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The Glass Jaw of Pension Funds is Asset Bubbles

“Calpers argued that the California constitution’s guarantee of contracts shielded pensions from cuts in bankruptcy. The fund also asserted sovereign immunity and police powers as an ‘arm of the state,’ including a lien on municipal assets.”
–  Wall Street Journal Editorial, “Calpers Gets Schooled,” February 8, 2015

If you want powerful evidence of crony capitalism at its worst, look no further. In the Stockton bankruptcy trial, the pension fund serving that city’s employees threatened to seize municipal assets to pay pension fund contributions. They’ve made similar threats to other cities that protest against the escalating contribution rates. And they’ve made the cost to exit pension plans confiscatory. It is hard to imagine a bigger or more blatant example of collusion between business interests and government employees at the expense of ordinary private citizens.

In the Stockton bankruptcy case, judge Christopher Klein’s ruling left pensions untouched, but at least the judge was openly disgusted with CalPERS, stating “CalPERS has bullied its way about in this case with an iron fist insisting that it and the municipal pensions it services are inviolable. The bully may have an iron fist, but it also turns out to have a glass jaw.” (ref. San Jose Mercury Editorial, February 18, 2015)

Much has been made of the CalPERS’ “glass jaw,” referring to Klein’s contention that cities do have the legal right in bankruptcy to reduce pensions – even though he did not allow pension benefit reductions in this case. But there is another “glass jaw” facing CalPERS and all pension funds, the biggest “glass jaw” of all. They rely on annual returns of 7.5% per year to stay solvent, and as a result, sooner or later, the investment markets are going to deliver these funds a knockout punch.

Professional investors claim they can always beat returns of 7.5% per year, and many of them can. But public sector pension funds control over $4.0 trillion in assets, which makes them too big to beat the market. And the idea, courtesy of pension fund managers, that the investment market can deliver a long-term average return of 7.5% per year implies that 7.5% per year is a “risk free” rate.

For a quick reality check, here are the “risk free” rates of return currently available to investors in the United States:

Even in the cases where cities failed to make some of their annual pension payments, the financial impact was trivial compared to the primary cause of insolvency, which is that pension funds are not required to make “risk free” investments that are actually risk free. Because if they did, they would project low single digit annual rates of return instead of high single digit annual rates of return. It’s that simple.

A little over one year ago, the California Policy Center released a study “Are Annual Contributions Into CalSTRS Adequate?,” which utilized formulas provided by Moody’s investor services for that purpose. Using those formulas, the following table shows how lower rates of return impact CalSTRS:

Impact of Lower Rates of Return on CalSTRS
Based on 6-30-2012 Financial Statements, $ = Billions

20150224-UW_Ring-CalSTRS

Just in case this is all merely abstruse gobbledegook that savvy political consultants recommend politicians avoid since nobody understands it anyway, pay particular attention to the columns on the far left and far right. The left column’s top row shows the official rate of return used by CalSTRS, 7.5%, and the right column’s top row shows how much they should contribute each year based on that official rate of return. Never mind that CalSTRS, like nearly all pension systems, uses creative accounting to avoid making an adequate payment to reduce their unfunded liability. In FYE 6-30-2012, for example, CalSTRS only made an unfunded contribution of $1.1 billion, not $7.0 billion (column five, top row) which would have represented a responsible payment against their unfunded liability.

It’s worth noting that for CalPERS, we can’t even get data on how they break out their normal contributions and their unfunded contributions because doing so would require sifting through the financials of every one of their participating entities. But there is nothing uniquely troubling about CalSTRS. As calculated in a more recent California Policy Center study, released last week “California City Pension Burdens,” in 2014 all state and local government pension funds in California, on average, were only 75% funded.

Imagine what would happen if CalSTRS had to pay $25 billion per year (column six, row five), instead of what they actually paid in 2012, $5.8 billion? Replicate these methods with nearly any pension fund in California, and you will almost always get similar results. And anyone who thinks a rate of return of 3.5% (column one, row five) is overly pessimistic should refer to the actual “risk free” rates of return shown in the previous bullet points. Better yet, consider this:  The federal funds lending rate today, the amount the federal reserve charges to banks, is 0.25% – that’s one-quarter of one percent. This is free money. That money is essentially being given to banks rates to turn around and loan at very low rates to corporations and consumers who use the cheap credit to buy things which, temporarily, stimulates the economy which causes asset values to rise – we are repeating 2008 all over again.

