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Major-party presidential candidates offer no solutions on federal retirement crises

For Immediate Release

June 2, 2016
California Policy Center
Contact: Will Swaim
Will@CalPolicyCenter.org
(714) 573-2231

SACRAMENTO — Californians may be accustomed to living with the specter of a public pension crisis. But the federal government’s problem with its retirement systems – including Social Security – is far worse, and yet none of the three remaining major-party candidates for president has a plan to do anything about it.

The California Policy Center offers “Comparing Federal and California State Retirement Exposures,” a comparison of California and federal exposure to pension liability. You can read Marc Joffe’s full study here.

Key findings include:

On Social Security
DEBT VS. ASSETS: “Although discussion of Social Security often revolves around the trust fund, this emphasis is misplaced. Unlike CalPERS or CalSTRS, the Social Security trust fund does not contain real assets. Instead, it holds special-issue U.S. Treasury bonds. Total federal assets of $3.2 trillion are easily exceeded by $13.2 trillion of federal debt securities held by the public and $8.2 trillion of other liabilities. So the IOUs held by the Social Security trust fund compete with claims held by many external parties for a relatively small pool of federal assets.”

IMPACT ON FEDERAL DEFICIT: Using projections from the Social Security Actuaries, Joffe reports that the Social Security program is expected to add $371 billion to the annual federal budget deficit (in constant 2015 dollars) by 2040. The Social Security Actuaries say that projecting higher costs (for example, an increase in life expectancy), adds $640 billion (again, in constant dollars) to the annual deficit.

On Federal Employee Retirement Programs
UNFUNDED LIABILITIES: “The Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund, paid $81 billion of retirement benefits in fiscal year 2015, or 2.49% of federal revenues. The system reported an Unfunded Actuarial Liability of $804.3 billion and Assets of $858.6 billion, implying a funded ratio of only 51.6%.” The Defense Department also offers pensions, and its system is worse than the Civil Service program with a funded ratio of just 35%.

Washington has Bigger Problems – and More Powerful Financial Tools
Joffe concludes that the federal government has tools to deal with a public pension crisis that the states do not:

Constitutional: “In an emergency, Congress and the president can cut or even terminate benefits to Social Security recipients, federal civilian retirees or veterans. This is not the case for the state of California.”

Currency control: “A central government controlling an international reserve currency does have more fiscal flexibility than a state which is legally obligated to balance its budget each year. So the federal government’s ability to absorb pension obligations is greater than California’s. This is fortunate, because the federal governments exposure is so much greater.”

The complete California Policy Center study is available here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Study author Marc Joffe is the founder of Public Sector Credit Solutions and a policy analyst with the California Policy Center. Joffe founded Public Sector Credit Solutions in 2011 to educate policymakers, investors and citizens about government credit risk. PSCS research has been published by the California State Treasurer’s Office, the Mercatus Center and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute among others. Before starting PSCS, Marc was a senior director at Moody’s Analytics. He earned his MBA from New York University and his MPA from San Francisco State University.

ABOUT THE CALIFORNIA POLICY CENTER
The California Policy Center is a non-partisan public policy think tank providing information that elevates the public dialogue on vital issues facing Californians, with the goal of helping to foster constructive progress towards more equitable and sustainable management of California’s public institutions. Learn more at CaliforniaPolicyCenter.org.

 

Pension Reform Requires Mutual Empathy, not Enmity

Attending a high school reunion after more than a few decades ought to be a memorable experience for anyone. Hopefully the occasion is filled with warmth and remembrance, rekindled friendships, stories and laughs. But as our lives develop and we build our adult networks based on shared values and common professions, a high school reunion offers something else; a unique opportunity to meet people we knew very well and still care about, whose lives all went in completely different directions.

My high school classmates chose a diverse assortment of careers. Some became engineers, some went into sales, some are entrepreneurs; some work in high-tech, some in aerospace, others in construction. And some are teachers, some are police officers, and some are firefighters. Without any exceptions I could observe, all of them made conscientious choices, all of them worked hard, all of them were responsible with their savings and investments. And now they’ve reached the age where whatever retirement plans they made are unlikely to change much.

How to ensure government pensions are not blown up by the next sustained market downturn is a complex challenge, complicated further by ideological divisiveness and political opportunism. On one side are powerful financial special interests in the form of the pension systems, and their government union allies. On the other side are poorly organized taxpayer activists whose grassroots strength, combined with fiscal reality, attract support from increasing numbers of local and state politicians. But caught in the middle are the people who served in government jobs, the overwhelming majority of whom did those jobs well, and have earned the right to retire with dignity. It’s personal.

Figuring out how to make government retirement benefits financially sustainable should be part of a bigger conversation, which is how all Americans are going to have the ability to retire with dignity. It is part of a conversation even bigger than that – how to nurture sustainable economic growth while coping with an aging population, environmentalist considerations, globalization, debt/GDP ratios at historic highs, and mushrooming new technologies that present unprecedented potential to eliminate human jobs. All of these mega-trends are this generation’s challenge, all of them are urgent, all of them are personal.

