Gimmick – a concealed, usually devious aspect or feature of something, as a plan or deal.
In the past week, from Millbrae’s city hall to the inner sanctum of the CalPERS leviathan in Sacramento, defenders of pensions have been active. In particular, they have criticized the recent analysis, published by the California Policy Center, “How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?” It would advance the ongoing debate over pensions to summarize the points of the CPC analysis, how CalPERS and their allies attacked those points, and how those attacks might be challenged.
On January 19th, in a report published online by Chief Investment Officer magazine entitled “CalPERS: Ring’s Flippant Claim of ‘Tricky Accounting Gimmicks’ Is False,” author Christine Giordano interviewed CalPERS spokesperson Amy Morgan. Tellingly, they did not discuss the substance of the CPC analysis, which specified, using CalPERS’ own data, how much more cities and counties are going to have to pay CalPERS. They focused instead on specific criticisms of CalPERS that followed those payment calculations.
As noted by the title of the report, CalPERS spokesperson Amy Morgan seemed to suggest the characterization of their accounting practices as employing “gimmicks” is not backed up by evidence. Morgan is invited to review the following evidence, after which she may join our readers in deciding whether or not “gimmicks” were employed.
GIMMICK #1 – THE CORRUPTION OF “ASSET SMOOTHING”
Asset smoothing is a practice whereby pension funds do not overestimate their assets after years of good returns, nor underestimate their assets after years of poor returns. It is a good way to avoid overreacting to market volatility. But in 2001, when the Dow Jones stock index had already been correcting for over a year and the Nasdaq was collapsing, CalPERS abdicated their responsibility to set the rules on smoothing.
When participating agencies in the CalPERS system were contemplating whether or not to follow the lead of the California Highway Patrol (SB 400, 1999) and retroactively increase pension benefits, CalPERS sent projections to these agencies in which a CalPERS actuary presented to elected officials three distinct values for the assets they had invested with CalPERS. Remarkably, that document gave these agency officials the liberty to choose which one they’d like to use – the higher the value they chose for their existing assets, the lower the cost from CalPERS to pay for the benefit enhancements they were contemplating. The usual disclaimers were present, but the mere fact that city officials were given three scenarios is suspect. Obviously these officials would be under pressure to pick the scenario that provided the biggest benefit enhancement for the lowest cost. Read “Did CalPERS Fail to Disclose Costs of Historic Bump in Pension Benefits?” for more details including several source documents.
One of the most revealing documents is exemplified by the “Contract Amendment Cost Analysis,” sent to Pacific Grove by CalPERS in July, 2001. Here is an excerpt from that document, showing the choices CalPERS offered Pacific Grove:
The available rate choices are offered under three different Alternatives:
Alternative 1 – No increase in Actuarial Value of Assets
Alternative 2 – Actuarial Value of Assets increased by twice the increase in the Present Value of Benefits due to the amendment, limited to 100% of Market Value of Assets
Alternative 3 – Actuarial Value of Assets increased by twice the increase in the Present Value of Benefits due to the amendment, limited to 110% of Market Value of Assets
To reiterate: CalPERS provided abundant disclaimers. They suggested that given recent “market volatility,” city officials “are strongly encouraged to have in-depth discussions with your CalPERS actuary about the financial consequences of any amendment.”
Now let’s get real: Further on in this same letter, CalPERS provides a breakdown of how much pension benefit enhancements will cost in terms of annual contributions as a percent of payroll under each of these three scenarios:
Alternative 1 – The actuarial value of the assets is not tampered with, the normal cost goes from 4.6% to 25.0%.
Alternative 2 – The actuarial value of the assets is lifted up to market value, the normal cost goes from 4.6% to 19.9%.
Alternative 3 – The actuarial value of assets goes up to 110% of the market value, the normal cost – to implement a massive, retroactive enhancement to pension benefits – goes from 4.6% to 6.2%.
What option would you choose, if you were a city manager whose own pension would be enhanced, or a city council member who has to answer to powerful unions whose members want more generous pension formulas?
The reason CalPERS was able to cram this through, in July 2001 as the market was cratering, was based on their decision to present various asset “smoothing” options to members. Why? Because the smoothing options they’d been using were understating the value of their assets because stock values had exploded in the final years of the 1990s. One can only speculate as to why they did this as late as July 2001 when it was obvious the internet stock bubble had popped. It’s possible CalPERS officials knew several agencies had already lobbied for pension benefit enhancements and the officials were under pressure to leave no agency behind. But to offer local bureaucrats and elected officials a choice of various asset smoothing methods was passing the buck.
Overnight, the CalPERS practice of asset smoothing went from being a prudent accounting guideline to a clever rationalization for disastrous policy decisions. If that’s not a gimmick, I don’t know what is.
GIMMICK #2 – CREATIVE AMORTIZATION OF UNFUNDED LIABILITY
When you talk about “tricky accounting gimmicks,” it’s hard to find one worse than the methods the participating agencies chose to amortize their unfunded liability. To be fair, final responsibility for these decisions usually rests with the cities and counties. But CalPERS should have tried to crack down on these practices a long time ago, and indeed, has recently become more aggressive in doing just that. The basic choice facing agencies with huge unfunded liabilities is whether they want to pay them off aggressively, or come up with creative accounting techniques that push the tough repayments into the future. For example, instead of using a “level payment” repayment calculation, many of them use a “percent of payroll” scheme which allows for graduated payments.
In practice, this means calculating a stream of payments that will pay off the liability in 30 years, but varying the payments so that as projected payroll increases, the payment increases. This allows agencies to make low payments in the early years of the amortization term, which frequently means the unfunded liability isn’t even being reduced in the early years of the amortization term. Then when the payments become burdensome, they refinance the new, larger unfunded liability, to get that unfunded payment down again, in a new tranche, again using the same “level percent of payroll method.”
Anyone who lost their home because a “negative amortization” loan conned them into buying something they couldn’t afford would likely call that type of loan a “gimmick.” Similarly, negative amortization payment schedules on unfunded pension liabilities are also gimmicks. To their credit, CalPERS is now recommending 20-year straight line amortization. Which begs the question, why didn’t they do this all along?
