California Pensions Take Above-Average Tax Bite

California pension funds take a bigger share of tax revenue than the national state average, a research website shows. Why the growing costs are outpacing the norm is not completely clear.

A prime suspect for some would be overly generous pensions, particularly what critics say is an “unsustainable” increase for police and firefighters widely adopted to match a big increase given the Highway Patrol by SB 400 in 1999.

The Public Pension Database does not have information on the formulas that determine pension amounts, like the Highway Patrol’s “3 at 50” or three percent of final pay for each year served at age 50.

One problem is the wide range of pension formulas, made even more complex by a recent national wave of cost-cutting reforms. Under a California reform three years ago, most new hires must pay more toward their pensions and work longer and retire at an older age to earn the same pension as workers hired before the reform.


Keith Brainard is the Research Director for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators (NASRA)


“Trying to compare plan benefits in one state with another state has become complicated,” said Keith Brainard, research director for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.

Brainard started the database now operated jointly by NASRA and the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and the Center for State and Local Government Excellence.

Several web-based seminars have been held to show how the “big data” can be used by researchers, government officials, media, and others. Trends and patterns can be identified, comparisons made, and the findings displayed in charts.

A chart on the database shows the amount of tax revenue taken by California public pensions was slightly below the national average in 2001. Then from 2003 to 2005 the California pension tax bite climbed well above the national average, maintaining a gap that by 2013 was about a third higher.

In rough terms, the public pension share of California tax revenue in fiscal 2013 was 8 percent by fiscal 2013 compared to a national average of 6 percent.


Source: Public Plans Database and Census of Governments.

Source: Public Plans Database and Census of Governments.



In an interview, Brainard mentioned two factors for the above-average share of tax revenue taken by California pensions. Most California government workers, including teachers and many police and firefighters, do not receive Social Security.

Only 40 percent of state and local government employees in California receive Social Security, according to the database. The Social Security coverage in some other large states: New York 99 percent, Florida 95 percent, and Texas 47 percent.

The cost of using the federal Social Security program to provide part of the retirement benefit (6.2 percent of pay each from the employer and the employee) would not show in data about the share of tax revenue taken by state and local pensions.

Another factor: The period covered by the research begins around 2000 when the three big state pension funds were spending a “surplus” from a stock-market boom not only on increased benefits but on lower employer contributions.

The California Public Employees Retirement System, which covers about half of all non-federal government workers in the state, sponsored the retroactive SB 400 rate increase for all state workers and dropped employer rates to near zero in 1999 and 2000.

Then as the stock market dipped, CalPERS had to begin raising employer rates not only to cover pension increases (AB 616 in 2001 authorized a bargaining menu for local government employees) but also to regain funding lost by the big employer rate cuts.

In addition to CalPERS, the California plans in the database include the California State Teachers Retirement System, the University of California Retirement System, the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association, and 11 other local systems.

The data covers most of the public pension members in California, but far from all of the pension systems. An annual report from the state controller lists 131 separate California retirement systems, many of them relatively small.

California systems in the database, with two major exceptions, paid their full Annual Required Contribution (ARC) to cover the annual or “normal” cost of pensions earned each year and the large debt from previous years, the “unfunded liability.”

Debt often is created when pension fund investments, expected by big California funds to earn 7.5 percent a year, fall short of the target, which critics contend is overly optimistic. Among other factors that can create debt is longer than expected life spans.

The California State Teachers Retirement System is listed on the database as paying only 50.9 percent of the ARC in 2013. Unlike other systems, CalSTRS could not raise employer rates. Now long-delayed legislation two years ago to pay the full ARC will more than double school rates by 2020, cutting deep into budgets.

CalSTRS spent its small and brief “surplus” around 2000 on several benefit increases and rate cuts. The pension fund was shorted when a quarter of the teacher contribution, 2 percent of pay, was diverted for a decade into a supplemental 401(k)-style individual investment plan for teachers with a guaranteed minimum return.

Three years ago, a Milliman actuarial report said if CalSTRS had kept its 1990 structure without the rate and benefit changes around 2000, pensions would have been 88 percent funded instead of 67 percent. A much smaller rate increase could have closed the funding gap.

The UC Retirement Plan is listed on the database as paying 63.9 percent of the ARC. A large surplus prompted the plan to give employers and employees a remarkable two-decade contribution “holiday.”

Most made no payments to the UC pension fund from 1990 to 2010. The surplus, driven by investment returns and other factors, peaked with a 156 percent funding level in 2000.

As painful rates were set to resume in a time of tight budgets, a UC task force said in 2010 that if normal cost contributions had been made during the two decades, the system would have been 120 percent funded instead of 73 percent.

CalPERS has not calculated how much of its current funding gap results from the pension increases and rate cuts during the surplus years. But a CalPERS chart showed that SB 400 accounted for 18 percent of the state worker employer contribution increase between 1997 and 2014.

Nearly half of the state worker contribution increase, 46 percent, was due to investment gains and losses, demographic and actuarial changes, and higher employee contribution rates. Payroll increases accounted for 31 percent of the change.

Critics say the SB 400 “3 at 50” formula has the most impact in local government, where police and firefighters are a major part of the budget. The big cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, and Oakland) have their own pension systems and are not in CalPERS.

Public pensions have not recovered from huge investment losses during the recession. The Center for Retirement Research reported last monththat the 160 plans in the Public Pension Database were 74 percent funded last year, 72 percent under new accounting rules.

The Center’s report showed that from 2001 to 2015 the CalPERS funding level dropped from 111.9 percent to 74.5 percent. During the same period, the CalSTRS funding level fell from 98 to 67 percent and UC funding plunged from 147.7 to 81.7 percent.

About the Author: Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He is currently a Publisher for

CalSTRS CEO Jack Ehnes Recommends 50% Increase to CalSTRS Retirement Income

Author’s Note: The original title of this post was “CalSTRS CEO Jack Ehnes Recommends 50% Increase to CalSTRS Pension Benefits.” That was inaccurate. What Ehne’s specifically recommended per the quote immediately below this note was “income replacement of 80 percent to 90 percent to maintain a similar lifestyle in retirement,” in reference to his assertion that presently “the median CalSTRS pension replaced less than 60 percent of final salary for the members who retired last year.” To be perfectly accurate, Ehnes’ is recommending a 50% increase in CalSTRS participant retirement income. While he does not specifically recommend increasing their pension benefit by 50%, in order for teachers to achieve a 50% increase in their retirement income, either some other employer paid form of compensation would have to increase – for example, supplemental 401Ks, fed by either greater teacher salaries or greater employer matching, or both, or something else – or teachers would have to live more frugally in order to save more retirement funds on their own without an increase to compensation. Which is it? While this note constitutes a retraction of the original title, and the author apologizes for the misconceptions that resulted, it is still necessary to wonder why pension fund executives are suggesting that 60% income replacement for a public servant is inadequate, when private citizens may consider themselves extraordinarily lucky to secure a retirement income anywhere close to that amount.