It’s easy to solve all of these challenges if you are willing to ignore reality and hew to an ideological pole-star. Libertarian answers to social and economic policy issues inevitably advocate privatization. Socialist theorists inevitably advocate state ownership. But both of these ideologies, in their most orthodox forms, are utopian. Libertarians envision a stateless, humane society based on personal liberty and private ownership. Socialists envision a stateless, humane society based on common ownership. If these extremes are so absurd, why is the center so uninviting?

It’s a long way from Silicon Valley to utopia, but in that fabled land, anchored by what was only referred to as San Jose back when we were high school students there, thoughtful futurists abound. Some think we shall all become independent contractors, linked by technology to virtual employment opportunities all over the world. They believe secure full time jobs will wither away entirely, and everyone will thrive as free agents in a wired world. Others think automation will eliminate so many jobs, and create so much abundance, that guaranteeing a minimum income to everyone will be feasible and necessary, whether they work or not. The conversation taking place among the Silicon Valley elite regarding the political economy of our future is helping to define that future as much as their innovative new products. It’s a conversation worth listening to without ideological blinders.

My classmates who chose careers in public service, just like my classmates who pursued careers in the private sector, are starting to retire. Just like everyone else – our friends, our families, our neighbors – they want answers, not ideology. They want constructive solutions, not controversial schemes. Is there enough room in the political center to permit a conversation that sticks to facts and practical solutions, or will the professional chorus of perennial opponents crush them, abetted by all those millions who are comforted by inflexible ideologies?

One ideologically impure, centrist way to save defined benefits would be to borrow concepts from Social Security. Reformed defined benefits would be (1) awarded according to progressive formulas, where the more someone makes, the less the pension benefit is as a percent of their final salary, (2) there is a benefit ceiling which no individual pension can exceed, (3) pension contributions in the form of employee withholding can be increased without commensurate increases to overall salary, (4) annual pension accrual multipliers, going forward for active workers, can be reduced depending on the system’s financial health, and (5) when necessary, pension benefits to existing retirees can be reduced, in order to maintain the overall financial health of the system. Often that can be as little as skipping a COLA.

When political professionals, volunteer activists, policymakers, commentators, analysts, or anyone else influencing the pension debate speak on the topic, they should imagine the following situation: With every word, they are looking into the eyes of two close friends or family members, two people nearing retirement, one of them about to collect a government pension, the other a taxpayer who will rely on Social Security supplemented by a lifetime of personal savings. People who didn’t create the financial challenges we collectively face. People we love.

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

Average CalPERS Pension Up To 5 Times Greater Than Comparable Social Security Payouts

CalPERS officials are fond of saying that their average pension benefit is only about $31,500 – suggesting that CalPERS members’ benefits are at Social Security-type levels.

On this basis, they argue it’s a “myth” that public pension benefits are excessive.

But is that really true? What happens when something like Social Security’s benefit assumptions – a full career of employment and minimum income levels – are used in the comparison?

When accounting for these factors, CalPERS is unable to hide behind the misleading cover of a raw average – CalPERS benefits are up to 5 times greater than the comparable Social Security payout.

We filtered the 2013 CalPERS pension data for retirees with at least 30 or more years of service credit to create parity in the comparisons between the Social Security benefit estimates, which assume 35 years of employment and a retirement age of 64 and 4 months. Social Security estimates were generated with the Social Security Administration’s Quick Calculator Benefit Estimates tool in October, 2014. CalPERS 2013 data is provided by TransparentCalifornia.com. By contrast, the average age of retirement for CalPERS members is only 60.

Next, we analyzed CalPERS retirees by their pensionable compensation. The top pensionable compensation bracket is greater or equal to $117,000 – the maximum taxable earnings limit for Social Security. The remaining brackets move down in 25% increments from there.

20150102_Fellner_PvsSS-1

While the CalPERS values above represent the actual average pension received for the 2013 year, the Social Security benefit is an estimated figure. The SSA’s Benefit Estimator Tool requires a final salary, similar to pensionable compensation, in order to generate its estimates. We used the average pensionable compensation of the respective CalPERS retirees being compared to as the final salary for estimating the comparable Social Security benefit.

For example, the actual average pensionable compensation of all full career CalPERS retirees with a pensionable compensation of greater or equal to $117,000 was $146,250. Therefore, we used $146,250 as the final salary for generating the comparable Social Security benefit – $26,292.

These values, along with the average years of service of the respective CalPERS retirees, are displayed in the table below.

20150102_Fellner_PvsSS-2b

As shown above, CalPERS retirees with a reported pensionable compensation of at least $117,000 or more received an average 2013 pension benefit of $126,833. Additionally, the average years of service credit for these retirees was 33.85 and their average pensionable compensation was $146,250. By comparison, an employee who worked at least 35 years under Social Security and had a final salary of $146,250 can expect to receive a pension benefit of $26,292 in 2014.

Said differently, the CalPERS retiree with a pensionable compensation of at least $117,000 received a pension benefit nearly 5 times greater than a comparable private sector employee can expect to receive from Social Security. Those in the $87,750-$117,000 bracket received a benefit nearly 4 times greater than the comparable Social Security amount, while those with a final salary of less than $87,750 were receiving benefits over 3 times the comparable Social Security benefit.