GIMMICK #3 – OVERESTIMATING LONG-TERM RATE-OF-RETURN ASSUMPTIONS
CalPERS spokesperson Morgan correctly claims that CalPERS returns have averaged an 8.4% return over the past 30 years. But Morgan conveniently selects the 30 year timeframe to capture all of the pre-1999 run-up in stocks that began in the Reagan years as interest rates were reduced from inflation-fighting highs of 16% (30 year T-bill in the early 1980s) and American consumers began piling on debt. The 20-year return for CalPERS investments through June 30, 2017 is 6.58%. And these last 20 years of returns are far more relevant, because not quite 20 years ago is when CalPERS began to offer pension benefit enhancements that were sold as affordable when they clearly are not.
But if CalPERS is exceeding its projected rates of return over the past 30 years, why is it only 68% funded (ref. CalPERS 2016-17 CAFR, page 4, “Funding”)? At the end of a prolonged bull market, pension systems should be overfunded. Being 68% funded would not be terribly alarming if we were at the end of a prolonged bear market, but we’re in the opposite place. How can CalPERS possibly claim their actuaries are doing a competent job, if the system is this underfunded at this point in the market cycle? For more on this, read “If You Think the Bull Market Rescued Pensions, Think Again.”
It is important to emphasize that even if CalPERS can get a 7.0% return on investment – and there is some chance that they can – why did the agency wait until it was 68% funded to announce the drop in its projected returns from 7.5% to 7.0%? The United States economy is in the terminal phases of a more than 60 year long-term credit cycle, and one might argue there is a stronger case to be made that even 7.0% is highly optimistic. But we like optimism, so never mind that for now. Why wait until 2018 to phase in that half-point drop? The actuaries at CalPERS are well aware how sensitive their payment schedules are to even half-point drops in long-term rate-of-return assumptions. Overstating returns understates true cost. Is this an accounting gimmick? Only if you can prove intent. But read on.
GIMMICK #4 – QUIETLY ALLOWING THE UNFUNDED PAYMENT TO DWARF THE “NORMAL” PAYMENT
Every year, each active worker who gets CalPERS benefits vests another year of service. This means that in the future, during their retirement years, they will have an incrementally greater pension benefit in recognition of one more year of work. To pay for that incrementally greater pension benefit in the future, additional money must be invested today. That amount of money is called the “normal” contribution. But when the “normal” contribution isn’t enough, and it hasn’t been for years, the so-called unfunded liability grows. This unfunded liability represents the amount by which invested pension assets need to increase in order to earn enough to eventually pay for all the future pensions that have been promised.
This “unfunded liability” may seem theoretical when a pension system has hundreds of billions in assets. But it has to get paid down, because when there aren’t enough assets in the pension system earning interest, higher contributions are inevitably required from the participating agencies. If the unfunded liability isn’t reduced via catch-up payments, it will grow even if the normal contributions are adequate to cover newly earned benefits.
This reality is corroborated using CalPERS’ own data, which announces that payments required, as a percent of payroll, are set to increase by 50% (in some cases much more) over the next six years in nearly every agency it serves. And where are these projected increases most pronounced? In the unfunded contribution – that payment to reduce the unfunded liability.
And why does the unfunded liability grow in the first place? Because the normal contribution is too low. Why is the normal contribution too low? Could it be because public employees are only required to assist (via payroll withholding) to pay the normal contribution? Could that be the reason that lifespans were underestimated and returns were overestimated? The actuaries obviously got something wrong, because CalPERS is only around 68% funded. You can download the spreadsheet that shows the impact of this on California’s cities and counties here – CalPERS-Actuarial-Report-Data-Cities-and-Counties.xlsx.
In the original CPC report, along with the term “gimmick,” the term “outrageous” was used. If you don’t think sparing the beneficiaries of these pensions any responsibility to share in the costs to pay down the unfunded liability isn’t outrageous, you aren’t paying attention. For example, by 2024, using CalPERS own data, the City of Millbrae will be paying CalPERS a normal contribution of $1.0 million, and an unfunded, or “catch-up” contribution of $5.8 million – nearly six times as much! Is Millbrae just an isolated example? Not really.
Again, using CalPERS’ own data, in 2017-18, their 426 participating cities will contribute $3.1 billion to CalPERS, an amount equal to 32% of their cumulative payroll. In 2024-25, just six years from now, they are estimated to contribute 5.8 billion, 48% of payroll. And the normal vs unfunded contributions? This year in the cities in the CalPERS system, 13% of payroll constitutes the normal contribution and 19% of payroll constitutes the unfunded contribution – for which current employees and retirees have no responsibility to help pay down. In 2024-25? The normal contribution is estimated to increase to 16% of payroll, and the unfunded contribution, rising to $4.0 billion, is estimated to increase to 33% of payroll.
Put another way, today the unfunded “catch-up” pension contribution for California’s cities, cumulatively, is 140% of the normal contribution. By 2024-25, that “catch-up” contribution is going to be 210% of the normal contribution, more than twice as much! And participating individual employees and retirees have zero obligation to help pay it down, even though that payment is now twice as much as the normal payment.
But it’s not the fault of the individual beneficiaries. The responsibility lies with CalPERS and the politicians they reassured for all these years, using gimmicks.
Let’s review these practices: (1) Letting the agencies decide which type of asset smoothing they’d like to employ, (2) permitting the agencies to make minimal payments on the unfunded liability so the liability would actually increase despite the payments, (3) making overly optimistic actuarial assumptions, (4) not taking action sooner so the unfunded payment wouldn’t end up being more than twice as much as the normal payment.
“Gimmicks”? You decide.
THE CASE OF MILLBRAE
On January 22, the San Mateo Daily Journal published an article entitled “Millbrae officials question, criticize pension cost report.”
The paper’s Austin Walsh reports that Millbrae officials told him that using staffing projections to calculate Millbrae’s future pension burden won’t work because Millbrae has fewer employees than most municipalities. Here’s how Millbrae’s Finance Director DeAnna Hilbrants put it: To limit pension costs, Millbrae contracts for positions in police, fire and public works departments. Quote: “Most notably, Hillbrants pointed to Millbrae joining the Central County Fire Department with Burlingame and Hillsborough and contracting with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement.”
What Millbrae officials are saying is that because they contract out much if not most of their personnel costs, their pension contribution is a small percent of their total budget. What they neglect to acknowledge is the fact that the Central County Fire Department and the San Mateo Sheriff’s Office themselves have pension costs, which are passed on to Millbrae to the extent Millbrae uses their services. Millbrae may have made a financially beneficial decision to outsource its public safety requirements. But they did not escape the pension albatross.