“The median CalSTRS pension replaced less than 60 percent of final salary for the members who retired last year. CalSTRS recommends income replacement of 80 percent to 90 percent to maintain a similar lifestyle in retirement. Public educators do not receive Social Security benefits for their CalSTRS service.”
– Jack Ehnes, Chief Executive Officer, CalSTRS, Introduction to CalSTRS Comprehensive Annual Financial Report 2014, page 11)

Here we go again – a recommendation for another 50% pension benefit increase. Will it be retroactive this time? That went well last time. Remember SB 400, quietly passed for CHP officers during a robust bull market in 1999, and by 2005 rolled out to nearly every state/local agency in California? No consequences whatsoever.

And, here we go again – somehow getting a CalSTRS pension instead of Social Security is a monstrous sacrifice!

Social Security recipients making roughly what veteran teachers make can expect to receive a benefit at age 68 that is roughly equivalent to 25% of their final year’s earnings. Twenty-five percent. The average teacher receives 2.5 times that much each year via their pension, starting about seven years earlier. Mr. Ehnes thinks that’s not enough. He ought to know better. If every Californian retiree got a pension equivalent to what a CalSTRS recipient currently gets, it would cost over $600 billion per year. Where’s that money going to come from, Mr. Ehnes?

There’s a lot to chew on for anyone trying to wade through CalSTRS most recent publicly available annual financial report. This additional gem, also coming from Mr. Ehnes himself, illustrates just how out of touch the pension bureaucrats have become:

“The funding approach in AB 1469 is predicated on the actuarial assumption that CalSTRS will earn a 7.5 percent annual rate of return throughout the life of the plan.” (CalSTRS 2014 CAFR, page 8)

Jack Ehnes is referring to California Assembly Bill 1469, passed in May 2014, which will phase in massive contribution rate increases over the next several years, mostly from taxpayers, so that CalSTRS will be fully funded by around 2047. That is, in exchange for even higher contributions from taxpayers, CalSTRS will get its financial house in order “in about 32 years.”

But what if “throughout the life of the plan,” CalSTRS is unable to earn a 7.5 percent annual rate of return? Does it matter at all that recently reported gains were logged during this latest bull market that’s running out of steam? Will even more massive contribution rate increases be the solution? According to the most recent data available, CalPERS is currently $73 billion in the hole, or only 67% funded. (CalSTRS 2014 CAFR, page 158)

The problem with seasoned financial professionals like Jack Ehnes fostering expectations like this – bull market returns of 7.5% for the next 32 years, and pensions for teachers that need to elevate from the current 60% of salary to “80 per cent to 90 percent” of salary, is that people who aren’t financial professionals actually believe them.

From professional government union supported PR firms, to the rank-and-file workers they assist to prepare op-eds, unrealistic expectations from people like Jack Ehnes are packaged into propaganda designed to destroy public support for pension reform.

For an example of this, look no further than the August 22 guest op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, “Another View: State pension funds are recovering,” purportedly written by Lydia Petitjean, a public school secretary and CSEA union official. Pettijean’s lead sentence is pure propaganda:

“Perhaps an oil slick is clouding the crystal ball of Stephen Eide of the Koch brothers-funded Manhattan Institute when he suggests that the effort to undermine the retirement security of millions of Californians – disguised as ‘pension reform’ – is gaining steam.”

This is sophomoric trash talk. It is vacuous, cynical drivel. The Manhattan Institute is a respected organization, Stephen Eide is a policy analyst with unimpeachable integrity and proven financial acumen, the Koch Bros have little if anything to do with the Manhattan Institute, and “oil slicks” is an image calculated to elicit disgust, but has nothing to do with pension reform. Nothing.

Anti-reformers like Lydia Petitjean base much of their rhetoric on a false premise – that big moneyed “Wall Street” special interests would like get their hands on all that pension money. This is patently false. As it is, the finance industry benefits immensely from government pension funds, because they have an enormous amount of money already invested on Wall Street – $4.0 trillion in assets nationwide. The pension funds relentlessly advocate, and then manage, benefit plans so generous that they are forced to invest in high-risk, high-return financial instruments that the financial industry is all to happy to invent and sell to them. Even better, when they don’t hit their numbers, the taxpayers bail them out. And even if every government worker’s defined benefit plan was converted to a 401K tomorrow, the same pension systems, CalSTRS and CalPERS and all the rest, would still be the administrators.

There’s nothing there, Ms. Petitjean. Not even “oil slicks.”

The reality is maybe pension reformers just want to prevent the pension systems and their government union allies from running every city and county in California into the ground.

Sooner or later, if public employees hope to keep their defined benefit pensions, they will have to accept lower benefit formulas. When the next market downturn hits, and it will, people like Jack Ehnes will have a lot of explaining to do, and people like Lydia Petitjean will have to make a tough decision:

Do they want to become oppressors of the private sector taxpayer in partnership with some of the most aggressive financial predators in the world, so they can enjoy retirement benefits several times better than Social Security recipients? Or do they want to share the same economic challenges as the people they supposedly serve, and work towards feasible solutions to retirement security in America for everyone?

*   *   *

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


California City Pension Burdens, February 2015

Estimating America’s Total Unfunded State and Local Government Pension Liability, September 2014

Evaluating Total Unfunded Public Employee Retirement Liabilities in 20 California Counties, May 2014

Evaluating Public Safety Pensions in California, April 25, 2014

How Much Do CalSTRS Retirees Really Make?, March 2014

Comparing CalSTRS Pensions to Social Security Retirement Benefits, February 27, 2014

How Much Do CalPERS Retirees Really Make?, February 2014

Sonoma County’s Pension Crisis – Analysis and Recommendations, January 2014

Are Annual Contributions Into CalSTRS Adequate?, November 2013

Are Annual Contributions Into Orange County’s Employee Pension Plan Adequate?, August 2013

A Method to Estimate the Pension Contribution and Pension Liability for Your City or County, July 2013

Moody’s Final Adopted Adjustments of Government Pension Data, June 2013

How Lower Earnings Will Impact California’s Total Unfunded Pension Liability, February 2013

The Impact of Moody’s Proposed Changes in Analyzing Government Pension Data, January 2013

A Pension Analysis Tool for Everyone, April 2012

How Much Do CalSTRS Retirees Really Make?

Summary:  The California State Teacher’s Retirement System (CalSTRS) is California’s 2nd largest public employee pension fund, serving roughly 2% of California’s population. At present, its unfunded liability is officially estimated at $71 billion. While much of the discussion over pension reform focuses on projected rates of investment returns, which greatly affects the required annual contributions to the fund, too often the actual amount of the average CalSTRS pension is omitted from these discussions. Even worse, the average pension amounts frequently cited for CalSTRS retirees are often misleading because they fail to take into account years of service, or the impact of pension benefit enhancements in recent years.

In this study, we analyze data from CalSTRS 2012 pension records to assess the true value of the average CalSTRS pension. We do so by factoring in years of service data to extrapolate an average “full career” amount, represented by both 30 and 43 year terms. We find that the average CalSTRS retiree can presently expect to receive a $51,500 pension for having worked a 30 year career, and a $73,817 pension for a 43 year career.