It should be noted that the comparison of Social Security to CalPERS is not an apple to apple comparison. Most private employees participate in a defined contribution plan that will supplement their Social Security benefits. On the other hand, public employees who do not participate in Social Security are also not responsible for paying Social Security taxes. Further, CalPERS provides extremely generous health benefits for all of its members, regardless of income level, which are not captured in the values quoted above. Currently, these health benefits can cost up to $18,000 a year.

Nonetheless this comparison is a useful starting point to provide context for the value of CalPERS benefits, as opposed to obscuring them by quoting raw averages only.

Another striking inequity is the age of retirement a private sector worker needs to reach to receive full benefits, compared with a CalPERS retiree.

There is enormous value in the ability to retire at an earlier age rather than at a later one. For CalPERS retirees, they may retire as early as 55 and receive full benefits that are significantly greater than private sector retirees who, on average, have to work more years and retire later at life. For CalPERS safety officers (police/fire) they may retire as early as 50 and receive their maximum benefits.

This structure further compounds the disparity between CalPERS benefits and comparable Social Security benefits. Not only are CalPERS retirees receiving benefits that dwarf what Social Security can offer; they are able to retire up to a full decade earlier than private sector workers as well.

Given the cap on Social Security benefits, the trend demonstrated above is not surprising. As the maximum Social Security benefit one could receive in 2014 is capped at $31,704, compared to the lack of any cap whatsoever for CalPERS benefits, those public employees who receive larger salaries are going to receive exponentially greater pension benefits than what Social Security offers.

The aim of Social Security is to be a progressive tax that takes from those earning more and, consequently, least in need of assistance, and gives to those who earn less and are more in need of assistance in retirement. CalPERS, however, is essentially a wealth maximizing system. It provides lavish pension benefits for its members, with the highest earners receiving the largest share.

Perversely, these benefits are primarily funded by taxpayers who receive dramatically reduced retirement benefits from Social Security and, subsequently, are faced with a burden the CalPERS full-career retiree is immune from – the need to defer present spending in an attempt to supplement their meager Social Security benefits once in retirement.

As troubling as the inequity of CalPERS is, the more pressing issue is that it’s simply not sustainable in the long run. There are good reasons why defined benefit pension systems are heading towards extinction in the private sector.

The public sector, however, has held onto the defined benefit plan system. Given the substantial benefits CalPERS provides to their members, public employees and their unions have strong incentives to lobby on its behalf.

While a private firm would jettison any system that produces the long term liability associated with California’s defined benefit plans, politicians have little to no incentive to act on behalf of the taxpayers. The benefits received are immediate and relatively concentrated, while the costs are widely dispersed. Further, while some of the cost is beginning to be felt today, the lion’s share can be delayed for future generations, a demographic that has been traditionally ignored by today’s politician.

It is imperative that Californians recognize the true value, and cost, of a CalPERS pension, and recognize the urgent need for reform measures such as those that have been discussed exhaustively elsewhere.

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About the Author:  Robert Fellner is Research Director for TransparentCalifornia.com, a joint project of the California Policy Center and the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

The Misleading Arguments of Those Who Fight Against Pension Reform

Weakening pensions is a choice, not an imperative. The crisis is political, not actuarial.
– Susan Greenbaum, guest editorial, Al Jazeera America, October 20, 2014

With this thesis highlighted, Greenbaum, a retired professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida, has just published a guest editorial that provides in one place a useful example of the distortions, demonizing and inversions of logic used by those who fight against pension reform. To understand why public employees, and their union leadership, remain sincere in their delusions regarding pensions, Greenbaum’s missive may serve as Exhibit A. Because she has joined a chorus that is funded not only by the billions that are spent by public employee unions on political and educational propaganda each year, but also funded by elements of those same Wall Street financial interests they routinely deride.

Let’s examine some of these misleading arguments and tactics, in no particular order:

(1) Identify key reformers, demonize them, then accuse anyone who advocates reform of being their puppets. Greenbaum identifies a lot of “demons,” i.e., opponents, who have been the victims of character assassination for years: John Arnold, a “hedge fund billionaire,” Charles and David Koch, the “conservative billionaire brothers,” and, of course “Wall Street [whose] shenanigans, not sound financial knowledge, posed the real threat to the solvency of these funds.” The fallacy here, notwithstanding the vicious and unfounded attacks that have tainted these individuals, is that whether or not pensions are financially sustainable or equitable to taxpayers has nothing to do with who some of the reformers are. And what about liberal democrats who advocate pension reform, such as San Jose mayor Chuck Reed, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, former Rhode Island treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo, and countless others? Are they all merely puppets? Absurd.

(2)  Assume if someone advocates pension reform, they must also want to dismantle Social Security. While there are plenty of pension reformers who have a libertarian aversion to “entitlements” such as Social Security, it is wrong to suggest all reformers feel that way. Social Security is financially sustainable because it has built in mechanisms to maintain solvency – benefits can be adjusted downwards, contributions can be adjusted upwards, the ceiling can be raised, the age of eligibility can be increased, and additional means testing can be imposed. If pensions were adjustable in this manner, so public sector workers might live according to the same rules that private sector workers do, there would not be a financial crisis facing pensions. There is no inherent connection between wanting to reform public sector pensions and wanting to eliminate Social Security. It is a red herring.