CALPERS IS NOT UNIQUE
What has been described here does not just apply to CalPERS. It is the rule, not the exception, for every one of California’s pension systems to engage in the same gimmickry. The consequences for California’s cities, counties, agencies, and system of public education are just beginning to be felt.
* * *
One year ago the Dow Jones stock index was 19,756. Today it closed at 24,211, an increase of 23%. Pretty good for one year! When the stock market does well, pension funds do well, since that’s where these funds place most of their portfolio investments. But CalPERS, the largest public employee pension system in the United States, is not doing well. Why not?
The table below shows how well CalPERS, the California Public Employees Retirement System, has performed with its investments over the past twenty years through their most recent fiscal year ended 6/30/2017.
As can be seen, CalPERS, like the stock market, and like all pension systems that rely primarily on the stock market to drive the performance of their investments, has had good years and bad years. Back in the late 1990’s, when the stock market was roaring, CalPERS put together a string of great years, including a whopping 20.1% return in 1997 and a 19.5% return in 1998. Then in 2001, after the internet bubble burst, CalPERS lost 7.2%, followed by a 6.1% loss in 2002.
A similar up/down story can be told during the stock market recovery in the mid-2000’s, where CalPERS logged a 16.6% return in 2004, 12.3% in 2005, 11.8% in 2006, and a spectacular 19.1% in 2007. Then when the housing bubble burst, CalPERS lost 5.1% in 2008, followed by a 24.0% loss in 2009. Now the stock market has turned in eight years of positive returns. What could go wrong?
CalPERS Investment Returns, 1997-2017
One could argue that stocks rise and fall unpredictably but over the long run their positive performance is reliable. This is validated by looking at the average returns for CalPERS over the past 20 years, as shown in the next chart. As can be seen, over the past 20 years, CalPERS has generated an average return of 6.58%, very close to the average they claim they can earn, currently set at 7.0%.
CalPERS Average Return Over Various Time Spans Ending 6/30/2017
Ok, so CalPERS said they could hit 7.0% and over the last twenty years, they hit 6.58%. What’s wrong?
Actually, a lot is wrong. Here goes:
(1) It doesn’t seem like very much, but the difference between a 7.0% rate of return and a 6.58% rate of return is actually quite significant. The impact of compound interest over the multi-generational time span of pension fund investments magnifies the impact of even a small reduction in how much pension systems expect to earn. For example, the difference between 7.0% and 6.58% is 0.42%, a little less than one-half of one percent. But that 0.42% reduction increases the required annual contribution as a percent of payroll from 23.0% to 25.8% – and as a fully funded plan becomes unfunded, as will be seen, the “catch up” contributions start to pile up.
(2) While CalPERS currently assumes a long-term annual rate of return of 7.0%, back in 2001 they assumed an 8.25% rate of return (ref. CalPERS 2001 CAFR, “Economic Assumptions,” page 73). The gap between 8.25% and 6.58% is huge. If pension system actuaries predict an 8.25% annual investment return, a fully funded plan only has to receive annual contributions of 16.4% of payroll, compared to 25.8% based on a prediction of 6.58% returns. Based on this analysis, back in 2001, when CalPERS should have been collecting 25.8% of payroll, they were only collecting 16.4% of payroll.
Before all these numbers start to swim about incoherently, the next chart shows the bottom line result. Back in 1999, CalPERS had invested assets totaling $149 billion. The present value of their pension obligations to current and future retirees was estimated at $116 billion, which is to say they had a surplus of $33 billion. Put another way, their assets exceeded their liabilities by 128%. No wonder they worked with public sector unions to increase pension benefit formulas. But by 6/30/2016 – the most recent data available – CalPERS had assets of $298 billion, but they had liabilities of $436 billion. That is, they were now only 68% funded, and they had a deficit of $138 billion. The chart below dramatically illustrates this nearly twenty year decline in the financial health of CalPERS.
CalPERS Unfunded Liability by Year, 1999-2016
The financial challenges facing CalPERS are even worse than this chart indicates, because when a pension system is fully funded, it can much more easily absorb a few years of market losses. But despite earning 6.58% over the past 18 years, CalPERS has gone from 128% funded to only 68% funded. They have gone from having a $33 billion surplus to having a $138 billion deficit. When the investments that have soared over the past eight years endure the inevitable downward correction, CalPERS will be even more underfunded. Put another way, pension systems should be registering deficits like this at the end of a bear market, not after eight years of a bull market.
The bull market did not save the pension funds. If it had, CalPERS would have a surplus, not a $138 billion deficit.
Taxpayers, public servants, elected officials, pension fund management, public sector union leadership: Beware. Public sector pensions are not financially healthy, they are going to require higher contributions every year, and what precarious stability they do maintain is only a result of a bull market that is very long in the tooth.
CalPERS Annual Report 2017 (ref. page 120 for data on funded status 2007-2017)
CalPERS Annual Report 2008 (ref. page 64 for data on funded status 2006-2002)
CalPERS Annual Report 2004 (ref. page 56 for data on funded status 2001-1999)
The source for the pension contributions required at various rates of return were calculated using the downloadable Excel spreadsheet “Pension Analysis Model.” A tutorial on how to use that model is provided in the article “A Pension Analysis Tool for Everyone.” Please note this Excel model calculates the “normal contribution” only, and does not calculate required contributions as a percent of payroll for underfunded systems.
The Coming Public Pension Apocalypse, and What to Do About It, CPC Study, 2016
Marc Joffe from the Reason Foundation contributed to this article.
How would you feel if someone told you they’d just increased your retirement benefit by 50%, took five years off the age you’d have to be when you could retire and collect this benefit, and then told you there would be almost no additional cost because the stock market was roaring? In California, that’s what happened in December 1999. “You” were “ALL PUBLIC AGENCIES,” and their countless thousands of public employees, and “someone” was the biggest public employee retirement system in the state, CalPERS. Click here to read the agency’s 12/23/1999 analysis.