This study also analyzes 2012 pension averages broken out by the retiree’s retirement date and finds a significant disparity between the amount received by those who have retired more recently as compared to those who have retired earlier. For example, if a CalSTRS participant had retired in 2012 after working 30 years, they could expect an initial annual pension of $57,645; after 43 years, $82,625. The average 2012 pension for a CalSTRS participant who retired 20 years ago, in 1992, is much lower; $38,517 if they had worked 30 years; after 43 years, $55,207.

When discussing how much public employees receive in pension benefits, in order to make accurate comparisons and avoid misleading the public, it is vital to adjust the data to reflect averages based on full careers in public service. It is also vital to provide averages that reflect current benefit formulas, since the more generous formulas currently in effect are what inform the scale of pension liabilities in the future. This study addresses these concerns.


The pay and benefits of public employees is a discussion of increasing relevance to taxpayers. As noted in a CPPC study published on February 1st, 2014, “How Much Do California’s State, City and County Workers Really Make?,” in California, personnel costs are estimated to consume 40% of total city budgets, 41% of the state budget for direct operations, and 52% of county budgets. In many cities and counties the percentage is much higher. And these averages don’t include personnel costs for outside contractors, nor do they include payments on debt that is directly related to personnel costs, such as pension obligation bonds.

Meanwhile, even when budgets are balanced, as may be the case this fiscal year at least for the State government, there is an overhang of debt obligations facing California’s state and local governments that are only manageable as long as interest rates remain relatively low. Another CPPC study published in April 2013 entitled “Calculating California’s Total State and Local Government Debt,” estimated California’s total state and local bond debt at $382.9 billion as of June 30, 2012. That same study reported California’s officially recognized state and local unfunded obligations for retirement health insurance and pension obligations at $265.1 billion. Using more conservative assumptions regarding pension fund performance, the study estimated these retirement obligations on the part of California’s state and local governments could increase by an additional $389.8 billion. In all, it is quite likely that California’s taxpayers currently owe over $1.0 trillion in total debt and unfunded retirement obligations incurred by state and local government, and most of that is for retirement benefits for state and local government employees.

In this environment it is important to present factual information relating to public sector compensation. With respect to retirement benefits, it is helpful to present complete and accurate aggregate data, in order for policymakers and taxpayers to determine whether or not current benefit formulas are fair and financially sustainable. This study analyzes data from CalSTRS, using nearly a quarter-million records obtained from CalSTRS for 2012. In particular, this study presents data showing, by year of retirement, what the average pension benefits were in 2012. The study then normalizes these benefits to account for full careers using two benchmarks – the public sector “full career” expectation of 30 years, and the private sector “full career” expectation of 43 years.

*   *   *


This study precisely replicates the methods used in a CPPC study released on February 14th, 2014, “How Much Do CalPERS Retirees Really Make?”  The analysis and charts developed for this study can be evaluated by downloading the following spreadsheet. Please note the file size is 23 MB.


The source data was acquired from the website, an online resource produced through a joint-venture involving the California Policy Center and the Nevada Policy Research Institute. The data on the Transparent California website, in this case, was acquired directly from CalSTRS, and has not been altered. Since the focus in this study involves aggregate data, the names of individual participants have been removed from the downloadable spreadsheet that accompanies this analysis.

Because the information provided by CalSTRS included “year of retirement” and “years of service,” it is possible to normalize the information to produce “full career” equivalent pensions. It is vital to make this analysis, because no statistic representing average pensions can be evaluated apart from knowing how long most participants actually worked. It would be analogous to saying that an active worker only was paid $100 for a day’s work, without knowing how many hours they worked. Did they work ten hours and earn $10 per hour, or did they only work one hour and earn $100 per hour? Without looking at how many years participants worked to earn their pensions, we cannot even begin to have a productive discussion as to whether or these pensions are fair and appropriate or not.

From a standpoint of financial sustainability it is also vital to know how many years of service the average pensioner logged. Using the payroll analogy again, if a person only worked one hour in a day and made $100, and the employer needed someone at that post for ten hours, than the employer cost was actually $1,000 per day, whereas if that person worked a ten hour day and made $100, then the employer cost was only $100. This is precisely what is at stake when evaluating the overall cost to taxpayers of public sector pensions. For example, if the average years of service for a pensioner is only 20 years, and a private sector career is actually 40 years, then the taxpayer is essentially paying for two pensions for each position that would have been filled by one person working 40 years.

*   *   *


In Table 1 it can be seen that nearly a quarter-million retirees collected pension benefits through CalSTRS during 2012, and that the average pension was $43,821 during that year. Inexplicably, this average is considerably higher than the averages frequently cited by spokespersons for CalSTRS and public sector unions representing CalSTRS participants. But the average CalSTRS retiree worked for 25.53 years. It is not reasonable to suggest that someone who has only worked perhaps two-thirds the duration of a normal career should expect a retirement benefit that might be more appropriate for a full career. And it is impossible to discuss, much less determine, whether or not CalSTRS retirement benefits are appropriate, without taking into account how long a retiree has worked in order to earn their retirement benefit.

Table 1  –  Basic CalSTRS Data, 2012


The next table, below, depicts how much these overall average pension amounts would increase if the retiree pool had turned in an average “years of service” of 30 years, which is a typical duration to use when considering public sector careers, as well as 43 years, which is typical for any private sector worker who hopes to receive the full Social Security benefit.

These calculations are made by dividing the average annual pension for a CalSTRS participant in 2012, $43,821, by the average years of service, 25.53. The result, $1,717, is the amount the average CalSTRS retiree accrued in annual pension benefits for each year they worked during their careers. This amount is multiplied by 30 to show what a current CalSTRS retiree could expect, on average, if they had worked 30 years; $51,500.  This amount is multiplied by 43 to show what a current CalSTRS retiree could expect, on average, if they had worked 43 years; $73,817.

Table 2  –  CalSTRS Average Pensions Assuming Full Careers


Just as when considering current compensation for public employees, total compensation – direct pay plus employer paid benefits – is the only truly accurate measurement of how much they make, when considering retirement pensions for retired public employees, pensions adjusted to show what they would have been if the recipient had spent their entire career working and paying into the pension system, i.e., “full career equivalent pensions,” are the only accurate measurements of how much they are really getting in retirement. But there is another crucial variable that must be considered to complete this analysis, which is how much full career equivalent pensions are paying to CalSTRS retirees who retired in recent years.

*   *   *


Because the data provided by CalSTRS includes not only years of service for each participant, but also the year they retired, it is possible to calculate average “full-career” pension benefits based on the year they retired. It is important to do this because pension benefits for California’s state and local government workers were steadily enhanced over the past decades, especially after 1999 when SB 400 was passed by the California state legislature. In general, pension formulas have been altered to bestow pension benefits that are approximately 50% better today than they were 20 years ago. At the same time, pension benefits are calculated on rates of pay, which themselves have increased at a rate exceeding inflation for at least the last 20 years.

Table 3 depicts the unambiguous impact of these trends. The last column to the right on the table, “Avg Pension, 43 Years Svc” shows what retirees would be really getting in pension benefits if they had worked 43 years – from age 25 through age 67 (one may substitute age 22 through age 64, or whatever, of course). As seen, the 14,247 retirees in 2012, had they worked 43 years, would have collected average annual pensions of $82,625.