Pension funds depend on continuously expanding debt fueled asset bubbles for solvency. That is how they earn high returns that are anything but “risk free.” That is their glass jaw. Hopefully, when the bubbles pop and the glass jaws shatter, as an “arm of the state,” with “police powers,” CalPERS, CalSTRS, and every other pension fund in California won’t seize every municipal asset we’ve got and impose genuinely punitive taxes, so they can keep on paying those benefits.

*   *   *

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

RELATED POSTS

More Taxes and Tuition Buy Time for the Pension Bubble, November 25, 2014

The Amazing, Obscure, Complicated and Gigantic Pension Loophole, November 18, 2014

Two Tales of a City – How Detroit Transcended Ideology to Reform Pensions, July 22, 2014

Public Pension Solvency Requires Asset Bubbles, April 29, 2014

Add ALL Public Workers to Social Security, March 25, 2014

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

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

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

A Member of the Unionized Government Elite Attacks the CPC, November 19, 2013

Adjustable Pension Plans, April 16, 2013

Federal Judge Smacks CalPERS on Sanctity of Pensions

Exceptionally good news from California today: A federal judge ruled Calpers claim of “Sanctity of Pensions” is invalid. Today’s ruling went even further than the bankrupt city of Stockton originally sought in court.

For details, please consider the New York Times article In Ruling on California Town’s Bankruptcy, Judge Challenges Sanctity of Pensions.

 A federal bankruptcy judge on Wednesday upended the widely held belief that public workers’ pensions have a special status in California that makes them impossible to cut, further chipping away at the idea that pensions are sacrosanct in a municipal bankruptcy. The ruling, which came during a hearing on a plan by the City of Stockton to exit bankruptcy, did not order the city to cut its pension plan or take any specific action. The judge said that he needed more time to reflect on Stockton’s situation and that he would decide Oct. 30 whether the city could emerge from its two-year bankruptcy or whether it still had more work to do. But the decision, by Judge Christopher M. Klein of the Eastern District of California, dealt a blow to California’s giant state-led pension system, known as Calpers, which has been leading efforts to preserve defined-benefit pensions nationwide. Calpers had argued that if Stockton stopped making payments and dropped out of the state pension system, the lien would let it claim $1.6 billion of its assets. But Judge Klein said those statutory powers were suspended once a California city received federal bankruptcy protection. “Why should I take that lien seriously?” he asked a lawyer for Calpers, Michael Gearin. “I may avoid it as a black-letter matter of bankruptcy law,” he said, referring to well-established legal principles. He did not dispute that Stockton would be billed $1.6 billion to leave Calpers and said such a termination fee “can be seen as a golden handcuff.” But in bankruptcy, he said, Stockton could legally refuse to pay the bill because it arose from the city’s contract with Calpers, and contracts are broken routinely in bankruptcy. “The bankruptcy code provides that the lien can be avoided and be treated as an unsecured claim,” Judge Klein said. In court proceedings in July, Judge Klein said it was not clear to him that Calpers was even a creditor. He adjourned the hearings until the city and other parties could brief him on Stockton’s relationship with Calpers.

Bizarre Position of Stockton’s lawyer

One has to wonder just what side  Stockton’s lawyer is on.

 In oral arguments on Wednesday, Stockton’s lawyer, Marc A. Levinson, said that for Stockton to switch to another retirement plan administered by a different entity would probably take two years, and in the meantime all the city’s workers were likely to quit. Their first choice would be to seek similar jobs in cities that were still part of Calpers, he said, adding that he thought Calpers was a more efficient plan administrator than any other entity Stockton might try.

The idea that the entire city force would quit is lunacy. Moreover, it would be a good thing if they did!

All Stockton need do is submit a bankruptcy plan that stipulates employees lose 100% of their benefits if they quit before some stipulated date. How many would leave? None.

The position of Stockton’s lawyer is so bizarre, one wonders if he is attempting to protect his own pension.

Stockton does not need another defined benefit retirement plan. Rather, it needs to eliminate the one it has. And this excellent, common-sense ruling from Judge Klein paves the way.

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