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Did CalPERS Use Accounting “Gimmicks” to Enable Financially Unsustainable Pensions?

Gimmick – a concealed, usually devious aspect or feature of something, as a plan or deal.
– Dictionary.com

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.

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Average Costa Mesa Firefighter Makes Nearly $250,000 Per Year. Why? Pensions.

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

20160920-uw-calpers-fire

Projected Employer Contributions to CalPERS  –  Costa Mesa Firefighters

20160920-uw-calpers-fire

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

20160920-uw-costamesa-ftcomp2015bydept

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
20160920-uw-costamesa-pension-as-percent-of-reg-pay

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
20160920-uw-costamesa-empl-pension-pmt-as-percent-of-reg-pay

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.

Wow.

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

20160920-uw-costamesa-pensions

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.

Court Pension Decision Weakens ‘California Rule’

The one thing some pension reformers say is needed to cut the cost of unaffordable public pensions: give current workers a less costly retirement benefit for work done in the future, while protecting pension amounts already earned.

It’s allowed in the remaining private-sector pensions. But California is one of about a dozen states that have what has become known as the “California rule,” which is based on a series of state court decisions, a key one in 1955.

The pension offered at hire becomes a “vested right,” protected by contract law, that cannot be cut, unless offset by a new benefit of comparable value. The pension can be increased, however, even retroactively for past work as happened for state workers under landmark legislation, SB 400 in 1999. 

Last week, an appeals court issued a ruling in a Marin County case that is a “game changer” if upheld by the state Supreme Court, said a news release from former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, who wants to put a pension reform initiative on the 2018 ballot.

Mayor Chuck Reed considered it a “game-changer” when a Marin County Court rejected the rigid interpretation of the California Rule of vested rights, ruling that although an employee has a vested right to a pension, their only right is to a ‘reasonable pension,’ one without benefit spiking

 

Justice James Richman of the First District Court of Appeal wrote that “while a public employee does have a ‘vested right’ to a pension, that right is only to a ‘reasonable’ pension — not an immutable entitlement to the most optimal formula of calculating the pension.

“And the Legislature may, prior to the employee’s retirement, alter the formula, thereby reducing the anticipated pension. So long as the Legislature’s modifications do not deprive the employee of a ‘reasonable’ pension, there is no constitutional violation.”

The ruling came in a suit by Marin County employee unions contending their vested rights were violated by a pension reform enacted in 2012 that prevents pension boosts from unused vacation and leave, bonuses, terminal pay and other things.

These “anti-spiking” provisions apply to current workers. The major part of the reform legislation, including lower pension formulas and a cap, only apply to new employees hired after Jan. 1, 2013, who have not yet attained vested rights.

The California Public Employees Retirement System expects the reform pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Brown to save $29 billion to $38 billion over 30 years, not a major impact on a current CalPERS shortfall or “unfunded liability” of $139 billion.

Similarly, legislation two years ago will increase the rate paid to school districts to the California State Teachers Retirement System from 8.25 percent of pay to 19.1 percent, while the rate paid by teachers increases from 8 percent of pay to 10.25 percent.

The limited teacher rate increase followed the California rule. The new benefit offsetting the 2.5 percent rate hike vests a routine annual 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment, which previously could have been suspended, though that rarely if ever happened.

While mayor of San Jose four years ago, Reed got approval from 69 percent of voters for a broad reform to cut retirement costs that were taking 20 percent of the city general fund. A superior court approved a number of the measure’s provisions.

But a plan to cut the cost of pensions current workers earn in the future by giving them an option (contribute up to an additional 16 percent of pay to continue the current pension or switch to a lower pension) was rejected by the court, citing the California rule.

In a settlement of union lawsuits, Reed’s successor locked in some retirement savings but dropped an appeal of the option. Reed, a lawyer, thinks the California rule is ill-founded and likely to be overturned if revisited by the state supreme court.

He has pointed to the work of a legal scholar, Amy Monahan, who argued that by imposing a restrictive rule without finding clear evidence of legislative intent to create a contract, California courts broke with traditional contract analysis and infringed on legislative power.

“California courts have held that even though the state can terminate a worker, lower her salary, or reduce her other benefits, the state cannot decrease the worker’s rate of pension accrual as long as she is employed,” Monahan wrote.