In general, pensions adjusted to reflect a full career in the private sector exceeded $80,000 per year starting with those CalSTRS participants retiring in 2001. They decrease sharply for participants who retired prior to 2001. In 1999 and 2000 they were less than less than $70,000 but more than $60,000. Participants who retired between the years 1986 and 1998 collect pensions today – again, had they worked a full private sector career – greater than $50,000 and less than $60,000. Participants who retired before 1986 collect pensions today that are less than $50,000.

It is hard to find a data set that shows a greater correlation than this one: The earlier you retired, the less you’re going to get in your pension today. That is because pension formulas were enhanced for California’s state and local government workers over the past 10-20 years – especially starting around 1999. Not only were they enhanced, but they were enhanced retroactively, meaning that someone nearing retirement who had been accruing pension benefits at a rate of 2.0% per year, for example, suddenly began accruing pension benefits at a rate of 3.0% per year not only for the years remaining in their career, but for every year they worked.

To speculate as to why it was possible to retroactively enhance pension formulas through legislative action, yet it is purportedly unconstitutional and therefore impossible to merely reduce these formulas for active workers from now on, would go beyond the scope of this modest analysis.

 Table 3  –  CalSTRS Average “Full Career” Pensions By Year of Retirement


Table 3 (Data)  –  CalSTRS Average “Full Career” Pensions By Year of Retirement


It is probably necessary to reiterate as to why full-career equivalent pensions are the only accurate measurement to use when discussing whether or not today’s public sector pension benefits are appropriate or financially sustainable. The reason is simple and bears repeating:  Defenders of pensions as they are use “averages” that don’t seem terribly alarming. Notwithstanding the fact that a self-employed person in the private sector would have to earn over $100,000 per year and contribute 12.4% of their lifetime earnings in order to collect the maximum Social Security benefit of $31,704 at age 68, which is considerably less than the average CalSTRS pension of $43,821, that average CalSTRS pension is based on an average years of service of 25.53 years. Somebody who has only worked for 25 years should not have an expectation of a pension that exceeds the maximum Social Security benefit that requires 12.4% of a six-figure annual income and 43 years of work. Few, if any participants in CalSTRS are contributing more than 12.4% of their pay into their pension account. The taxpayers make up the difference.

When debating the financial sustainability of CalSTRS and the other pension funds serving California’s state and local government workers, there are many issues. How the unfunded liability is estimated is the topic of intense debate, focusing primarily on what rate-of-return these funds believe they will average over the next few decades. That rate-of-return estimate also is a primary determinant of how the “normal contribution” is calculated. There are myriad aspects to the debate over how to adequately fund public sector pensions. But missing from that debate far too frequently is an honest assessment of just how much, on average, these pensions are really worth to the recipients.

This study has presented a calculation of what CalSTRS’s average pension benefit is based on years worked as well as year of retirement. It has normalized that data to show that a retiree who worked 30 years and retired last year, on average, can expect a pension of over $57,000 per year, and if they worked 43 years and retired last year, on average, can expect a pension of over $82,000 per year.

About the Authors:

Robert Fellner is a researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) and joined the Institute in December 2013. Robert is currently working on the largest privately funded state and local government payroll and pensions records project in California history, TransparentCalifornia, a joint venture of the California Policy Center and NPRI. Robert has lived in Las Vegas since 2005 when he moved to Nevada to become a professional poker player. Robert has had a remarkably successfully poker career including two top 10 World Series of Poker finishes. Additionally, his economic analysis on the minimum wage law won first place in a 2011 essay contest hosted by the George Mason University.

Ed Ring is the executive director for the California Policy Center. As a consultant and full-time employee primarily for start-up companies in the Silicon Valley, Ring has done financial accounting for over 20 years, and brings this expertise to his analysis and commentary on issues of public sector finance. Ring has an MBA in Finance from the University of Southern California, and a BA in Political Science from UC Davis.

Public Sector Pension Plans Do Not Pass the "Smell Test"

“Pew’s relationship with the Arnold Foundation does not pass the smell test,” said Meredith Williams, Denver-based executive director of the National Council on Teacher Retirement.
–  “Pension Funds Press Pew to Cut Arnold Foundation,” Philanthropy Today, March 4, 2014

If you’re looking for an example of how, increasingly, political debate in America is framed as a battle between tainted – and very powerful – special interests who harbor nefarious personal agendas, instead of a rational exchange of competing facts and logic aimed at finding optimal solutions, look no further.

Apparently, across the United States, any reputable nonprofit, from Pew and PBS to your underfunded start-up, now has to refuse gifts from major donors unless they happen to be (1) funded by public sector unions, or (2) originate from the pockets of left-wing billionaires. Everything else is tainted. Everything else fails the “smell test.”

Apart from the absurdity of tagging individuals and organizations with terms as archaic as “right-wing” and “left-wing,” when it is left-wing government unions that have joined forces with right-wing crony “capitalists” to exterminate what remains of America’s private sector middle class and small business community, the tactic of tainting the messenger results in a tragic smothering of constructive dialog.

When debate focuses on facts, the truth, and sound policy, emerges. When debate focuses on which participant stinks more, truth doesn’t matter. And the likely truth that should be debated is this: If anything doesn’t pass the “smell test,” it is the long-term financial solvency of public sector pensions as they are currently formulated. They are on a collision course with reality.

Over the past several months the California Public Policy Center has produced numerous short studies assessing public sector pension plans in California. Since the National Council on Teacher Retirement is probably concerned primarily with teachers pensions, here are two points from those studies, submitted for genuine debate, regarding CalSTRS:

CalSTRS Contributions Are Well Below Levels Necessary to Maintain Solvency

The officially recognized amount of CalSTRS unfunded liability is $71 billion. In their fiscal year ended 6-30-2012, CalSTRS made an “unfunded payment” towards reducing that liability of $1.1 billion. If CalSTRS were to adhere to the GASB and Moody’s recommended repayment schedules – which take effect later this year – that payment would have to be many times greater – to quote from the study “Are Annual Contributions Into CalSTRS Adequate?

Using evaluation formulas and unfunded liability payback terms recommended by Moody Investor Services in April 2013, this study shows that if the “catch-up” payment is calculated based on a level payment, 20 year amortization of the $71.0 billion unfunded liability – still assuming a 7.5% rate-of-return projection – this catch-up payment should be $7.0 billion per year. The study also shows that if the CalSTRS pension fund rate-of-return projection drops to 6.20%, the unfunded liability recalculates to $107.8 billion and the catch-up payment increases to $9.6 billion per year. At a rate-of-return projection of 4.81%, the unfunded liability recalculates to $154.9 billion and the catch-up payment increases to $12.2 billion per year.

CalSTRS Retirees Collect Pension Benefits Far In Excess of Social Security Retirees

Here is a quote from a press release issued by CalSTRS in opposition to the proposed citizen initiative, the Pension Reform Act of 2014, (already DOA for 2014, by the way), “California’s educators do not participate in Social Security, retire on average around age 62, and earn a retirement income that replaces only about 56 percent of their salary.

