pension shortfalls are the reason for the proposed hikes.

A few people commented the “progressive” tax was not as much as they pay. Here is Rep Naomi Jakobsson’s proposed scheme.

Shedlock_IllinoisProperty Taxes

What I failed to point out previously is that I pay $14,000 annually in property taxes on a home I can sell for $400K or so.

Sales Taxes

My sales tax rate is  7.75%. But hey, that could be worse. Cicero tops the state with a 9.5% tax. In Chicago, the sales tax is 9.25%.

In spite of all these massive taxes, the entire state is bankrupt!

The Solution

Raising taxes for the benefit of legislators and seriously undeserving public unions is certainly not the answer. The solution is twofold:

  1. Immediately kill all Illinois public defined-benefit pension plans
  2. Drastically lower existing pension plan expectations, via default if necessary

Nothing else can possibly work, and the numbers prove it. 

About the Author:  Mike Shedlock is the editor of the top-rated global economics blog Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis, offering insightful commentary every day of the week. He is also a contributing “professor” on Minyanville, a community site focused on economic and financial education. Every Thursday he does a podcast on HoweStreet and on an ad hoc basis he contributes to many other websites, including UnionWatch.

Adjustable Pension Plans

Professor Barnhardt: “So it was only when your world was threatened with destruction that you became what you are now?” Klaatu: “Yes.” Professor Barnhardt: “Well that’s where we are. You say we’re on the brink of destruction and you’re right. But it’s only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve.”
-The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2008

One might paraphrase Professor Barnhardt’s plea, excerpted from the 2008 movie potboiler “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” to suggest that pension plans will evolve once it is clear to a sufficient number of participants that they are truly on the precipice.

In the private sector, where fewer laws shield employers and their workers from financial reality, evolution is well under way. And what has emerged is is a mutation of the Defined Benefit Plan that preserves many of its virtues, while avoiding most of the financial risks. Being pioneered by the east coast actuarial consulting firm, Cheiron, Adjustable Pension Plans can be structured in various ways, but all of them share certain characteristics:

  • They professionally manage a pension fund that pools contributions from employees and their employers. This pooling eliminates the mortality risk that is a huge problem with individual 401K plans, but becomes a trivial risk with a pension.
  • They calculate benefits based on career earnings instead of based on the final year, or final few years, of employment.
  • They apply “multipliers” to each individual year of earnings, with higher multipliers in years when plan performance exceeds expectations, and lower multipliers in years when plan performance falls below expectations. By immediately lowering multipliers when investment returns are down, the plan’s accrued liabilities expand more slowly, allowing the assets time to catch up.
  • Contributions are maintained at a constant percent of pay, with no “contribution holidays,” and funds are managed in relatively risk free investments. The target return for active employees is 5.0% per year, and the target return for retired employees is 4.0% per year.

Richard Hudson, a principal consulting actuary with Cheiron, with the measured understatement one might expect from an actuary, had this to say about the typical 7.0% per year (or more) long-term rate-of-return projections that are still being used by public sector pension plans: “Is it appropriate to take the level of risk necessary to reach that return when you are managing retirement plans?”

It is instructive to examine the benefit scenarios that are financially feasible under an adjustable pension plan, because they reflect a thoughtfully constructed middle ground between a defined contribution and a defined benefit. They also provide a sobering look at the limits to what a truly low-risk, financially realistic pension plan can deliver.

A participant in an adjustable pension plan who contributes 6% of their pay can expect to apply a multiplier to each year’s earnings of between 1.0% and 1.2%, based on a rate of return of 5.0%. If they want their pension to feature a COLA fully indexed to inflation, that multiplier will drop to somewhere between 0.7% and 0.8%. It is important to recognize each year’s multiplier applies to each year’s earnings, unlike a typical defined benefit, where the multipliers for each year are added up such that a person who works 30 years with a multiplier of 3.0% per year will have 90% applied to their final year’s salary. Attaching the pension benefit calculations to career earnings instead of final year earnings significantly reduces how much someone may expect to collect with an adjustable pension plan.

Whether or not public sector defined benefit plans are all doomed in their current state is still the subject of intense debate. But if the cities and counties that feed these plans do end up defaulting, there is an alternative to the 401K. An adjustable pension plan that invests member contributions conservatively may – with the same level of contributions – only be able to provide a defined benefit that is about half as generous as the current defined benefit plans promise. But in the event of defaults, it will become painfully clear that these promises should never have been made. What adjustable pension plans offer is something with far less risk than either individual 401K plans or defined benefit plans.

The concept of adjustable pensions was floated last year in another form by Dan Pellissier, formerly of the Office of Gov. Schwarzenegger, in an ingenious state ballot initiative proposal entitled “Government Employee Pension Reform Act of 2012.” One key provision of the proposal was to declare a fiscal emergency if a pension plan were less than 80% funded, wherein benefits would be reduced and employee contributions would be increased until the 80% funded level was regained. What is appealing about this plan, along with the fact that it preserves the defined benefit, is that by invoking a fiscal emergency, it permits the necessary adjustments to save the plan.

There are many mutations to defined benefit plans that may evolve, sooner if there is recognition by politicians, public employees, union leadership, and pension fund managers, that we truly are approaching a precipice. The difficulty with recognizing an actuarial liability is that so many assumptions are necessary to calculate the liability, it becomes very easy to obscure the urgency of the problem. Nobody can say with absolute certainty that the roughly $3.0 trillion in public sector pension fund assets won’t exceed their 7.0% annual earnings targets for the next several years. But these plans must hit returns of 7.0% or more for the next several years, if they are to avoid a Darwinian plunge into the abyss. Adjustable Pension Plans, i.e., Adjustable Defined Benefits, offer a solution to the financial challenges facing traditional defined benefit plans, and they offer an alternative to individual 401K plans. They should be seriously considered while there is still time.

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 UnionWatch is edited by Ed Ring, who can be reached at editor@unionwatch.org