(3)  “Public sector pension plans would be financially healthy if they had not been invested in risky derivatives, especially mortgages.” This is a clever inversion of logic. Because if pension funds had not been riding the economic bubble, making risky investments, heedless of historical norms, then public employee unions would never have been mislead by these fund managers to demand and get unsustainable enhancements – usually granted retroactively – to their pension benefit formulas. The precarious solvency of pension funds today is entirely dependent on asset bubbles. Most of these funds still have significant positions in private equity investments, which are opaque and highly volatile, and despite recent moves by some major pension funds to vacate hedge fund investments, they still comprise significant portions of pension fund portfolios. What Greenbaum either doesn’t understand or willfully ignores is a crucial fact: if pension funds did not make risky investments, they would have to bring their rate-of-return projections down to earth, and their supposed solvency would vaporize overnight.

(4)  “Weakening pensions is a choice, not an imperative. The crisis is political, not actuarial.” This really depends on how you define “weakening.” If you weaken the benefits, you strengthen the solvency. The fundamental contradiction in Greenbaum’s logic is simple: If you don’t want pension funds to be entities whose actions are just like those firms located on the proverbial, parasitic “Wall Street,” then they have to make conservative, low risk investments. But if you make low risk investments, you blow up the funds unless you also “weaken” the benefit formulas.

To drive this point home with irrefutable calculations, refer to a recent California Policy Center study “Estimating America’s Total Unfunded State and Local Government Pension Liability,” where the impact of making lower risk investments that yield lower rates of return is calculated. If, for example, state and local public employee pension funds in the United States were to lower their rate-of-return to a decidedly non-“Wall Street,” low-risk rate of return of 4.33% (the July 2014 Citibank Pension Liability Index Rate), and invest their $3.6 trillion in assets accordingly, their aggregate unfunded liability would triple from today’s estimated $1.26 trillion to $3.79 trillion. The required annual contribution (normal plus unfunded) would rise from today’s $186 billion to $586 billion. The alternative? Lower benefits.

Those who fight against pension reform willfully ignore additional key points. They continue to claim public sector pension benefits average only around $25,000 per year, ignoring the fact that pension benefits for people who spent 30 years or more earning a pension, i.e., full career retirees, currently earn pensions that average well over $60,000 per year. Public safety unions still spread the falsehood that their retirees die prematurely, when, for example, CalPERS own actuarial data proves that even firefighters retire today with a life-expectancy virtually identical to the general population.

Propagandists who oppose urgently needed reform should recognize that pension reform is bipartisan, it is a financial imperative, and it is a moral imperative. They need to recognize that the sooner defined benefits are adjusted downwards, the less severe these adjustments are going to be. They need to understand that for many reformers, converting everyone to individual 401K plans is a last resort being forced on them by political, legal and financial realities, not an ulterior motive. They need to stop demonizing their opponents, and they need to stop stereotyping every critic of pensions as people who want to destroy retirement security, including Social Security, for ordinary Americans. And if they wish to defend Social Security, then they should also be willing to apply to pension formulas the tools built into Social Security – including its progressive formulas whereby highly compensated workers receive proportionally less in retirement than low income workers. Ideally, they should support requiring all public workers to participate in Social Security, so that all Americans earn – at least to the extent it is taxpayer funded – retirement entitlements according to the same set of formulas and incentives.

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

How Unions and Bankers Work Together to Protect Unsustainable Defined Benefits

One of the biggest unreported, blockbuster stories in modern America is the alliance between public sector unions and the speculative banking industry. It is a story saturated in greed, drowning in delusion, smothered and marginalized by an avalanche of propaganda – paid for by taxpayers who fund both the public sector unions and the public employee pension funds.

The problem with public sector defined benefit pensions can be boiled down to two cold factors: They are too generous, and they rely on rate-of-return assumptions that are too optimistic. The first is the result of greed, the second of delusion. To indulge these vices requires corruption, and it is a rot that joins public sector unions with the most questionable elements of that Wall Street machine they so readily demonize.

If you honestly review the numbers, the greed is obvious. The average pension for a public servant who has worked 30 years or more in public service is more than four times what the average social security benefit is for someone who has worked 40 years or more in the private sector. To cite examples – the average CalPERS retiree who retired in the last five years, after 30 years service, collects a pension of $67,980, for CalSTRS, the average for recent retirees with 30+ years of service is $66,828 per year. Most of California’s independent city and county pension funds are even more generous; Orange County’s employee retirement system, for example, pays the average recent retiree with 30+ years of service a pension of $81,000.

These numbers are ridiculously out of step with reality. If every Californian over the age of 55 got a pension that averaged $65,000 per year, it would cost over $650 billion per year, one-third of California’s entire GDP. But the average public employee who works from age 26 through age 55 will easily collect that much. This is impossible to justify, and impossible to sustain. The average Social Security benefit for a 68 year old new retiree: $15,000 per year.