The implication here seems to be that CalSTRS retirees would prefer to be part of Social Security. So here’s the comparison between a typical CalSTRS benefit and the Social Security benefit, from the 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 study then examined how much more a CalSTRS participant might have accumulated based on having 8.0% of their paycheck withheld vs. only 6.4% for a Social Security participant. For a CalSTRS paticipant retiring at age 65 with a final income of $80,000, the study estimated the value of this extra 1.6% in annual contributions to equal $138,502 after 35 years of withholding. This is equal to just over three years of the difference in the amount of a typical annual CalSTRS pension and a typical Social Security annual retirement benefit, i.e., it does not come close to closing the gap between the typical Social Security benefit vs the typical CalSTRS benefit.”

What these two points exemplify ought to be quite clear, and ought to be the topic of debate that relies on facts, logic and fairness, instead of competition to discredit the messengers – or their sources of funding: (1) Public sector pensions are not financially sustainable without major changes to contributions and benefit formulas, (2) Public sector pensions provide far more retirement security than Social Security, despite requiring comparable mandatory levels of withholding from employee paychecks.

Anyone who actually reads material from the Arnold Foundation will likely be impressed by the level of scholarship and objectivity they bring to their analyses. The open minded reader may wish to peruse this solution paper, “Creating a New Public Pension System,” authored by Arnold Foundation scholar Josh McGee, a Ph.D economist who has studied public pensions for many years.

Solving America’s public sector pension crisis, and it is a crisis, doesn’t necessarily require abandoning defined benefit plans. But they will have to be converted to “adjustable defined benefit” plans that can, for example, freeze COLAs, lower benefit formulas (at least) prospectively, and raise required employee contributions, whenever necessary, in order to preserve solvency, protect taxpayers, and spread the sacrifice among all participants – new hires, active veterans, and retirees – in order to minimize the sacrifice any single class of participants might have to experience.

Ultimately, what doesn’t pass the “smell test” is the alternative to reform: Increasing the tax burden on private sector workers and small business owners in order to subsidize public employee retirement plans that offer benefits many times better than Social Security.

Are America’s public sector pension plans financially sound, or are they are a rotting, stinking carcass, sprayed with public relations perfume and papered over with pretty ideological colors? Are they healthy financial contributors to America’s prosperity, victims of unwarranted attacks from “right-wing” ideologues, or are they an oppressive, inequitable, gargantuan, putrescent bubble that shall someday pop, pouring a reeking stench across the economic landscape of this nation?

That is the debate that ought to rage, focusing on facts, not pheromones.

*   *   *

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


Comparing CalSTRS Pensions to Social Security Retirement Benefits, February 28, 2014

Pension Reform Comes to Ventura County, February 25, 2014

The Fall of Pacific Grove – Conclusion: The “California Rule” Cannot Stand, February 25, 2014

Pension Funds and the “Asset” Economy, February 18, 2014

How Much Do CalPERS Retirees Really Make?, February 13, 2013

How Does “Zero-point-Eight at Sixty-Eight” Sound for a Pension Plan?, February 11, 2014

Why Middle Class Private Sector Workers Are NOT “Ripping Off the Next Generation,” December 17, 2013

How Unions and Bankers Work Together to Protect Unsustainable Defined Benefits, November 26, 2013

CalSTRS Contributions Inadequate; Unions Call Reformers “Right-Wing Ideologues,” November 12, 2013

Are Annual Contributions Into CalSTRS Adequate?, November 8, 2013

Saving Pensions Will Require Unions To Face Reality, August 27, 2013

Social Security is Healthy Compared to Public Sector Pensions, July 30, 2013

A Method to Estimate the Pension Contribution and Pension Liability for Your City or County, July 24, 2013

Calculating California’s Total State and Local Government Debt, April 26, 2013

How Lower Earnings Impact California’s Total Unfunded Pension Liability, February 18, 2013

Are Annual Contributions Into CalSTRS Adequate?

Preface: Earlier this year the California Policy Center published a study evaluating the Orange County Employee Retirement System (OCERS) to explore this same question: Are Annual Contributions into OCERS Adequate? That study adopted a unique focus, evaluating contributions into OCERS not based on percent of payroll, but by looking at the actual amount of cash being contributed each year. In particular, the study evaluated how much cash each year was being contributed to reduce the unfunded liability. This report performs the exact same analysis, using the exact same template. Different numbers; same story. Pension analysts and pension activists are encouraged to download the spreadsheets (CalSTRSOCERS) used in both of these studies, and use them to perform similar analysis for whatever pension systems they are concerned about. For whatever pension fund they choose to analyze, it is quite likely they will find that the amount of money being contributed to reduce the unfunded liability is alarmingly low.

Summary: For the fiscal year ended 6-30-2012 the California State Teachers Retirement System, CalSTRS, collected $5.8 billion from employees and employers to invest in their pension fund. Of this $5.82 billion, $4.7 billion was the so-called “normal contribution,” which was a payment to cover the present value of future pensions earned during FYE 6-30-2012 by actively employed participants. The other $1.1 billion that was collected and invested in the fund was a “catch-up” payment to reduce the unfunded liability, which as of 6-30-2012 was officially estimated to be $71.0 billion.

Using evaluation formulas and unfunded liability payback terms recommended by Moody Investor Services in April 2013, this study shows that if the “catch-up” payment is calculated based on a level payment, 20 year amortization of the $71.0 billion unfunded liability – still assuming a 7.5% rate-of-return projection – this catch-up payment should be $7.0 billion per year. The study also shows that if the CalSTRS pension fund rate-of-return projection drops to 6.20%, the unfunded liability recalculates to $107.8 billion and the catch-up payment increases to $9.6 billion per year. At a rate-of-return projection of 4.81%, the unfunded liability recalculates to $154.9 billion and the catch-up payment increases to $12.2 billion per year.

This study also finds that the $4.7 billion normal contribution into CalSTRS for FYE 6-30-2012 was based on a rate-of-return assumption of 7.5%. The study shows that lowering the rate-of-return projection from 7.50% to 6.20% would require the normal contribution to increase by another $1.1 billion; lowering it from 7.50% to 4.81% would require the normal contribution to increase by another $2.5 billion. The rate of 6.2% represents the historical performance of U.S. equity investments (including dividends) between 1900 and 1999. The rate of 4.81% is the Citibank Pension Liability Index rate as of July 2013, which is the lower risk rate recommended by Moody’s Investor Services for pension liability forecasting.

The conclusion of this study is that CalSTRS relies on optimistic long-term earnings projections and very aggressive unfunded liability repayment schedules in order to pay the absolute minimum into their pension fund. If CalSTRS is required to even incrementally lower their rate-of-return projections – something that market conditions may eventually dictate – their funded ratio which is already only 67.0% will fall precipitously. Unless extremely favorable market conditions occur for the next several years without interruption, in order for CalSTRS to remain solvent, they need to dramatically cut retirement benefits, or increase their annual contributions by 50% or more per year.