Then how would you like it, two years later, after the market had “corrected,” you were told, via a CalPERS board resolution, that an “exception” had been made to generally accepted actuarial accounting standards, and you could choose to value your savings that had been set aside to pay for your retirement benefits at a value 10% greater than the actual market value of those assets at the time? That’s what happened in June 2001. Click here to read that 6/06/2001 letter.
Did CalPERS comply with the law when they did this?
Today, we’re left to wonder whether those actions violated state law. California Government Code Section 7507 requires that an enrolled actuary notify elected officials of the actual costs of any benefit increase.
Here is an excerpt from Section 7507:
The Legislature and local legislative bodies shall secure the services of an enrolled actuary to provide a statement of the actuarial impact upon future annual costs before authorizing increases in public retirement plan benefits. An “enrolled actuary” means an actuary enrolled under subtitle C of Title III of the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 and “future annual costs” shall include, but not be limited to, annual dollar increases or the total dollar increases involved when available.
The California Policy Center recently re-released a policy brief entitled “Did Your Agency Comply with the Law When Increasing Pension Formulas?” That policy brief provides clear instructions to any local elected official or local activist who would like to gather and view for themselves possible evidence of 7507 violations in their city or county.
The stakes are high. Senate Bill 400, enacted in 1999, increased pension benefit formulas by roughly 50 percent for California Highway Patrol officers. Over the next five years or so, nearly every state agency, city, and county in California followed suit, not only for their police and firefighters, but for all public employees regardless of their job description. The ongoing financial impact of this on civic budgets has been severe, and there is no end in sight.
Back in 1999, pension expenses as a percent of total operating budgets in California averaged around 3 percent. Today they average over 11 percent. Depending on how fast agencies are required to pay down the unfunded liabilities on their pension obligations, and depending on how pension investments perform over the next several years, pension expenses as a percent of total operating budgets in California could rise to over 30 percent.
With rare and incremental exceptions, all attempts so far to reform pensions – and so restore financial sustainability and robust services to California’s public agencies – have been thwarted. Reformers continue to challenge these special interests in court, but progress has been slow and expensive, with no rulings of any significance.
Did CalPERS comply with the law when they offered their agency clients the option to greatly increase pension benefits? Did they comply with California Government Code Section 7507?
Using Pacific Grove as an example of CalPERS’ followup, here’s the “Contract Amendment Cost Analysis – Valuation Basis: June 30, 2000,” in which a CalPERS actuary presented to Pacific Grove’s elected officials three distinct values for the assets they had invested with CalPERS, and gave them the liberty to choose which one they’d like to use. The higher the value they chose for their existing assets, the lower the cost from CalPERS to pay for the benefit enhancements they were contemplating.
Option 1: “No increase in actuarial value of pension fund assets.”
Option 2: “Actuarial value of assets increased by twice the increase in the present value of benefits due to this amendment, limited to 100% of market value of assets.”
Option 3: “Actuarial value of assets increased by twice the increase in the present value of benefits due to the amendment, limited to 110% of market value of assets.”
In plain English, the CalPERS actuary is inviting the elected officials to pick from three differing calculations of how much money they’ve already set aside to cover future retirement payments. The difference between “actuarial value of assets” and “market value of assets” is what creates this wiggle room. While the pension fund investments may have a well-defined market value at any point in time, in order to avoid having to continually adjust how much needs to be contributed into the fund by the employers each year, a “smoothing” calculation is applied that takes into account the market values in previous years.
Obviously, based on the above three choices, how assets get “smoothed” is a subjective exercise. Otherwise there would only be one option. So guess which option was chosen by the City of Pacific Grove? Evaluating the table on page 4 of the 6/30/2000 CalPERS cost analysis provides hints.
Option 1: Employer contribution will be 25.1% of payroll.
Option 2: Employer contribution will be 20.0% of payroll.
Option 3: Employer contribution will be 6.2% of payroll.
Pacific Grove selected option 3. Is that any surprise? Consider this absurdity: CalPERS left it up to these elected officials to enact their benefit enhancement, and then told them the cost to do so could vary by over 400 percent. Of course they picked the low payment option.
Did this disclosure comply with California Government Code Section 7507? Despite the presence of disclaimers dutifully included by CalPERS, arguably it did not. CalPERS offered Pacific Grove three alternative valuations for their pension fund investments, and then presented three very different payment requirements depending on which option they chose. The diligent reader will investigate these documents in vain for additional evidence that CalPERS offered Pacific Grove – or any of its other participating agencies – a usable “statement of the actuarial impact upon future annual costs.”
Even the actuary who wrote the analysis for Pacific Grove hedged his bets. In the “Certification” section on page 5, the actuary wrote, “The valuation has been prepared in accordance with generally accepted actuarial practice except that [italics added], under a CalPERS Board resolution, an increased actuarial value of assets may be substituted for the actuarial value of assets that would have been produced by the current and generally accepted actuarial asset smoothing method described in the annual report.”
What CalPERS did was to offer public agencies the option to “smooth” upwards the value of the assets they’d set aside to cover those enhanced retirement benefits they’d awarded during the stock market bubble. They persisted in these tactics to enable agencies that had not yet enhanced their benefits to do so, in order to “compete” with other agencies and retain employees.
Not only were these asset values smoothed, of course. The payments demanded each year by CalPERS were also smoothly increased. Smoothly and inexorably, with no end in sight.
CalPERS notice to All Public Agencies, 12-23-1999 – “New 3% @ 55 and 3% @ 50 Formulas, and Change in Benefits Cap for Safety Members”
CalPERS notice to All Public Agencies, 6/06/2001 – “New CalPERS Board Resolution Concerning Value of Assets Used in Calculation of Cost of Contract Amendments”
CalPERS analysis for City of Pacific Grove – “Contract Amendment Cost Analysis – Valuation Basis: June 30, 2000
CLEO Policy Brief – “Did Your Agency Comply with the Law When Increasing Pension Formulas?”
California Senate Bill 400, enacted 1999
CLEO Policy Brief – “Coping With the Pension Albatross” – provides links to sources for historical and projected escalation of pension costs as a percent of operating budgets
Back in 2013 the City of Irvine had an unfunded pension liability of $91 million and cash reserves of $61 million. The unfunded pension liability was being paid off over 30 years with interest charged on the unpaid balance at a rate of 7.5% per year. Irvine’s cash reserves were conservatively invested and earned interest at an annual rate of around 1%. With that much money in reserve, earning almost no interest, the city council decided use some of that money to pay off their unfunded pension liability.