Greed is compounded with corruption and delusion, when in response for calls to bring public sector pensions into line with what is affordable and fair, unions and pension bankers claim 7.5% annual rates of return can be sustained forever. Their first mistake is suggesting that 7.5% rates of return is all they need. Current levels of underfunding mean either annual contributions go way up, or returns have to greatly exceed 7.5%. For example, CalSTRS is 67% funded, and to avoid becoming more underfunded, they must either earn 11.2% per year, or they must make a supplemental “unfunded contribution” of $4.1 billion per year – last year their unfunded contribution was only $1.1 billion. We are at the top of another bull market and in the terminal phases of a long-term credit cycle – anyone want to bet that CalSTRS is going to earn 11.2% a year for the next 30 years?

In an attempt to earn in excess of 7.5% per year, pension funds are increasingly turning to hedge funds, whose charter, essentially, is to earn over-market returns. To do this, they do all the things that public sector unions are supposedly opposed to and wishing to protect us from – opaque private equity deals, currency speculation, high-frequency trading – all those manipulative tools used by the super-wealthy, super empowered Wall Street players to siphon billions out of the economy. Except now they’re using tax dollars, channeled to them via government payroll departments, and cutting the government workers in on the skim. And if it goes south? Taxpayers pay for the bailout. And even if these funds can keep the lights on for a few more years before the whole scam collapses, isn’t it inherently exploitative for a government-ran pension fund, operated for the benefit of government employees, to aspire to over-market returns? To the extent the market is manipulated and over-market returns are extracted for an elite few, value investors with their individual 401Ks are penalized. That fact is irrefutable, simple algebra.

Which brings us to sheer abuse of power. Hypocrisy aside – and how much more hypocritical can it be for union leaders to hurl the word “profit” the way most of us might utter obscenities, yet ignore the fact that only “profits” can impel pension funds to appreciate at rates of 7.5% per year or more – it is raw power, sheer financial and legal might, that enables pension funds, with unions cheering them on every step of the way, to sue city after bankrupt city to ensure their “contracts” are inviolable, that the pension money keeps pouring in, even if it means raising taxes via court order, then selling the parks, selling the libraries, closing government offices and “furloughing” public servants, and giving raw deals to newly hired employees. But as courts will eventually sustain, perhaps out of financial necessity, the moral worth or worthlessness of a contract supersedes its technical validity. Power is a ship. Financial reality is a lighthouse.

Public sector retirement benefits – like all taxpayer funded entitlements – should provide an austere safety net, like Social Security. Pensions should not enable a retirement lifestyle of luxury and ongoing leverage, exempting government workers from the challenges to save and prepare that face every other American citizen. Nor, in the process, should they impoverish taxpayers, enrich banks, and flush the social contract into oblivion.

The reason pension reform doesn’t happen isn’t merely due to the greed and exceptionalism of public sector unions. Despite their overwhelming power, unions probably couldn’t stop reforms all by themselves. Public sector unions receive formidable political, legal and financial support, along with intellectual cover in the form of delusional financial projections, from their partners in the financial sector, corrupt, crony capitalists who indeed give capitalism a bad name.

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

Social Security is Healthy Compared to Public Sector Pensions

Last week yet another missive on the lessons to be learned from Detroit’s bankruptcy was published, this time in Forbes Magazine by Jeffrey Dorfman, an economist at the University of Georgia. Dorfman’s article, “Detroit’s Bankruptcy Should Be A Warning To Every Worker Expecting A Pension, Or Social Security,” clearly implies that future Social Security benefits are as financially imperiled as public sector pensions.

This is patently false, and spreading this falsehood has dangerous consequences.

Not only are the financial adjustments necessary to fix Social Security far easier to implement than what it’s going to take to rescue public sector pensions, but the sheer size of the public sector pension liability is actually bigger than the total liability for the entire Social Security fund. It is imperative that American voters understand this fact.

In the United States today about 20% of workers are employed by the government (or public utilities that offer benefits on par with government). For recent retirees, their average pension after a 30 year career is over $60,000 per year, and their average retirement age is 58. Because they retire ten years before full Social Security benefits are eligible to private citizens at age 68, retired public employees actually comprise nearly 30% of the retired population. The average Social Security benefit is less than $20,000 per year. Critically, the ratio of workers to retirees in the Social Security system is more than 3-to-1, set to move downwards marginally within the next 20 years, whereas the ratio of workers to retirees participating in government worker pension plans is already less than 2-to-1 and is on track to move to roughly 1.5-to-1 within the next 20 years. Here’s how that math stacks up:

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2030, when Social Security will be supposedly approaching insolvency, there will be 99.4 million citizens over 58 years old, and 59.5 million citizens over 68 years old. This means that by 2030 (assuming no public employees also participate in Social Security – which many of them do) there will be 19.9 million government retirees collecting pensions that average $60,000 per year, and there will be 47.6 million private sector retirees collecting Social Security benefits that average $20,000 per year. Got that? The total pension payouts to government retirees, who were only 20% of the workforce, will be $1.2 trillion, whereas the total Social Security payouts to private sector retirees will be $952 billion, only 80% as much.