*   *   *


The purpose of this brief study is to assess whether or not the $5.82 billion contributed during the fiscal year ended 6-30-2012 into the CalSTRS pension fund was sufficient to ensure the long-term solvency of the fund. Using methods recommended in July 2012 and finalized in April 2013 by Moody’s Investor Services, and elucidated in a recent CPPC study “A Method to Estimate the Pension Contribution and Pension Liability for Your City or County,” this study will perform what-if scenarios, estimating the size of the CalSTRS unfunded liability at various rates of return.

This study will also discuss whether or not the current contributions, both normal and catch-up, add sufficient assets to the CalSTRS fund to ensure solvency, and how much contributions would need to increase using more conservative assumptions regarding return on investment and payback periods. Finally, throughout this study an attempt will be made to discuss and explain key concepts of pension finance, in keeping with the CPPC’s mission to inform and involve more people in discussions of sustainable public finance. The tables in this study were produced on an Excel spreadsheet that can be downloaded here:

DOWNLOAD SPREADSHEET:  Analysis-of-CalSTRS-Pension-Liability-and-Contributions.xlsx

The officially recognized amounts for key variables used in this study, including the total contribution to the pension fund, normal contribution, “catch-up” contribution to reduce the unfunded liability, as well as the total assets, total liabilities, and unfunded pension fund liability, were all drawn from publicly available CalSTRS financial reports.

*   *   *


The underfunding of any pension fund is calculated by subtracting from the amount of the total invested assets the present value of the liability to pay pensions in the future. Because these future pension obligations are intended to be paid sometime between next year and 50-60 years from now, the liability today is calculated by adding up the net present values of the estimated payments to be made for each year in the future. If the total value of the pension fund’s invested assets is equal to the present value of all future pension payments, the fund is said to be 100% funded.

Using data from the CalSTRS “Defined Benefit Program Actuarial Valuation as of June 30, 2012,” here are the officially recognized amounts for CalSTRS assets, liabilities, and underfunding at the end of last year [1]:

  • Actuarial accrued liability (AAL) = $215.19 billion
  • Valuation value of assets (VVA) = $144.23 billion
  • Unfunded Actuarial Accrued Liability = $70.96 billion

*   *   *


Again using data from CalSTRS “Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, FYE 6-30-2012,” the total contribution into the pension fund in 2012, via direct payments by participating employers and withholding from participating employee paychecks, was $5.82 billion [2].

Annual pension fund contributions have two components, the “normal contribution,” and the “unfunded contribution,” which is the amount paid towards reducing the plan’s unfunded liability. The “normal contribution,” simply stated, needs to be an amount equal to the present value of future pension payment obligations earned in the current year.

Normal Contribution: The total employer and employee normal cost for FYE 6-30-2012 was $4.69 billion as documented on page 15 of the Milliman actuarial report for CalSTRS, “Defined Benefit Program Actuarial Valuation.” [3].

Unfunded Contribution: The amount paid into the CalSTRS pension fund during their FYE 6-30-2012 to reduce their unfunded liability is not explicitly disclosed on official documents. But logic dictates the total unfunded contribution to be the difference between the total contribution, $5.82 billion, and the normal contribution, $4.69 billion, or $1.13 billion.

  • Total contribution = $5.82 billion
  • Normal contribution = $4.69 billion
  • Unfunded contribution = $1.13 billion

The remainder of this report will consider whether or not this level of contributions is adequate by estimating required contributions based on more aggressive payback terms, as well as more conservative rate-of-return projections. The first step is performing these what-ifs is to estimate how the unfunded liability is affected by changes to the rate-of-return projections.

*   *   *


To be 100% funded, a pension plan must have invested assets equal to the present value of all future pension payments. For every participating employee, whether they are active or retired, actuaries estimate their salary growth, their year of retirement, their initial pension, their subsequent pension payouts based on COLAs, and their life expectancy. The present value of all these future payments is how much a fully funded pension plan’s assets must be worth.

The rate at which these future payments are discounted per year must be equivalent to whatever rate the pension fund managers believe they will earn interest, on average, over the life of the fund. The theory is that if no future work were performed, and no future pension benefits were earned, and no additional money were contributed to the fund, the assets currently invested in a fully funded plan would earn enough interest to support every future pension payment until the last participant died of old age.

Since the amount of assets in a pension plan is a known, objective quantity, the debate over how much unfunded liability a plan may have centers on what assumptions are used to estimate the present value of the future payments, i.e., the “Actuarial accrued liability (AAL),” which CalSTRS valued as of 6-30-2013 at $215.2 billion. In order to assess whether or not that amount is overstated or understated, we can use a short-cut formulated by Moody’s Investor Services in their July 2012, “Moody’s Adjustments to US State and Local Government Reported Pension Data.”

In order to revalue a pension fund’s liabilities without having access to every actuarial calculation from every fund, what Moody’s does is estimate the midpoint of the future payments stream. They select 13 years into the future, which is quite conservative. Using a longer duration than 13 years will greatly increase the sensitivity of the liability to changes in the projected rate-of-return. Here is their rationale [4]:

“To implement the discount rate adjustment, we propose using a common 13-year duration estimate for all plans. This is a measure of the time-weighted average life of benefit payments. Each plan’s reported actuarial accrued liability (“AAL”) is projected forward for 13 years at the plan’s reported discount rate, and then discounted back at 5.5%. This calculation results in an increase in AAL of roughly 13% for each one percentage point difference between 5.5% and the plan’s discount rate. For example, a plan with a $10 billion reported AAL based on a discount rate of 8% would have an adjusted AAL of $13.56 billion, or 35.6% greater than reported.

We recognize this duration estimate may be higher than warranted for some plans and lower than warranted for others. Each pension plan has a unique benefit structure and demographic profile that affects the time-weighted profile (duration) of future benefit payment liabilities. However, plan durations are not reported, and calculating duration individually for each plan is not feasible. Our proposed 13-year duration is the median calculated from a sample of pension plans whose durations ranged from about 10 to 17 years. Plans with shorter durations usually are closed or have a preponderance of older or retired members.”

Here is the formula that governs this readjustment:

Adj PV = [ PV x ( 1 + official %i ) ^ years ] / ( 1 + adjusted %i ) ^ years

Table 1, below, shows how much the CalSTRS unfunded liability will increase based on two alternative rate-of-return projections, both of which are lower than the official rate of 7.50% currently used by CalSTRS. Here they are:

Case 1, 6.2%  –  here is the rationale for this rate-of-return, excerpted from the report “Pension Math: How California’s Retirement Spending is Squeezing The State Budget” [5] authored by Joe Nation, a Ph.D., Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, and former California Democratic assemblyman: “This 6.0 to 6.5 percent figure is based on the performance of a hypothetical fund containing 80 percent equity and 20 percent income instruments between 1900 and 1999. It assumes an equity rate based on the 20th-century Dow Jones industrial annual average of 5.3 percent, plus 2 percent in dividends, less 0.5 percent in fees. Combined with income instruments with a net rate of return of 4.5 percent, this hypothetical fund would have earned an average annual rate of 6.2 percent.”