In the ruling last week, Justice Richman describes the setting for the reform legislation: soaring pension debt after the financial crisis in 2008-09 and a Little Hoover Commission report in 2011 urging cuts in pensions current workers earn in the future.

He cites several court rulings in the past that conclude cuts in pensions earned by current workers are allowed to give the pension system the flexibility needed to adjust to changing conditions and preserve “reasonable” pensions in the future.

Some of the court rulings cited allowed changes in retirement ages, reductions of maximum possible pensions, repeals of cost-of-living adjustments, changes in required service years, pensions reduced from two-thirds to one-half of salary, and a reasonable increase in pension contributions.

“Thus,” Richman wrote, “short of actual abolition, a radical reduction of benefits, or a fiscally unjustifiable increase in employee contributions, the guiding principle is still the one identified by Miller in 1977: ‘the governing body may make reasonable modifications and changes before the pension becomes payable and that until that time the employee does not have a right to any fixed or definite benefits but only to a substantial or reasonable pension.’”

Richman’s ruling makes several references to a unanimous state Supreme Court decision in 1977 in Miller v. State of California. He said the foundation of the unions’ constitutional appeal is a “onetime variation” in one word in another ruling.

“To be sustained as reasonable, alterations of employees’ pension rights must bear some material relation to the theory of a pension system and its successful operation, and changes in a pension plan which result in disadvantage to employees should be accompanied by comparable new advantages,” the state Supreme Court said in Allen v. City of Long Beach (1955).

Richman said a 1983 state Supreme Court decision (Allen v. Board of Administration) changed “should” have a comparable new advantage to “must,” citing two other State Supreme Court decisions that said “should” and an appeals court decision that said “must.”

In a decision a month later, he said, the Supreme Court used “should” while referring to a comparable new benefit and has continued to use “should” in all rulings since then.

“It thus appears unlikely that the Supreme Court’s use of ‘must’ in the 1983 Allen decision was intended to herald a fundamental doctrinal shift,” Richman said, citing two rulings that “should” is advisory or a recommendation not compulsory.

The 39-page decision written by Richman and concurred in by Justices J. Anthony Kline and Maria Miller makes other points in its rejection of a rigid view of the California rule and pension vested rights.

“The big question for pension reformers is whether or not the California Supreme Court will agree,” Reed said in a news release from the Retirement Security Initiative. “If it does, the legal door will be open for Californians to begin to take reasonable actions to save pension systems and local governments from fiscal disaster.”

There was no immediate word from the Marin Association of Public Employees and other county employee unions last week about whether the appeals court decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court.

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

Pension Reformers are not "The Enemy" of Public Safety

“You will find that powerful financial and investment institutions are the ones promoting the attacks on your pensions. Firms like Berkshire-Hathaway and the Koch brothers are backing political candidates and causes all over the country in the hopes of making this issue relevant and in the mainstream media. Why? Because if they can crack your pension and turn it into a 401(k), they will make billions. Your pension is the golden egg that they are dying to get their hands upon. By the way, it was those same financial geniuses that brought about the Great Recession in the first place. After nearly collapsing the entire financial system of western civilization, they successfully managed to deflect the blame off of themselves and onto government employee pay/benefits.”
– Jim Foster, Vice President, Long Beach Police Officers Association, posted on PubSec Alliance website

These comments form the conclusion to a piece published by Foster entitled “What does “unfunded liability” mean?,” published on PubSecAlliance.com, an online “community of law enforcement associations and unions.” If you review the “supporters” page, you can see that the website’s “founding members,” “affiliated organizations,” and “other groups whose membership is pending” are all law enforcement unions.

In Foster’s discussion of what constitutes an unfunded pension liability, he compares the liability to a mortgage, correctly pointing out that like a mortgage, an unfunded pension liability can be paid down over many years. But Foster fails to take into account the fact that a mortgage can be negotiated at a fixed rate of interest, whereas a pension liability will grow whenever the rates earned by the pension system’s investments fall short of expectations. When the average taxpayer signs a 30 year fixed mortgage, they don’t expect to suddenly find out their payments have doubled, or tripled, or gone up by an order of magnitude. But that’s exactly what’s happened with pensions.