Now let’s talk about solvency, something that trained economists like Jeffrey Dorfman ought to understand thoroughly. Assuming government’s share of the workforce remains at around 20%, in 2030 we will have 247 million citizens over the age of 25. On a pay-as-you-go basis, to pay $1.2 trillion annually to 19.9 million government pensioners, 29.6 million active government workers would each require $40,343 per year withheld from their paychecks; to pay $952 billion annually to 47.6 million retired Social Security recipients, 150 million private sector workers would require $6,337 per year withheld from their paychecks – one sixth as much.

You can tweak the numbers all you like. Use medians instead of averages. Assume the public sector worker actually keeps working, on average, to age 60. Take into account disability payments, which are drawn from the Social Security fund. Assume people collect Social Security benefits before age 68. The stark fact remains: Our government pays more money to its own retirees – who represent 20% of the active workforce – than it pays in Social Security retirement benefits to everybody else put together. Financing Social Security, forever, can be accomplished with relatively minor incremental adjustments to withholding and benefits.

It is in this context that two powerful special interest groups, public sector unions, and public/private investment fund managers, would have you believe Social Security is the bigger problem. Government labor unions want our attention drawn away from the cataclysmic disaster facing public sector pensions for as long as possible. They want voters to perceive the problem of retirement security to be one that requires shared sacrifice, when nothing of the sort reflects reality. Pension fund managers are getting filthy rich investing public sector pension fund money, and would love to get their hands on the nearly equivalent funds that currently flow into Social Security.

Dorfman’s final insult is to suggest 401K funds provide a more secure retirement than defined benefits. Sure, if you are a fund manager collecting commissions on individual 401K accounts, regardless of their volatility.

The reality is that defined benefits are always preferable to 401K accounts because they greatly reduce market risk and they virtually eliminate mortality risk – i.e., in a pooled fund you don’t have to hope you die before your money runs out. The problem with public sector pensions is simple: (1) They rely too much on asset appreciation, something that is going to be increasingly problematic in our debt saturated, deficit ridden, aging society, and (2) they are way, way out of line with what ordinary citizens can ever hope to expect from Social Security.

Fixing public sector pensions is furthered by borrowing some concepts from Social Security, which might be characterized as an “adjustable defined benefit.” Here is the solution:

(1) Base pension benefits on career earnings, not final years of earnings.
(2) Stop using taxpayer’s money to manipulate global investment markets and just put all the funds into Treasury Bills; better yet, put pensions onto a pay-as-you go financial footing where current workers pay for retiree benefits.
(3) Calibrate benefits so highly compensated participants get a lower pension as a percent of their career earnings than participants with low or average career compensation.
(4) Put a ceiling on annual pension benefits of twice the maximum annual social security benefit.
(5) Whenever necessary, lower pension benefits for all retirees on a pro-rata basis (subject to a floor equivalent to 75% of the average Social Security benefit) to the extent the system is underfunded, in order to restore full funding.
(6) Raise the age at which participants become eligible for pension benefits to a minimum of age 60.

Public sector unions and private investment fund managers are allies in what is probably the most egregious fleecing of taxpayers in American history.

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Ed Ring is the Executive Director of the California Policy Center.

Social Security is Healthy Compared to Public Sector Pensions

Last week yet another missive on the lessons to be learned from Detroit’s bankruptcy was published, this time in Forbes Magazine by Jeffrey Dorfman, an economist at the University of Georgia. Dorfman’s article, “Detroit’s Bankruptcy Should Be A Warning To Every Worker Expecting A Pension, Or Social Security,” clearly implies that future Social Security benefits are as financially imperiled as public sector pensions.

This is patently false, and spreading this falsehood has dangerous consequences.

Not only are the financial adjustments necessary to fix Social Security far easier to implement than what it’s going to take to rescue public sector pensions, but the sheer size of the public sector pension liability is actually bigger than the total liability for the entire Social Security fund. It is imperative that American voters understand this fact.

In the United States today about 20% of workers are employed by the government (or public utilities that offer benefits on par with government). For recent retirees, their average pension after a 30 year career is over $60,000 per year, and their average retirement age is 58. Because they retire ten years before full Social Security benefits are eligible to private citizens at age 68, retired public employees actually comprise nearly 30% of the retired population. The average Social Security benefit is less than $20,000 per year. Critically, the ratio of workers to retirees in the Social Security system is more than 3-to-1, set to move downwards marginally within the next 20 years, whereas the ratio of workers to retirees participating in government worker pension plans is already less than 2-to-1 and is on track to move to roughly 1.5-to-1 within the next 20 years. Here’s how that math stacks up:

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2030, when Social Security will be supposedly approaching insolvency, there will be 99.4 million citizens over 58 years old, and 59.5 million citizens over 68 years old. This means that by 2030 (assuming no public employees also participate in Social Security – which many of them do) there will be 19.9 million government retirees collecting pensions that average $60,000 per year, and there will be 47.6 million private sector retirees collecting Social Security benefits that average $20,000 per year. Got that? The total pension payouts to government retirees, who were only 20% of the workforce, will be $1.2 trillion, whereas the total Social Security payouts to private sector retirees will be $952 billion, only 80% as much.