Case 2, 4.81%  –  the rationale for this rate-of-return comes from Moody’s Investor Services “Moody’s Revised New Approach to Adjusting Reported State and Local Government Pension Data,” released in April 2013 [6]“For adjustments to pension data, Moody’s will use the Citibank Pension Liability Index (Index) posted on the date of the valuation instead of its original proposal to apply a single rate for all plans each year.” Citigroup Pension Discount rate as posted by the Society of Actuaries in July 2013 was 4.81% [7].

Table 1 makes the revaluation method specified by Moody’s transparent. To download the spreadsheet that contains all of these tables, click here:  Analysis-of-CalSTRS-Pension-Liability-and-Contributions.xlsx, and refer to the first tab “unfunded liability.” To make the logic of these calculations as plain as possible, the spreadsheet cells where assumptions are input are shaded in yellow, and the result cells at the bottom are shaded in green. Column 1 shows the baseline case, using the official projected interest rate of 7.50%, meaning the end result is unchanged. Column two uses the “case 1″ lower rate of 6.20%, column three uses the “case 2″ rate of 4.81%. The first three rows show how the officially reported unfunded liability is calculated. The first four rows of the second second section, “Revaluation of Unfunded Pension Liability,” projects the liability forward 13 years to develop a future value at the official rate of return, 7.50%. The final three rows of the second section then calculate the present value using the baseline rate of 7.50%, the case 1 rate of 6.20%, and the case 2 rate of 4.81%.

As can be seen, even with what is probably an unrepresentative duration of only 13 years, if the pension fund is only projected to earn 6.2% instead of 7.50%, the unfunded liability estimate jumps from $70.0 billion to $107.8 billion, and at a projection of 4.81%, more than doubles to $154.93 billion. These are not implausible scenarios.



*   *   *


Table 2, below, shows how much CalSTRS should be paying back each year to reduce their unfunded liability if they were to pay it back using the terms of a conventional amortized loan with level payments each year. And this “level payment” method is what has been adopted by Moody’s Investor Services in their Moody’s Revised New Approach to Adjusting Reported State and Local Government Pension Data, “Moody’s adjusted net pension liability will be amortized over a 20-year period on a level-dollar basis using the interest rate provided by the Index.” [8]

When reviewing Table 2, bear in mind that the payment made in FYE 6-30-2012 into the CalSTRS pension fund towards reducing their unfunded liability was $1.13 billion. As the baseline case in column 1 shows, if this payment were calculated using a level payment, 20 year term as recommended by Moody’s Investor Services, they would have had to pay $6.96 billion during 2012, more than six times as much. This observation merits repetition: By applying repayment terms that Moody’s Investor Services – the largest credit ratings agency in the world – has recommended public sector pension funds adopt, and without changing the return-on-investment assumptions that many analysts (including Moody’s who recommend using the Citibank Pension Index rate which typically is under 5.0%), CalSTRS is underpaying their unfunded contribution by a factor of more than six times.

Columns 2 and 3 in Table 2 help illustrate why it isn’t excessive to specify a 20 year, level payment plan to eliminate a pension plan’s unfunded liability. Because the amount of the unfunded pension liability, the principle being repaid, will fluctuate according to how much fund managers think the invested assets are going to earn. And as Table 1 shows, the amount of the unfunded liability is extremely sensitive to these changes.

In column 2, case 1 shows the impact of a 6.20% rate of return projection for the CalSTRS pension fund. The unfunded pension liability increases from the official $70.0 billion to $107.8 billion, which more than offsets the using the lower 6.20% rate to calculate the required payments. In case 1, a 6.20% projected rate of return for the CalSTRS pension assets will equate a $9.55 billion annual payment to reduce their unfunded liability. In case 2, a 4.81% projected rate of return for the CalSTRS pension assets will equate a $12.2 billion annual payment to reduce their unfunded liability.

Note: The first table in the Appendix to this report shows more detail on how CalSTRS is currently incurring negative amortization, i.e., how the unfunded pension liability will increase each year if only $1.13 billion is paid annually toward reducing that liability, as well as how the unfunded pension can be eliminated within 20 years using the higher payments calculated using the level payment method.



*   *   *


No discussion of whether or not sufficient funds were contributed to CalSTRS during FYE 6-30-2012 would be complete without considering the “normal contribution,” which was $4.69 billion. The normal contribution is defined as how much future pension obligations were earned by actively employed participants during the current year, in this case, during the 12 month period ended 6-30-2012. If a pension plan is considered to be 100% funded, the normal contribution is the only payment necessary.

Table 3, below, revalues the normal contribution using methods recommended by Moody’s Investor Services. Again, a shortcut of this type is necessary because it is impossible with publicly available information to apply various rates of return to estimated future annual pension payments accrued during 2012 according to the actuarial profile for every actively employed participant in CalSTRS. Instead, the normal payment, representing the present value of the entire stream of future pension payments earned by actively working participants in the most recent year, is recalculated, using the official rate-of-return projection, 7.50%, at a future value set 17 years from now, representing the average remaining service life of active employees. This future value is then discounted back to present value using the lower rate-of-return, in our cases, at 6.20% and 4.81%. This process will yield a higher required normal contribution. Here’s how Moody’s describes this method in their July 2012 proposal “Moody’s Adjustments to US State and Local Government Reported Pension Data.” [9]

“The ENC [employer’s normal cost] adjustment reflects the lower assumed discount rate and the use of a 17-year active employee duration estimate for all plans – i.e., each plan’s normal cost is projected forward for 17 years at the plan’s reported discount rate, and then discounted back at 5.5% [based on the Citibank Pension Liability Index, as Moody’s specifies, which has dropped subsequently dropped to 4.81% – this study uses two lower rate scenarios, 6.20% and 4.81%], after which employee contributions are deducted to determine the adjusted ENC. The 17-year duration assumption reflects our estimate of the average remaining service life of employees based on a sample of public pension plans. We acknowledge that this is a simplifying assumption that may be too long or too short for different plans. Using this approach, a reported ENC payment of $100 million based on an 8% discount rate would grow to $149 million based on a 5.5% discount rate.”

As case 1 and 2 show on Table 3, lowering the CalSTRS pension fund’s rate-of-return projection from 7.50% to 6.20% increases the normal contribution by $1.1 billion; if it is lowered from 7.50% to 4.81% the normal contribution increases by $2.5 billion.



*   *   *


Using evaluation formulas and unfunded liability payback terms recommended by Moody Investor Services in April 2013, this study shows that if the CalSTRS “catch-up” payment is calculated based on a level payment, 20 year amortization of the $70.0 billion unfunded liability – still assuming a 7.50% rate-of-return projection – this catch-up payment should be $6.96 billion per year, rather than the $1.1 billion unfunded payment that was actually made. The study also estimates that if the CalSTRS pension fund rate-of-return projection drops to 6.20%, the unfunded liability recalculates to $107.8 billion and the catch-up payment increases to $9.6 billion per year. At a rate-of-return projection of 4.81%, the unfunded liability recalculates to $154.9 billion and the catch-up payment increases to $12.2 billion per year.