As reported in Governing magazine, starting in 2013, Irvine increased the amount they would pay CalPERS each year by $5M over the required payment, which at the time was about $7.7M. With 100% of that $5M reducing the principal amount owed on their unfunded liability, they expected to have the unfunded liability reduced to nearly zero within ten years, instead of taking thirty years. Here’s a simplified schedule showing how that would have played out:
CITY OF IRVINE, 2013 – PAY $5.0 MILLION EXTRA PER YEAR
ELIMINATING UNFUNDED PENSION LIABILITY IN TEN YEARS
This plan wasn’t without risk. Taking $5 million out of their reserve fund for ten years would have depleted those reserves by $50 million, leaving only $11 million. But Irvine’s city managers bet on the assumption that incoming revenues over the coming years would include enough surpluses to replenish the fund. In the meantime, after ten years they would no longer have to make any payments on their unfunded pension liability, since it would be virtually eliminated. Referring to the above chart, the total payments over ten years are $127 million, meaning that over ten years, in addition to paying off the $91 million principal, they would pay $36 million in interest. If the City of Irvine had made only their required $7.7 million annual payments for the next thirty years, they would have ended paying up an astonishing $140 million in interest! By doing this, Irvine was going to save over $100 million.
Four years have passed since Irvine took this step. How has it turned out so far?
Not so good.
Irvine was doing everything right. But despite pumping $5M extra per year into CalPERS to pay down the unfunded liability which back in 2013 was $91M (and would have been down to around $64M by the end of 2016 if nothing else had changed), the unfunded liability as of 12/31/2016 is – that’s right – $156 million.
Welcome to pension finance.
The first thing to recognize is that an unfunded pension liability is a fluid balance. Each year the actuarial projections are renewed, taking into account actual mortality and retirement statistics for the participants as well as updated projections regarding future retirements and mortality. Each year as well the financial status of the pension fund is updated, taking into account how well the invested assets in the fund performed, and taking into account any changes to the future earnings expectations.
For example, CalPERS since 2013 has begun phasing in a new, lower rate of return. They are lowering the long-term annual rate of return they project for their invested assets from 7.5% to 7.0%, and may lower it further in the coming years. Whenever a pension system’s rate of return projection is lowered, at least three things happen:
(1) The unfunded liability goes up, because the amount of money in the fund is no longer expected to earn as much as it had previously been expected to earn,
(2) The payments on the unfunded liability – if the amount of that liability were to stay the same – actually go down, since the opportunity cost of not having that money in the fund is not as great if the amount it can earn is assumed to be lower than previously, and,
(3) the so-called “normal contribution,” which is the payment that is still necessary each year even when a fund is 100% funded and has no unfunded liability, goes up, because that money is being invested at lower assumed rates of return than previously.
That third major variable, the “normal contribution,” is the problem.
Because as actuarial projections are renewed – revealing that people are living longer, and as investment returns fail to meet expectations – the “normal contribution” is supposed to increase. For a pension system to remain 100% funded, or just to allow an underfunded system not to get more underfunded, you have to put in enough money each year to eventually pay for the additional pension benefits that active workers earned in that year. That is what’s called the “normal contribution.”
By now, nearly everyone’s eyes glaze over, which is really too bad, because here’s where it gets interesting.
The reason the normal contribution has been kept artificially low is because the normal contribution is the only payment to CalPERS that public employees have to help fund themselves via payroll withholding. The taxpayers are responsible for 100% of the “unfunded contribution.” CalPERS has a conflict of interest here, because their board of directors is heavily influenced, if not completely controlled, by public employee unions. They want to make sure their members pay as little as possible for these pensions, so they have scant incentive to increase these normal contributions.
When the normal contribution is too low – and it has remained ridiculously low, in Irvine and everywhere else – the unfunded liability goes up. Way up. And the taxpayer pays for all of it.
Returning to Irvine, where the city council has recently decided to increase their extra payment on their unfunded pension liability from $5 million to $7 million per year, depicted on the chart below is their new ten year outlook. As can be seen (col. 4), just the 2017 interest charge on this new $156 million unfunded pension liability is nearly $12 million. And by paying $7 million extra, that is, by paying $20.2 million per year, ten years from now they will still be carrying over $35 million in unfunded pension debt.
CITY OF IRVINE, 2017 – PAY $7.0 MILLION EXTRA PER YEAR
REDUCTION OF UNFUNDED PENSION LIABILITY IN TEN YEARS
This debacle isn’t restricted to Irvine. It’s everywhere. It’s happening in every agency that participates in CalPERS, and it’s happening in nearly every other public employee pension system in California. The normal cost of funding pensions, which employees have to help pay for, is understated so these employees do not actually have to pay a fair portion of the true cost of these pensions. If this isn’t fraud, I don’t know what is.
It gets worse. Think about what happened between 2013 and 2017 in the stock market. The Wall Street recovery was in full swing by 2013 and by 2016 was entering so-called bubble territory. As the chart below shows, on 1/01/2013 the value of the Dow Jones stock index was 13,190. Four years later, on 12/31/2017, the value of the Dow Jones stock index was up 51%, to 19,963.
Yet over those same four years, while the Dow climbed by 51%, the City of Irvine’s unfunded pension liability grew by 71%. And this happened even though the City of Irvine paid $12.7 million each year against that unfunded liability instead of the CalPERS’s specified $7.7 million per year. Does that scare you? It should. Sooner or later the market will correct.
DOW JONES INDUSTRIAL AVERAGE
PERFORMANCE FOR THE PAST FIVE YEARS, 2013-2017
While the stock market roared, and while Irvine massively overpaid on their unfunded liability, that unfunded liability still managed to increase by 51%. Perhaps that normal contribution was a bit lower than it should have been?
Irvine did the right thing back in 2013. CalPERS let them down. Because CalPERS was, and is, understating the normal contribution in order to shield public sector workers from the true cost of their pensions. The taxpayer is the victim, as always when we let labor unions control our governments and the agencies that serve them.