Now let’s talk about solvency, something that trained economists like Jeffrey Dorfman ought to understand thoroughly. Assuming government’s share of the workforce remains at around 20%, in 2030 we will have 247 million citizens over the age of 25. On a pay-as-you-go basis, to pay $1.2 trillion annually to 19.9 million government pensioners, 29.6 million active government workers would each require $40,343 per year withheld from their paychecks; to pay $952 billion annually to 47.6 million retired Social Security recipients, 150 million private sector workers would require $6,337 per year withheld from their paychecks – one sixth as much.

You can tweak the numbers all you like. Use medians instead of averages. Assume the public sector worker actually keeps working, on average, to age 60. Take into account disability payments, which are drawn from the Social Security fund. Assume people collect Social Security benefits before age 68. The stark fact remains: Our government pays more money to its own retirees – who represent 20% of the active workforce – than it pays in Social Security retirement benefits to everybody else put together. Financing Social Security, forever, can be accomplished with relatively minor incremental adjustments to withholding and benefits.

It is in this context that two powerful special interest groups, public sector unions, and public/private investment fund managers, would have you believe Social Security is the bigger problem. Government labor unions want our attention drawn away from the cataclysmic disaster facing public sector pensions for as long as possible. They want voters to perceive the problem of retirement security to be one that requires shared sacrifice, when nothing of the sort reflects reality. Pension fund managers are getting filthy rich investing public sector pension fund money, and would love to get their hands on the nearly equivalent funds that currently flow into Social Security.

Dorfman’s final insult is to suggest 401K funds provide a more secure retirement than defined benefits. Sure, if you are a fund manager collecting commissions on individual 401K accounts, regardless of their volatility.

The reality is that defined benefits are always preferable to 401K accounts because they greatly reduce market risk and they virtually eliminate mortality risk – i.e., in a pooled fund you don’t have to hope you die before your money runs out. The problem with public sector pensions is simple: (1) They rely too much on asset appreciation, something that is going to be increasingly problematic in our debt saturated, deficit ridden, aging society, and (2) they are way, way out of line with what ordinary citizens can ever hope to expect from Social Security.

Fixing public sector pensions is furthered by borrowing some concepts from Social Security, which might be characterized as an “adjustable defined benefit.” Here is the solution:

(1) Base pension benefits on career earnings, not final years of earnings.
(2) Stop using taxpayer’s money to manipulate global investment markets and just put all the funds into Treasury Bills; better yet, put pensions onto a pay-as-you go financial footing where current workers pay for retiree benefits.
(3) Calibrate benefits so highly compensated participants get a lower pension as a percent of their career earnings than participants with low or average career compensation.
(4) Put a ceiling on annual pension benefits of twice the maximum annual social security benefit.
(5) Whenever necessary, lower pension benefits for all retirees on a pro-rata basis (subject to a floor equivalent to 75% of the average Social Security benefit) to the extent the system is underfunded, in order to restore full funding.
(6) Raise the age at which participants become eligible for pension benefits to a minimum of age 60.

Public sector unions and private investment fund managers are allies in what is probably the most egregious fleecing of taxpayers in American history.

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Ed Ring is the editor of UnionWatch, and can be reached at editor@unionwatch.org.

Social Security Trends and Data

Editor’s Note:  If you want links to core data on Social Security finance, this post by UnionWatch contributor Mike Shedlock is a good place to start. Shedlock correctly notes that during the most recent 12 months the Social Security program ran a deficit for the first time in history. The 2013 resumption of full 6.25% employee payroll withholding for Social Security will defer the occasion of another deficit for at least several more years. But if you want to fix the Social Security program, the solution is simple:  Put every public sector worker onto Social Security, and merge the assets of the Social Security Fund with those currently held by public sector pension funds. And let them all purchase risk-free Treasury Bills to hedge the funds against inflation and finance government deficits. Why not? Shouldn’t every worker in the United States earn their taxpayer funded retirement security according to a common formula?

*   *   *

Inquiring minds are digging into social security trends including the numbers of beneficiaries, average costs, total costs, number of workers, and the ratio of workers to beneficiaries.

First, let’s take a look at the CNS News report Social Security Ran $47.8 Billion Deficit in Fiscal Year 2012.

The Social Security program ran a $47.8 billion deficit in fiscal 2012 as the program brought in $725.429 billion in cash and paid $773.247 for benefits and overhead expenses, according to official data published by Social Security Administration.

The Social Security Administration also released new data revealing that the number of workers collecting disability benefits hit a record 8,827,795 in December–up from 8,805,353 in November.

With that backdrop, let’s look at the actual data to see the underlying trends.