Apart from ignoring this crucial difference between mortgages and unfunded pension liabilities, Foster’s piece makes no mention of the other reason unfunded pension liabilities have grown to alarming levels, the retroactive enhancements to the pension benefit formula – enhancements gifted to public employees and imposed on taxpayers starting in 1999. These enhancements were made at precisely the same time as the market was delivering unsustainable gains engineered by, as Foster puts it, the “same financial geniuses that brought about the Great Recession in the first place,” and “nearly collapsing the entire financial system of western civilization.”

This is a huge failure of logic. Foster is suggesting that the Wall Street crowd is to blame for the unfunded liabilities of pensions, but ignoring the fact that these unfunded liabilities are caused by (1) accepting the impossible promises made by Wall Street investment firms during the stock market bubbles and using that to justify financially unsustainable (and retroactive) benefit formula enhancements, and (2) basing the entire funding analysis for pension systems on rates of return that can only be achieved by relying on stock market bubbles – i.e., doomed to crash.

You can’t blame “Wall Street” for the financial challenges facing pension funds, yet demand benefits based on financial assumptions that only those you taint as Wall Street charlatans are willing to promote.

Foster ignores the fact that the stock market bubbles (2000, 2008, and 2014) were inflated then reflated by lowering interest rates and accumulating debt to stimulate the economy. But interest rates cannot go any lower. When the market corrects, and pension funds start demanding even larger annual payments to fund pensions and OPEB that now average over $100,000 per year for California’s full-career public safety retirees, Foster and his ilk are going to have a lot of explaining to do.

There is a deeper, more ominous context to Foster’s remarks, however, which is the power that government unions, especially public safety unions, wield over politicians and over public perception. The navigation bar of the website that published his essay, PubSecAlliance, is but a mild reminder of the power police organizations now have over the political process. Items such as “Intel Report,” “Pay Wars,” “Tactics,” “Tales of Triumph,” and “The Enemy” are examples of resources on this website.

When reviewing PubSecAlliance’s reports on “enemies,” notwithstanding the frightening reality of police organizations keeping lists of political enemies, were any of the people and organizations listed selected despite the fact that they were staunch supporters of law enforcement? Because pension reformers and government union reformers are not “enemies” of law enforcement, or government employees, or government programs in general. There is no connection.

Here are a few points for Jim Foster to consider, along with his leadership colleagues at the Long Beach Police Officers Association, and police union members everywhere.

TEN POINTS FOR MEMBERS OF PUBLIC SAFETY UNIONS TO CONSIDER

(1)  Not all pension reformers want to abolish the defined benefit. Restoring the more sustainable pension benefit formulas in use prior to 1999, and adopting conservative rate-of-return assumptions would make the defined benefit financially sustainable and fair to taxpayers.

(2)  Over the long term, the real, inflation-adjusted return on investments cannot be realistically expected to exceed the rate of national and global economic growth. You are being sold a 7.0% (or more) annual rate of return because it is an excuse to keep your normal contribution artificially low, and mislead politicians into thinking pension systems are financially sound.

(3)  As noted, you can’t blame “Wall Street” for the financial challenges facing pension funds, yet demand benefits based on financial assumptions that only those you taint as Wall Street charlatans are willing to promote.

(4)  If public safety employers didn’t have to pay 50% or more of payroll into the pension funds – normal and unfunded contributions combined – there would be money to hire more public safety employees, improving their own safety and better protecting the public.

(5)  Public safety personnel are eyewitnesses every day to the destructive effects of failed social welfare programs that destroy families, ineffective public schools with unaccountable unionized teachers, and a flawed immigration policy that prioritizes the admission of millions of unskilled immigrants over those with valuable skills. They ought to stick their necks out on these political issues, instead of invariably fighting exclusively to increase their pay and benefits.

(6)  The solution to the financial challenges facing all workers, public and private, is to lower the cost of living through competitive development of land, energy, water and transportation assets. Just two examples: rolling back CEQA hindrances to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach, or construct indirect potable water reuse assets in San Jose. Where are the police and firefighters on these critical issues? Creating inexpensive abundance through competition and development helps all workers, instead of just the anointed unionized government elite.