CalPensions Article discussing CalPERS recent polices regarding pension debt repayments:
Irvine 2017-18 Budget – discussion of faster paydown plan on UAAL
Irvine Consolidated Annual Financial Report FYE 6/30/2016
Irvine – links to all Consolidated Annual Financial Reports
CalPERS search page to find all participating agency Actuarial Valuation Reports
CalPERS Actuarial Valuation Report – Irvine, Miscellaneous
CalPERS Actuarial Valuation Report – Irvine, Safety
Governing Magazine report on Irvine
Governor Brown’s proposal to borrow money to fund CalPERS is similar to a move by Puerto Rico in 2008. That step backfired and now Puerto Rico is bankrupt.
“The state shall not have any liability for the payment of the retirement savings benefit earned by program participants pursuant to this title.” – California State Senator Kevin De Leon, August 7, 2016, Sacramento Bee
This quote from Senator De Leon, one of the main proponents of California’s new “Secure Choice” retirement program for private sector workers, says it all. Because De Leon’s comment reveals the breathtaking hypocrisy and stupefying innumeracy of California’s legislature.
Let’s start with hypocrisy.
De Leon is careful to protect private sector taxpayers from having to bail out their new state administered “secure choice” retirement plan, but no such safeguard has ever been seriously contemplated for the state administered pension plans for state and local government workers. These plans, using official numbers, are underfunded by about $250 billion. If you don’t assume California’s 92 state and local government worker pension systems can earn 7.5% per year, they are underfunded by much more – at least a half trillion.
Underfunded government worker pensions are the real reason why Prop. 55 is offered to voters to extend the “temporary” “millionaires tax” till 2030. That will raise about $6 billion per year. Underfunded local government worker pensions are also the reason for 224 local tax increases proposed on this November’s ballot, which if passed will collect another $3.0 billion per year. And it isn’t nearly enough.
The following table, excerpted from a recent California Policy Center study, shows how much California’s state and local government pensions systems have to collect per year based on various rates of return. At the time of the study, the most recent consolidated data available was for 2014. As can be seen – at a rate of return of 7.5% per year, state and local agencies have to put $38.1 billion into the pension funds. And at a rate of return of 6.5% per year, which CalPERS has already announced as their new “risk free” target rate, they have to turn over $52.3 billion per year. How much was actually paid in 2014? Only $30.1 billion.
To summarize, in 2014 the pension funds collected $8.0 billion less than they needed if they think they can earn 7.5% per year. But following CalPERS lead, they’re lowering their projected rate of earnings to 6.5%, which means they were $22.2 billion short. There are 12.8 million households in California. That equates to at least $1,734 in additional taxes per household per year just to keep state and local pensions solvent.
And it gets worse. Because in order to ensure this new “Secure Choice” program doesn’t get into the same financial predicament that California’s government pension systems confront, the “risk free” rate of return they intend to project is not 7.5%, or 6.5%, or even 5.5%. No, they intend to initially invest the funds in Treasury Bills, which currently pay at most 2.5%. In an analysis of Secure Choice’s proposed costs and benefits performed last April, we express what using a truly “risk free” rate of return portends for California’s private sector workers vs. public sector workers. These estimates are based on all participants, public and private, contributing 10% to the fund via withholding.
Public sector: Teachers/Bureaucrats, 30 years work – pension is 75% of final salary.
Public sector: Public Safety, 30 years work – pension is 90% of final salary.
Private sector: “Secure Choice,” 30 years work – pension is 27.6% of final salary.
There are two reasons for this gigantic disparity. First, public pension funds collect far more than 10% of salary. While the employee rarely pays more than 10% via withholding, the employer – that’s YOU, the taxpayer – typically kicks in another 20% to 40% or more, that is, a two-to-one up to a four-to-one employer matching contribution. Second, to justify the optimistic projections that make such generous pensions appear feasible, public pension funds have assumed a “risk free” rate of return of 7.5% per year.
Which brings us to innumeracy.
During the fiscal year ended 6/30/2015, CalPERS earned a whopping 2.4%. That stellar performance was followed in fiscal year ended 6/30/2016 by a return of 0.6%. It doesn’t take a Ph.D economist to know that California’s pension funds are going to need to greatly increase their annual collections. It only takes horse sense. But even horse sense eludes California’s innumerate lawmakers.
So here’s a modest proposal. Why not freeze the employer contributions into California’s state and local employee pension funds at 20% of salary (that’s a two-to-one match on a 10% contribution via withholding), and then, constrained by those fixed percentages, lower all benefits, for all participants, on a pro-rata basis to restore solvency. Better yet, why not enroll every state and local government employee in the Secure Choice program? Either way, “the state shall not have any liability for the payment of the retirement savings benefit earned by program participants.”
Along with this modest step towards dismantling the excessive privileges of these unionized Nomenklatura who masquerade as California’s public “servants,” why not enroll all state and local government employees in Social Security? Because California’s public servants make far more, on average, than private sector workers, and because Social Security benefits are calibrated to pay relatively less to high income participants, this step will financially stabilize the program.
Senator De Leon, are you listening? When it comes to state administered programs, all of California’s workers, public and private, should get the same deal.
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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.
Does that fact have your attention? Because media consultants insist we preface anything of substance with a hook like this. It even has the virtue of being true! And now, for those with the stomach for it, let’s descend into the weeds.
According to payroll and benefit data reported by the City of Costa Mesa to the California State Controller, during 2015 the average full-time firefighter made $240,886. During the same period, the average full-time police officer in Costa Mesa made $201,330. In both cases, that includes the cost, on average, for their regular pay, overtime, “other pay,” the city’s payment to CalPERS for the city’s share, the city’s payment to CalPERS of a portion of the employee’s share, and the city’s payments for the employee’s health and dental insurance benefits.
And if you think that’s a lot, just wait. Because the payments CalPERS is demanding from Costa Mesa – and presumably every other agency that participates in their pension system – are about to go way up.