Data Notes

Social Security Beneficiaries December 2012

OASI Trust Fund
Retired Workers & Dependents Retired Worker 36,719,288
Spouse 2,280,332
Child 612,087
Subtotal 39,611,707
Survivors Child 1,907,097
Aged Widow(er) 3,937,958
Young Widow(er) 153,628
Disabled Widow(er) 255,472
Parent 1,427
Subtotal 6,255,582
Total OASI 45,867,289
DI Trust Fund
Disabled Worker 8,827,795
Spouse 162,881
Child 1,900,220
Total DI 10,890,896
Total OSASI + DI 56,758,158

Social Security Beneficiaries, Costs, Employment

Year Beneficiaries Average Monthly Benefit Total Annual Cost Employment E/B Ratio
Dec-67 22,979 $73.92 $20,383,201,682 66,900 2.9114
Dec-68 23,886 $85.24 $24,432,839,002 69,245 2.8989
Dec-69 24,709 $86.47 $25,638,687,737 71,240 2.8832
Dec-70 25,701 $101.35 $31,257,463,769 70,790 2.7544
Dec-71 26,817 $113.22 $36,435,282,006 72,108 2.6888
Dec-72 28,066 $138.70 $46,712,482,840 75,270 2.6819
Dec-73 29,514 $143.99 $50,996,092,215 78,035 2.6440
Dec-74 30,576 $163.02 $59,813,483,661 77,657 2.5398
Dec-75 31,862 $179.29 $68,549,741,469 78,017 2.4486
Dec-76 32,835 $194.95 $76,815,361,682 80,448 2.4500
Dec-77 33,923 $211.16 $85,958,416,484 84,408 2.4882
Dec-78 34,453 $229.86 $95,032,473,435 88,674 2.5738
Dec-79 35,013 $258.37 $108,555,575,502 90,669 2.5896
Dec-80 35,526 $300.75 $128,213,644,374 90,936 2.5597
Dec-81 35,930 $340.84 $146,956,770,724 90,884 2.5295
Dec-82 35,778 $372.10 $159,755,010,234 88,756 2.4808
Dec-83 36,034 $393.15 $170,001,091,973 92,210 2.5590
Dec-84 36,439 $412.21 $180,244,135,062 96,087 2.6370
Dec-85 37,027 $429.35 $190,768,953,436 98,587 2.6626
Dec-86 37,683 $438.76 $198,407,802,022 100,484 2.6665
Dec-87 38,171 $461.35 $211,323,314,397 103,634 2.7150
Dec-88 38,613 $484.01 $224,268,374,172 106,871 2.7678
Dec-89 39,141 $511.89 $240,431,129,294 108,809 2.7799
Dec-90 39,825 $544.52 $260,224,095,454 109,120 2.7400
Dec-91 40,587 $568.55 $276,908,006,552 108,262 2.6674
Dec-92 41,504 $588.90 $293,296,976,201 109,416 2.6363
Dec-93 42,243 $607.48 $307,943,241,597 112,204 2.6561
Dec-94 42,882 $628.14 $323,229,663,108 116,055 2.7064
Dec-95 43,386 $648.77 $337,772,228,816 118,208 2.7246
Dec-96 43,736 $672.81 $353,113,695,411 121,002 2.7666
Dec-97 43,971 $692.82 $365,565,297,977 124,357 2.8282
Dec-98 44,246 $707.39 $375,585,941,872 127,359 2.8785
Dec-99 44,595 $730.53 $390,940,040,819 130,533 2.9270
Dec-00 45,415 $767.35 $418,187,686,581 132,481 2.9171
Dec-01 45,877 $795.69 $438,050,881,510 130,720 2.8493
Dec-02 46,444 $815.05 $454,253,081,458 130,175 2.8028
Dec-03 47,038 $840.62 $474,497,794,254 130,259 2.7692
Dec-04 47,688 $871.80 $498,889,778,321 132,316 2.7746
Dec-05 48,434 $915.71 $532,222,768,675 134,814 2.7834
Dec-06 49,123 $955.53 $563,260,007,133 136,882 2.7865
Dec-07 49,865 $987.03 $590,618,750,824 137,982 2.7671
Dec-08 50,898 $1,054.38 $643,995,009,294 134,379 2.6401
Dec-09 52,523 $1,064.41 $670,869,765,261 129,319 2.4621
Dec-10 54,032 $1,074.33 $696,579,633,240 130,346 2.4124
Dec-11 55,404 $1,122.89 $746,557,638,566 132,186 2.3858
Dec-12 56,758 $1,152.79 $785,163,217,034 134,021 2.3613

Notes for Above Table
Employment and beneficiary numbers are in thousands.
I computed the total annual cost as monthly benefit * 12 * number of beneficiaries. That method will tend to overstate annual costs slightly vs. totaling every month individually. Thus, the total cost may vary slightly from other published figures.

Average Monthly Social Security Benefit

Total Annual Cost of Social Security 1967-Present

Social Security Beneficiaries vs. Total Non-Farm Employment

Ratio of Workers to Social Security Beneficiaries

Social Security Benefits Analysis

  • The ratio of workers to beneficiaries peaked in 1999 at 2.927 to 1.
  • The ratio of workers to beneficiaries was 2.361 to 1 at the end of 2012.
  • The ratio of workers to beneficiaries is falling fast and will continue to fall fast for a decade as the baby boomer population ages.
  • The average payout and the number of payouts are both rising fast
  • Total Social Security payouts (a multiplication of two rising numbers) are on an unsustainable exponential growth path.

The system is currently running a deficit. Trends say that deficit is going to worsen with each passing year unless benefits are cut and/or taxes are hiked.

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.