(7)  If pension funds were calibrated to accept 5.0% annual returns, instead of 7.0% or more, they could be invested in revenue producing infrastructure such as dams, desalination plants, sewage distillation and reuse, bridges, and port expansion, to name a few – all of which have the potential yield 5.0% per year to investors, but usually not 7.0%.

(8)  Government unions are partners with Wall Street and other crony capitalist interests. The idea that they are opposed to each other is one of the biggest frauds in American history. Government unions control local politicians, who award contracts, regulate and inspect businesses, float bond issues, and preserve financially unsustainable pension benefits. This is a gold mine to financial special interests, and to large corporate interests who know that the small businesses lack the resources to comply with excessive regulations or afford lobbyists.

(9)  Government unions elect their bosses, they wield the coercive power of the state, they favor expanded government and expanded compensation for government employees which is an intrinsic conflict of interest, and they protect incompetent (or worse) government employees. They should be abolished. Voluntary associations without collective bargaining rights would still have plenty of political influence.

(10)  Expectations of security have risen, the value of life has risen, the complexity of law enforcement challenges has risen, and the premium law enforcement officers should receive as a result has also risen. But unaffordable pensions, along with the consequent excessive payments of overtime, have priced public safety compensation well beyond what qualified people are willing to accept. Saying this does not make us your “The Enemy.”

*   *   *

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

RELATED ARTICLES AND POSTS

Pension Reform is BAD for Wall Street, and GOOD for California, April 14, 2015

Desalination Plants vs. Bullet Trains and Pensions, April 7, 2015

The Glass Jaw of Pension Funds is Asset Bubbles, February 24, 2015

Police Unions in America, December 9, 2014

How Police Unions and Arbitrators Keep Abusive Cops on the StreetAtlantic Monthly, December 2014

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

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

Estimating America’s Total Unfunded State and Local Government Pension Liability, September 9, 2014

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

Government Employee Unions – The Root Cause of California’s Challenges, June 3, 2014

California’s Green Bantustans, May 21, 2014

Conservative Politicians and Public Safety Unions, May 13, 2014

The Unholy Trinity of Public Sector Unions, Environmentalists, and Wall Street, May 6, 2014

Public Pension Solvency Requires Asset Bubbles, April 29, 2014

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

How Much Does Professionalism Cost?, March 11, 2014  (The Kelly Thomas Story)

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

How Public Sector Unions Skew America’s Public Safety and National Security Agenda, June 18, 2013

Wayne County Michigan – Following Detroit into Bankruptcy

Just as Detroit is coming out of bankruptcy, the entire county is about to go under.

This will be especially aggravating because Detroit pensioners are already extremely upset with the pension haircuts they received.

In the “too late to complain now” category, Wayne County now seeks to overturn the Detroit bankruptcy settlement. Lawyers will have a field day with this setup.

Cries of Betrayal

Crain’s Detroit Business reports Pension Cuts, Interest Paybacks from Bankruptcy Prompt Cries of Betrayal.

Pension checks will shrink 6.7 percent for 12,000 Detroit retirees beginning in March. Making matters worse, many also must pay back thousands of dollars of excess interest they received.

It’s a bitter outcome of Detroit’s record $18 billion municipal bankruptcy for David Espie, 58, who will repay the city $75,000 in a lump sum while his $3,226 monthly pension is cut by $216.

As retirement costs swallow larger portions of U.S. city budgets, Detroit’s bankruptcy plan resolved a pension crisis with creative strokes, though at a cost to retirees who thought their benefits were untouchable.

“I feel betrayed,” said Espie, who may abandon plans to move to Alabama.

In addition to absorbing pension cuts, almost 11,000 retirees and current employees must repay an estimated $212 million in excess interest they accrued in a city-run savings plan, which is separate from the pension fund. The annuity plan guaranteed a 7.9 percent annual return even when the pension lost money, and employees also received bonus interest in some years.

They can either pay the money back in a lump sum or have it deducted gradually from their monthly pension check with 6.75 percent interest.

Henry Gaffney, 61, a retired bus driver, said he’ll pay back $56,000 of the $300,000 he saved by deducting $428 from his monthly $3,100 pension check for 19 years. He said he pays $375 more for health insurance each month.