We have obtained two innocuous documents recently delivered to the City of Costa Mesa from CalPERS. They are entitled “SAFETY FIRE PLAN OF THE CITY OF COSTA MESA (CalPERS ID: 5937664258), Annual Valuation Report as of June 30, 2015,” (click to download) and a similar document “SAFETY POLICE PLAN OF THE CITY OF COSTA MESA (CalPERS ID 5937664258), Annual Valuation Report as of June 30, 2015,” (click to download). Buried in the bureaucratic jargon are notices of significant increases to how much Costa Mesa is going to have to pay CalPERS each year. In particular, behold the following two tables that appear on page five of each letter:
Projected Employer Contributions to CalPERS – Costa Mesa Police
Projected Employer Contributions to CalPERS – Costa Mesa Firefighters
In the rarefied air of pension arcana, pension systems can get away with a lot. If you’re a glutton for punishment, read these notices from CalPERS in their entirety and see if, anywhere, they bother to explain the big picture. They don’t. The big picture is this: For years CalPERS has underestimated how much they are going to pay in pensions and they have overestimated how much their investments will earn, and as a result they are continuously increasing how much cities have to pay them. This notice is just the latest in a predictable cascade of bad news from pension systems to cities and other agencies.
Coming down to earth just a bit, consider the two terms on the above charts, “Normal Cost %” and “UAL $.” It would be proper to wonder why they represent one with a percentage and one with actual dollars, but rather than indulge in futile speculation, here are some definitions. “Normal Cost” is how much the city pays (never mind that the city also pays a portion of the employee shares – we’ll get to that) into the pension system if it is fully funded. The reason pension systems are NOT fully funded is because, again, year after year, CalPERS underestimated how much they would pay out in pensions to retirees and overestimated how much they would earn. Read this disclaimer that appears on page five of the letters: “The table below shows projected employer contributions…assuming CalPERS earns 7.5 percent every fiscal year thereafter, and assuming that all other actuarial assumptions will be realized….”
And when the “Normal Cost” payments aren’t enough, and the system is underfunded, voila, along comes the “UAL $,” that bigger catch-up payment that is necessary to restore financial health to the fund. “UAL” refers to “unfunded actuarial liability,” the present value of all eventual payments to retirees, and “UAL $” refers to the payments necessary to reduce it to a healthy level. Notice that for firefighters this catch-up payment is set to increase from $4.2M in 2017 to $6.8M in 2022, and for police it is set to increase from $5.8M in 2017 to $10.1M in 2022. This is in a small city that in 2015 employed an estimated 125 full-time police officers and 75 full-time firefighters.
As always, it must be emphasized that the point of all this is not to disparage police or firefighters. No reasonable person fails to appreciate the work they do, or the fact that they stand between us and violence, mayhem, catastrophe and chaos. And it is particularly difficult for those of us who are part of the overwhelming majority of citizens who appreciate and respect members of public safety to have to disclose and publicize the facts of their unaffordable pensions.
The following charts, using data downloaded from the CA State Controller, put these costs into perspective:
Average and Median Employee Compensation by Department
Costa Mesa – Full time employees – 2015
In the above chart, before sorting by department and calculating averages and medians, we eliminated employees who worked as temps or only worked for part of the year. This provides a more accurate estimate of how much full-time workers really make in Costa Mesa. Bear in mind that most part-time employees still receive pension benefits, as will be shown on a subsequent chart. As it is, during 2015 the average full-time police officer in Costa Mesa was paid total wages of $121,636, about 15% of that in overtime. But they then collected another $79,694 in city paid benefits, including $59,337 paid by the city towards their pension, AND another $11,562 that the city paid towards their pension that the State Controller vaguely describes as “Defined Benefit Paid by Employer.” Total 2015 police pay: $201,330.
Also on the above chart, one can see that during 2015 the average full-time firefighter in Costa Mesa was paid total wages of $150,227, about 32% of that in overtime. They then collected another $90,659 in city paid benefits, including $72,202 paid by the city toward their pension, and as already noted, another $10,440 that the city paid toward the employee’s share of their pension. Total 2015 firefighter pay: $240,886.
To distill this further, the following chart shows, per full-time employee, just how much pensions cost Costa Mesa in 2015 as a percent of regular pay.
Average Employer Pension Payment as % of Regular Pay
Costa Mesa – Full-time employees – 2015
As the above chart demonstrates, employer payments for full-time employee pensions during 2015 already consumed a staggering amount of budget. For police, every dollar of regular pay was matched by 80.5 cents of payments by the city to CalPERS. For firefighters, every dollar of regular pay was matched by a staggering 94.4 cents of payments by the city to CalPERS.
The next chart shows the impact this has on the City of Costa Mesa budget. Depicting total payroll amounts by department, it compares the same variables, total employer pension payments as a percent of total regular pay. As can be seen, the percentages are nearly the same, despite this being for the entire workforce including temporary and part-time employees, some who may not have pension benefits (most do), and many who do not receive top tier pension formulas which the overwhelming majority of full-time public safety employees still receive. As can be seen, for every dollar of regular police pay, CalPERS gets 75 cents from the city, and for every dollar of firefighter pay, CalPERS gets 92 cents from the city.
Total Employer Pension Payment as % of Regular Pay
Costa Mesa – All active employees; full, part-time and temp – 2015
At this point, the impact of CalPERS stated rate increases can be fully appreciated. And because this article, already at nearly 1,000 words, has violated every rule of 21st century social media engagement protocols – keep it short, shallow, simple, and sensational – perhaps the next paragraph should be entirely written in bold so it is less likely to be lost in the haze of verbosity. Perhaps a meme is in here somewhere. Perhaps an inflammatory graphic that shall animate the populace. Meanwhile, here goes:
Once CalPERS’s announced increases to the “unfunded payment” are fully implemented, instead of paying $10.9M per year for police pensions, Costa Mesa will pay $15.2M per year, i.e., for every dollar in regular police pay, they will pay $1.04 toward police pensions. Similarly, instead of paying CalPERS $6.4M per year for firefighter pensions, Costa Mesa will pay $9.1M per year, i.e., for every dollar in regular firefighter pay, they will pay $1.30 towards firefighter pensions.
So just how much do Costa Mesa’s retired police and firefighters collect in pensions? Repeatedly characterized by government union officials as “modest,” shall we report and you decide? The following table, using data originally sourced from CalPERS and downloaded from Transparent California, are the pensions earned by Costa Mesa retirees in 2015. Excluded from this list in order to present a more representative profile are all pre-2000 retirees, since retirement pensions were greatly enhanced after the turn of the century, and it is those more recent pensions, not the earlier ones, that are causing the financial havoc. Also excluded because the benefit amounts are not representative and the retirement years are not disclosed, are all “beneficiary” pensions, which survivors receive.
