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Government Unions Benefit from the Asset Bubble that Harms Workers

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)
20160719-UW-NegativeYieldsNegative 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.

Aggregate U.S. Pension Data Shows Grim Outlook

Editor’s Note:  This analysis by economics blogger Mike Shedlock clearly shows why government employee pensions are taking an awful risk by continuing to forecast annual investment returns of 7.0% or more per year. In his first chart Shedlock points out how between 2008 and 2014 the aggregate value of state and local government worker pension system assets only increased 12.7% – a return of 1.9% per year. If one extends the horizon back to 2003 – i.e., if one backs up to include the stock market run-up from 2003 through 2008 – that annual return improves, to a still paltry 4.3%. The headwinds facing global investment portfolios include an aging population, which means there will be a higher percentage of retirees selling their assets which drives down prices and returns, as well as interest rates, everywhere, now at historic lows, which means that debt stimulated economic growth is more problematic than ever. What do the pension systems intend to do, if they can’t hit their 7.0% per year annual returns over the next several years? The answer to-date is to raise every tax and fee in sight to feed the pension systems, which along with incremental benefit adjustments is claimed to be sufficient. But only if 7.0% returns are forthcoming. What if they are not forthcoming? What then?

One of my constant themes over the past few years is the underfunding of state and local pension plans. Illinois is particularly bad, but let’s look at some aggregate data.

The National Association of State Retirement Administrators (NASRA) provides this grim-looking annual picture in their most recent annual update:

State and Local Defined Benefit Plan Assets at Year-End
2003-2014 ($ = Trillions)
20150831-UW-Shedlock1

Between the end of 2007 and end of 2014, pension plan assets rose from $3.29 trillion to $3.71 trillion. That’s a total rise of 12.76%.

Plan assumptions are generally between 7.5% to 8.25% per year!

S&P 500 2007-12-31 to 2014-12-31
20150831-UW-Shedlock2

In the same timeframe, the S&P 500 rose from 1489.36 to 2058.90.

That’s a total gain of 590.54 points. Percentage wise that’s a total gain of 40.22%. It’s also an average gain of approximately 5.75% per year.

Analysis

  • In spite of the miraculous rally from the low, total returns for anyone who held an index throughout has been rather ordinary.
  • The first chart is not a reflection of stocks vs. bonds because bonds did exceptionally well during the same period.

Drawdowns Kill!

To be fair, the first chart only shows assets, not liabilities, but we do know that pensions in general are still enormously underfunded, with Chicago and Illinois leading the way.

Negative Flow

Reader Don pinged me with this comment the other day: “Nearly all public pension funds have a negative cash flow, meaning they pay out in benefits each year more than they receive in contributions. For all public pension funds, the negative cash flow is approximately 3% of assets, which means an average fund needs to produce an annual return of 3% to maintain a stable asset value.

That’s fine if assets have kept up with future payout liabilities and plans are close to fully funded.

However, it is 100% safe to suggest that neither condition is true.

So here we are, after a massive 200% rally from the March 2009 low, and pension plans are still in miserable shape.

And plan assumptions are still an enormous 8% per year. Let me state emphatically, that’s not going to happen.

Stocks and junk bonds are enormously overvalued here.

GMO Investments Forecast

20150831-UW-Shedlock3

“The chart represents real return forecasts for several asset classes and not for any GMO fund or strategy. These forecasts are forward‐looking statements based upon the reasonable beliefs of GMO and are not a guarantee of future performance. Forward‐looking statements speak only as of the date they are made, and GMO assumes no duty to and does not undertake to update forward‐looking statements. Forward‐looking statements are subject to numerous assumptions, risks, and uncertainties, which change over time. Actual results may differ materially from those anticipated in forwardlooking statements. U.S. inflation is assumed to mean revert to long‐term inflation of 2.2% over 15 years.”

Over the next 7 years GMO believes US stocks will lose money (on average), every year. Those are in real terms, but returns are at best break even, assuming 2% inflation.

Bonds are certainly no safe haven either. I strongly believe GMO has this correct.

Assume GMO Wildly Off

Even if one assumes those GMO estimated returns are wildly off to the tune of four percentage points per year, pension plans needing 8% per year will be further in the hole with 4% per year annualized returns.

Illinois Non-Answer

Illinois house speaker Michael Madigan and Chicago governor Rahm Emanuel believe tax hikes are the answer.

Both are sorely mistaken. Here are a few viewpoints to consider.

The only way out of this mess is a pension restructuring coupled with municipal defaults.

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Mike Shedlock is the editor of the top-rated global economics blog Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis, offering insightful commentary every day of the week. He is also a contributing “professor” on Minyanville, a community site focused on economic and financial education, and a senior fellow with the Illinois Policy Institute.