“I may have to find a part-time job,” said Gaffney, former president of Detroit’s bus-driver union. “I guess the city wants us to work until we’re dead

Simple Math Lesson (Yet Again)

This just goes to show you: What cannot be paid, won’t.

Hot Air Category

Here’s one for the meaningless “hot air” category: Wayne County Threatens Detroit Bankruptcy Deal.

 Wayne County is threatening to unravel a breakthrough deal that settled Detroit’s bankruptcy case unless it receives land or more than $30 million — money the city needs to bankroll Detroit’s revitalization.

The fight could undo a hard-fought bankruptcy settlement the city reached with its fiercest bankruptcy creditor, bond insurer Syncora Guarantee Inc.

Too Late

It’s far too late to go whining about something approved months ago. Worse yet, Wayne County has far bigger problems.

Wayne County in Serious Financial Difficulty Over Pensions

On Thursday, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans went over the county’s finances at a news conference.

20150206-UW_Shedlock

His conclusion Wayne County Finances are in Trouble, Could Worsen.

Wayne County needs to close a $70 million budget deficit, shore up pension plans that are nearly $1 billion underfunded and keep its general fund from running out of money in 2016, county Executive Warren Evans said of a recent financial review.

Evans announced Thursday the county has averaged about a $50 million annual deficit over the past three years in its general fund budget, which had $49 million of pooled cash last September and could be in a liquidity crisis as early as August, before the fall property tax collection.

An independent financial outlook report prepared for the county by Ernst & Young LLP found that the nearly $500 million general fund is creating a $50 million to $70 million structural debt each year for the county, which already had $159 million accumulated budget deficit at the end of fiscal 2013.

But perhaps most critical is an $850 million unfunded liability in the defined benefit pension plans for the county, which had more than 2,000 full-time employees in 2014. Pension plan contributions, retiree health care costs and some debt service are expected to drain a combined $92 million from the general fund in fiscal 2015.

Evans said the county pension plans were 95 percent funded about 10 years ago, but were only about 45 percent funded in 2013 and are on pace to be 39 percent funded by around 2023 without corrective action.

Solvency Crisis

This is not a “Liquidity Crisis“, it’s a solvency crisis. Wayne County is bankrupt. The only solution is a bankruptcy filing followed by pension haircuts.

Pension Promises Not Sacrosanct 

As I have stated many times, pension promises are not sacrosanct no matter how much unions pretend that they are.

Instead of fighting this, I suggest unions ought to figure out how to protect the pensions of the most people. Instead, they will likely engage in futile time-wasting fights only have a unilateral, across-the-board pension solution imposed by the courts.

My idea, which will be quickly discarded by the unions, is to quickly agree to a plan that caps benefits at some level so that haircuts do not fall most on those who get the least.

America Watch Closely! 

America, please watch closely. What’s happening in Michigan, won’t stay in Michigan!

In spite of this massive rally in both stocks and bonds, Wayne County pension assets have declined, and are on a pace for that decline to continue.

Any turndown in stocks and bonds will crush pension plans across the country. This will get very serious, very soon.

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.

Orange County Pensions At Risk – Unions Just Call Critics “Extremists”

“Just as the overseer of Detroit lied to the public about Detroit’s unfunded pension liability, these extremists are likewise lying to the taxpayers of Orange County, and they’re following his playbook.”
–  Jennifer Muir, Communications Director, Orange County Employees Association

We’re not lying, Jennifer. We’re not even stretching the truth.

What government union spokesperson Muir is referring to is an analysis released last week by the California Public Policy Center entitled “Are Annual Contributions Into Orange County’s Employee Pension Plan Adequate?

They aren’t adequate. They aren’t even close to adequate. No lie.

The problem with pensions, unfortunately, as Teri Sforza aptly put it in her coverage of the CPPC study on September 10th in the Orange County Register, is “the nature of America’s public pension systems is to peer 20 to 30 years into the future – and the crystal ball can get a bit murky.”

And hiding behind this convenient murkiness, defenders of the system – inadequate payments included – can call anyone concerned about the long-term solvency of the system “liars,” and “extremists.”