Average Pensions by Years of Service
Costa Mesa retirees – 2015
While these averages are impressive – work 30 years and you get a six-figure pension – they grossly understate what Costa Mesa public safety retirees actually get. There are at least four reasons for this: (1) The data provided doesn’t screen for part-time workers. Many retirees may have put in decades of service with the city, but only worked, for example, 20-hour weeks. They would still accrue a pension, but it would not be nearly as much as it would be if they’d worked full time. (2) Nearly all full-time employees are also granted “other post-employment benefits,” primarily health insurance. It is reasonable to assume that for public safety retirees, the value of these other post employment benefits is at least $10,000 per year. (3) Because CalPERS did not disclose what department retirees worked in during their active careers, this data set is for all of Costa Mesa’s retirees. That means it includes miscellaneous employees who receive pensions that are, while very generous, are not nearly as good as the pensions that public safety retirees receive. (4) While recent reforms have begun to curb this practice, it has been common at least through 2014 for retirees to purchase “air time,” wherein for a ridiculously low sum they are permitted to claim more years of service than they actually worked. It is common for retirees, for example, to purchase five years of air time, so when their pension benefit is initially calculated, instead of multiplying, for example, 20 years of service times a 3.0% multiplier times their final salary, they are permitted to claim 25 years of service.
All of this, of course, is dense gobbledygook to the average millennial Facebook denizen, or, for that matter, to the average politician. To be fair, it’s hard even for the financial professionals hired by the public employee unions to acknowledge that maybe 7.5% (or even 6.5%) annual investment returns will not continue for funds as big as CalPERS, or that history is no indicator of future performance. And even if they know this, they’re under tremendous pressure to keep silent. So the normal contribution remains too low, and the catch-up payments mushroom.
Finally, to be eminently fair, we must acknowledge that since modest bungalows on lots so small you have to choose between a swing set or a trampoline for the kids are now going for about a million bucks each in most of Orange County, making a quarter million per year ain’t what it used to be. But there’s the rub. Because until the people who work for the government are subject to the same economic challenges as the citizens they serve, it is very unlikely we’ll see any pressure to lower the cost of living. Everything – land, energy, transportation, water, materials, etc. – costs far more than it should, thanks to deliberate political policies and financial mismanagement that creates artificial scarcity. But hey – artificial scarcity inflates asset bubbles, which helps keep those pension funds marginally solvent.
Cost-of-living reform, if such a thing can be characterized, must accompany pension reform. What virulent meme might encapsulate all of this complexity?
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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.
Earlier this month the California Policy Center released a study that provided additional evidence that the U.S. stock indexes are overvalued by approximately 50%, along with calculations showing the impact of a major downward correction on the solvency of California’s state and local government pension systems. Stocks are now at unsustainable bubble valuations.
Not covered in this study, but equally overvalued, are bonds, which pension systems misleadingly categorize as “fixed income” investments in their portfolio disclosures. CalPERS even went so far as to trumpet their success in earning a 9.29% return on “fixed income” investments in their most recent press release – a healthy return that offset losses elsewhere and allowed them to earn a marginally positive return of 0.61% last year. But “fixed income” investments usually refers to bonds, and bonds are also at unsustainable bubble valuations.
Here’s why bonds are overvalued today: Whenever new bonds are issued at lower fixed rates of interest than the bonds that were issued before them, then those older bonds that pay higher fixed rates of interest can be sold for more money than their original price. This is because on an open market, buyers will price a resold bond at a value calculated to equalize returns. When rates go down for new bonds, the prices for existing bonds go up. The problem is that back in the 1980’s, bonds were being issued at rates as high as 16%, and today, they’re being issued at rates close to zero. After a thirty year ride, interest rate drops can no longer be used to elevate the value of bond portfolios.
At a macroeconomic level, every possible investment in the world is overvalued today, because central banks have lowered interest rates to zero in a desperate attempt to continue a decades long disease in which they have spent more than they’ve collected. Governments got to borrow money for next to nothing, and assets kept appreciating. But the binge is almost over, and unlike the savvy super-rich, pension funds can’t just take their winnings off the table.
New Bond Issues, Rates by Nation – June 2016 (red = negative)
Negative coupon bonds, a desperate experiment that isn’t going to end well.
This is all tedious drivel, however, if you are a unionized public employee in California. Your retirement security is guaranteed by “contract.” It’s the result of deals cut between union “negotiators” and the politicians they make or break. As a government employee in California, if you’ve worked 30 years, the average annual retirement benefit you can expect if you retire this year is worth over $70,000. To honor that expectation, CalPERS is already mid-way through their latest reassessment, a 50% increase to their collections from participating agencies. And if there is a 50% market correction (“fixed income” and equity), expect them to double or even triple their collections from taxpayers.
If you are a private citizen trying to prepare for retirement today after, say, 45 years of work and saving, good luck. Because there is no safe investment left in the world. And while you are likely to have to cope with, for example, suspended dividend payments on stocks that are down 50%, expect your taxes to go up in every imaginable category – sales, property, income, and hidden taxes embedded in your utility bills and phone bills. It will be “for the children” and “for public safety.” And if there’s a vote required to increase the tax, it will usually pass, because most voters don’t pay property tax, or income tax, or if they do, the taxes are indirectly assessed and invisible to them.
This is the oppressive hoax that government unions have perpetrated on the working families they claim they want to protect. They have exempted their own members, government workers, from the consequences of a corrupt financial system where they are leading partners. When governments spend more than they make and have to borrow money, central banks lower interest rates to make it easier to work the payments into the budget. At the same time, lower interest rates goose the value of stocks and bonds, helping the pension funds claim they can earn 7.5% per year. And when the house of cards collapses, taxpayers bail out the banks and the government pension funds.
The next time a spokesperson for a government union speaks disparagingly about Wall Street corruption, remember this: They are partners with Wall Street. They support overspending for their own compensation and benefits, creating deficits that have to be covered by taxes and borrowing. Their pension funds demand high returns, and the bankers comply, with rates that encourage borrowing and deny ordinary people the ability to save. Now that interest rates have hit zero and are even going negative in an exercise of monetary chicanery that has no rival in history, the end is near.
Public sector union leaders need to start remembering they represent public servants, not public overlords who are exempt from the reality that you can only spend as much as you earn. As it is, these union leaders are the overpaid mercenaries of capitalism at its most corrupt.
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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.