This study also estimates that the $4.7 billion normal contribution into CalSTRS for FYE 6-30-2012, based on a rate-of-return assumption of 7.50%, would have to increase to $5.5 billion based on lowering the rate-of-return assumption to 6.20%. Further, the study shows that by lowering the rate-of-return assumption from 7.50% to 4.81% would require the normal contribution to increase to $6.9 billion.

The 2nd table in the appendix, “Required rate-of-return at various levels of underfunding,” shows why underfunding is a slippery slope by illustrating how much higher rates have to be just to keep the underfunding from getting worse. Pension spokespersons have consistently stated that annual earnings in any mature fund will always greatly exceed annual contributions. On the table, the 5th column “baseline” shows how much earnings have to increase at CalSTRS current official level of 67.02% funded. At that level of funding, as can be seen, just in order for the unfunded liability to not increase, CalSTRS currently has to earn an annual return of 11.2%. At that sustained rate-of-return, the surplus earnings beyond the projected 7.50% do not reduce the unfunded liability at all, they merely prevent it from getting larger.

To recap, for the fiscal year ended 6-30-2012, here are some CalSTRS financial highlights as determined in this study:

  • Lowering the earnings projection to 6.20% increases the normal contribution by $1.1 billion per year; lowering it to 4.81% increases the normal contribution by $2.5 billion per year.
  • The unfunded “catch-up” contribution of $1.1 billion did not lower the officially recognized unfunded liability of $71.0 billion, in fact, it grew by $4.2 billion (ref. Appendix 1, baseline case).
  • If the earnings projection is lowered from 7.50% to 6.20% the unfunded liability increases from $71.0 billion to $107.8 billion; if it is lowered to 4.81% the unfunded liability increases to $154.9 billion.
  • At the official return projection of 7.50%, if the unfunded liability is paid back according to 20 year level payment amortization terms, the annual catch-up payment would have been $6.9 billion.
  • Using 20 year level payment amortization terms, at a return projection of 6.20% the annual catch-up payment should have been $9.6 billion; at 4.81%, it should have been $12.2 billion.
  • An annual return projection of 6.20% represents the long-term appreciation of equities [5], an annual return projection of 4.81% represents the Citibank pension liability index rate as of July 2013 [7].

The conclusion of this study is that CalSTRS relies on optimistic long-term earnings projections and very aggressive unfunded liability repayment schedules in order to contribute the absolute minimum each year into their pension fund. As a result, their unfunded liability increased during FYE 6-30-2012 by over $4.0 billion. If CalSTRS is required to even incrementally lower their rate-of-return projections further – something that market conditions may eventually dictate – their funded ratio which is already only 67.0% will fall precipitously. Unless extremely favorable market conditions occur for the next several years without interruption, in order for CalSTRS to remain solvent, they need to dramatically cut retirement benefits, or increase their annual contributions by 50% or more per year.

*   *   *


(1)  CalSTRS Defined Benefit Program Actuarial Valuation as of June 30, 2012, page 32, Table 8

(2)  CalSTRS “Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, FYE 6-30-2012, page 41, “Statement of Changes in Fiduciary Net Assets.”

(3)  Milliman: Defined Benefit Program Actuarial Valuation, as of June 30, 2012, page 15, Section 4 “Actuarial Obligation, Normal Cost.”

(4)  Moody’s Adjustments to US State and Local Government Reported Pension Data, request for comment, July 2nd, 2012, page 6.

(5)  Pension Math: How California’s Retirement Spending is Squeezing The State Budget, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, page 13, December 2011.

(6)  Moody’s Revised New Approach to Adjusting Reported State and Local Government Pension Data,” ref. “The Adjustments,” item 1, April 2013.

(7)  Citigroup Pension Discount Curve, Society of Actuaries, July 2013

(8)  Moody’s Revised New Approach to Adjusting Reported State and Local Government Pension Data, ref. “The Adjustments,” item 3, April 2013.

(9)  Moody’s Adjustments to US State and Local Government Reported Pension Data, ref. page 8, section four, part one “New discount rate applied to normal cost.”

*   *   *





California’s Liberals Will Get All the Government They Want

On Tuesday voters in California went the wrong way on three propositions.

  1. Voters approved Proposition 30 “temporarily” increasing the state sales tax and income tax on individuals making over $250,000.
  2. They voted against Proposition 31 that would allow the governor to cut the budget in fiscal emergencies.
  3. They voted against Proposition 32 that would prevent unions from making campaign donations via members’ dues.

Moreover, and worse yet, Democrats picked up two more votes in the state legislature giving them a supermajority, capable of passing any tax hikes they want.

Those results are so awful I suggest you prepare for the demise of California.

Indeed California’s Liberal Supermajority is about to run the state into the ground and taxpayers are going to get all the government they ever wanted.

The main check on Sacramento excess has been a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds majority of both houses to raise taxes. Although Republicans have been in the minority for four decades, they could impose a modicum of spending restraint by blocking tax increases. If Democratic leads stick in two races where ballots are still being counted, liberals will pick up enough seats to secure a supermajority. Governor Jerry Brown then will be the only chaperone for the Liberals Gone Wild video that is Sacramento.

The high Democratic turnout in moderate and right-leaning districts helped the party pick up three seats in the senate and four in the assembly.

So now Californians will experience the joys of one-party, union-run progressive governance. Mr. Brown is urging lawmakers to demonstrate frugality and the “prudence of Joseph.” As he said the other day, “we’ve got to make sure over the next few years that we pay our bills, we invest in the right programs, but we don’t go on any spending binges.” That’s what all Governors say. Trouble is, merely paying the state’s delinquent bills will require tens of billions in additional revenues if lawmakers don’t undertake fiscal reforms.

With no GOP restraint, liberals can now raise taxes to pay for all this. [$200 billion in unfunded liabilities, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System in need of $10 billion annually for the next 30 years to amortize its debt, $73 billion in outstanding bonds for capital projects and $33 billion in voter-authorized bonds, etc.]

They’ll probably start by repealing Proposition 13’s tax cap for commercial property. Democrats in the Assembly held hearings on the idea this spring. Then they’ll try to make it easier for cities to raise taxes.

The greens want an oil severance tax. Other Democrats want to extend the sales tax to services, supposedly in return for a lower rate, but don’t expect any “reform” to be revenue neutral. Look for huge union pay raises and higher pension benefits.

The silver lining here is that Americans will be able to see the modern liberal-union state in all its raw ambition. The Sacramento political class thinks it can tax and regulate the private economy endlessly without consequence. As a political experiment it all should be instructive, and at least Californians can still escape to Nevada or Idaho.

Law of the Funnel in Action

Big government and absurdly strong unions destroyed Greece and Spain. Expect no less for California.

Many large California corporations that can flee, will flee. Those stuck in California will see massive tax hikes (with many more to come) just so public unions and administrators can collect absurdly high salaries and benefits that most citizens can only dream about.

Please see the Law of the Funnel for a description as to what just happened.

About the author: Mike “Mish” Shedlock is a registered investment advisor representative for Sitka Pacific Capital Management. His top-rated global economics blog Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis offers 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.