It’s much easier, and certainly much more effective, to disparage the critics than grapple with facts. But anyone familiar with the real estate and credit crash of 2008 should understand that ignoring financial fundamentals is a dangerous game. Here are the financial facts:

As of 12-31-2012 the Orange County Employee Retirement System had invested assets of $9.47 billion. For the plan to be fully funded, those assets needed to be equal to the liabilities; defined as the present value of the system’s financial obligation to pay all active participants – working and retired – retirement pensions. Here’s where the crystal ball gets murky – because how big that liability is today depends on what rate of interest the assets will earn each year, for the next 20-30 years. At a projected rate of return of 7.25%, those liabilities are valued at $15.14 billion. Underfunding = Assets – Liabilities.

OCERS is officially underfunded – according to their own annual report, by $5.67 billion. No lie. Fact.

Now it is fair to argue over what rate of return is truly realistic. But even if we use a higher rate, say, 7.5%, that liability only shrinks to $14.69 billion. Put another way, if you increase the projected rate of return by one-quarter of a percent, your unfunded liability will go from $5.67 billion down to $5.22 billion.

To verify these numbers, download the spreadsheet created by CPPC analysts and see for yourself. Go to table 1 “unfunded liability” and enter .075 in the yellow highlighted cell D23, and look at the result in the green highlighted cell D26. To construct this spreadsheet, the CPPC relied on those extremists at Moody’s Investor Services, whose formulas are meant to provide credit analysts with accurate tools to perform what-if analysis.

The point of all this?

In order to pay down their unfunded liability of $5.67 billion – or $5.22 billion if you want to use something approximating the union’s number – during 2012 OCERS contributed $218 million. Was that enough?

If there were no interest at all on this unfunded liability, at a rate of $218 million per year, it would take OCERS 26 years to pay off $5.67 billion; 24 years to pay off $5.22 billion. But it isn’t that simple.

Pension plans like OCERS rely on investment returns for most of their annual contributions. The assets they’ve got invested are supposed to earn – presumably – 7.25% per year. Investment returns, not contributions, are the intended source for most of the money OCERS needs to fund current and future pension payments. And if OCERS were fully funded, their investments would be earning $1.1 billion each year, that’s $15.14 billion times 7.25%. But because OCERS was only 63% funded in 2012, because they only had $9.14 billion of invested assets, at their projected rate of return of 7.25% they would only have earned $687 million. To earn the required $1.1 billion, at a 63% level of funding OCERS would have to have earned 11.6% – and they would have to do that every year just to avoid going further in the hole.

Does anyone really think OCERS is going to average a return of 11.6% per year for the next 25 years? Should only “liars” and “extremists” be concerned?

The reason OCERS got away with contributing a mere $218 million during 2012 towards a liability of $5.67 billion is because they intend to eventually increase these annual payments. Meanwhile, OCERS CEO Steve Delaney acknowledged that during 2012 the OCERS unfunded liability experienced “negative amortization,” despite better than normal investment returns. How much do these payments need to increase?

If OCERS were serious about restoring adequate funding, they would adopt the recommendations of Moody’s Investor Services – those extremists with the green eye shades – who in April 2013 called for a “20 year level payment” plan for reducing the unfunded liabilities of pension plans. At 7.25%, that would equate to $546 million per year. And if reality reveals over time that OCERS can only earn 6.2% per year on average, that payment would increase to $685 million per year. By this reasoning, the OCERS unfunded contribution was well over $300 million short in 2012, and the longer they wait to increase their annual unfunded contribution, the greater – above and beyond $300 million – the required increase.

By adopting graduated repayment schedules instead of telling the truth about just how perilous the situation is for OCERS, defenders of the status quo are putting the entire system at risk of a complete collapse. They are committing precisely the same unsustainable excess as the issuers of subprime mortgages ten years ago – financial instruments with graduated payment plans that mislead borrowers into thinking they could buy things that they couldn’t possibly afford.

Jennifer Muir, Nick Berardino, and others who have been outspoken critics of pension reformers, are invited to download the spreadsheet the CPPC has produced to evaluate the financial health of OCERS. Before trotting out the insults, perhaps they might first familiarize themselves with the liberating reality of algebra, a discipline that is indifferent to lies, extremism, and all other flights of wishful fancy.

*  *  *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center, and the editor of UnionWatch.