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Government Unions Benefit from the Asset Bubble that Harms Workers

Earlier this month the California Policy Center released a study that provided additional evidence that the U.S. stock indexes are overvalued by approximately 50%, along with calculations showing the impact of a major downward correction on the solvency of California’s state and local government pension systems. Stocks are now at unsustainable bubble valuations.

Not covered in this study, but equally overvalued, are bonds, which pension systems misleadingly categorize as “fixed income” investments in their portfolio disclosures. CalPERS even went so far as to trumpet their success in earning a 9.29% return on “fixed income” investments in their most recent press release – a healthy return that offset losses elsewhere and allowed them to earn a marginally positive return of 0.61% last year. But “fixed income” investments usually refers to bonds, and bonds are also at unsustainable bubble valuations.

Here’s why bonds are overvalued today: Whenever new bonds are issued at lower fixed rates of interest than the bonds that were issued before them, then those older bonds that pay higher fixed rates of interest can be sold for more money than their original price. This is because on an open market, buyers will price a resold bond at a value calculated to equalize returns. When rates go down for new bonds, the prices for existing bonds go up. The problem is that back in the 1980’s, bonds were being issued at rates as high as 16%, and today, they’re being issued at rates close to zero. After a thirty year ride, interest rate drops can no longer be used to elevate the value of bond portfolios.

At a macroeconomic level, every possible investment in the world is overvalued today, because central banks have lowered interest rates to zero in a desperate attempt to continue a decades long disease in which they have spent more than they’ve collected. Governments got to borrow money for next to nothing, and assets kept appreciating. But the binge is almost over, and unlike the savvy super-rich, pension funds can’t just take their winnings off the table.

New Bond Issues, Rates by Nation – June 2016 (red = negative)
20160719-UW-NegativeYieldsNegative coupon bonds, a desperate experiment that isn’t going to end well.

This is all tedious drivel, however, if you are a unionized public employee in California. Your retirement security is guaranteed by “contract.” It’s the result of deals cut between union “negotiators” and the politicians they make or break. As a government employee in California, if you’ve worked 30 years, the average annual retirement benefit you can expect if you retire this year is worth over $70,000. To honor that expectation, CalPERS is already mid-way through their latest reassessment, a 50% increase to their collections from participating agencies. And if there is a 50% market correction (“fixed income” and equity), expect them to double or even triple their collections from taxpayers.

If you are a private citizen trying to prepare for retirement today after, say, 45 years of work and saving, good luck. Because there is no safe investment left in the world. And while you are likely to have to cope with, for example, suspended dividend payments on stocks that are down 50%, expect your taxes to go up in every imaginable category – sales, property, income, and hidden taxes embedded in your utility bills and phone bills. It will be “for the children” and “for public safety.” And if there’s a vote required to increase the tax, it will usually pass, because most voters don’t pay property tax, or income tax, or if they do, the taxes are indirectly assessed and invisible to them.

This is the oppressive hoax that government unions have perpetrated on the working families they claim they want to protect. They have exempted their own members, government workers, from the consequences of a corrupt financial system where they are leading partners. When governments spend more than they make and have to borrow money, central banks lower interest rates to make it easier to work the payments into the budget. At the same time, lower interest rates goose the value of stocks and bonds, helping the pension funds claim they can earn 7.5% per year. And when the house of cards collapses, taxpayers bail out the banks and the government pension funds.

The next time a spokesperson for a government union speaks disparagingly about Wall Street corruption, remember this: They are partners with Wall Street. They support overspending for their own compensation and benefits, creating deficits that have to be covered by taxes and borrowing. Their pension funds demand high returns, and the bankers comply, with rates that encourage borrowing and deny ordinary people the ability to save. Now that interest rates have hit zero and are even going negative in an exercise of monetary chicanery that has no rival in history, the end is near.

Public sector union leaders need to start remembering they represent public servants, not public overlords who are exempt from the reality that you can only spend as much as you earn. As it is, these union leaders are the overpaid mercenaries of capitalism at its most corrupt.

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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

The Alliance Between Wall Street and Public Unions

“It’s [private equity investments] generating real returns for our members, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do,” said Joe DeAnda, a CalPERS spokesman. “It’s real value that we don’t feel there’s another way to achieve.”
–  “Are private equity investments worth the risk?,” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2015

The alliance between government unions and America’s overbuilt financial sector is one of the most unreported stories of our time. It is a story saturated in greed, drowning in delusion, smothered and marginalized by an avalanche of taxpayer funded propaganda. If this story were known and appreciated by the people most victimized by its effects, it would fundamentally shift the political landscape of the nation. The most obvious example of this alliance are the government worker pension systems, Wall Street’s biggest players, controlled by union operatives.

The problem with public sector defined benefit pensions can be boiled down to two cold facts: 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.

In an attempt to earn in excess of 7.0% per year, government pension systems have increasingly turned 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 – 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 pension systems. And if it goes south? Taxpayers pay for the bailout.

Which brings us to sheer abuse of power. Hypocrisy aside – and how much more hypocritical can it be for union leaders to rhetorically demonize “profits,” yet ignore the fact that only profits can permit pension funds to appreciate at rates of 7.0% per year or more – it is raw power, sheer financial and legal might, that enables pension systems, with unions cheering them on every step of the way, to sue city after faltering city to ensure their “contracts” are inviolable, that relentlessly escalating pension contributions keep 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 their new hires.

The alliance between Wall Street and public sector unions isn’t restricted to the over $4.0 trillion in government pension assets that they’ve wagered in a volatile investment market with taxpayers on the hook to guarantee perpetual winnings. The alliance extends to bond underwriters, who join with government unions to sell overpriced, often unnecessary projects to taxpayers, collecting billions in fees. It even extends to auctions of government permits to emit CO2, which when fully implemented will guarantee Wall Street firms a cut on virtually every energy transaction in America, while quietly pouring a huge portion of the proceeds into funding public sector jobs – redefined to meet “mitigation” criteria: code inspectors enforcing energy retrofits, entire cities who zone ultra-high density which presumably lowers transportation related emissions, bus drivers and other mass transit workers, police and fire agencies who confront higher crime rates and more wildfires during hot weather. And, of course, the bullet train.

Whether it’s financially unsustainable government pension systems, who are the biggest players on Wall Street, or financing overpriced public construction projects of dubious value, or imposing billions in hidden taxes on energy users to supposedly save the planet, public sector unions receive formidable political, legal and financial support 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.

Two Tales of a City – How Detroit Transcended Ideology to Reform Pensions

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.”
–  Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities

Traveling through suburban Detroit, a sprawling city of 143 square miles whose population has dropped from nearly two million to less than 700,000, you can often imagine you are in rural Tennessee. Rutted narrow roads bend past groves of cottonwood, oak and silver maple. Deer and jack rabbits forage in tall grass. Until you pass a burned out ruin of a home, not yet removed, obscured by greenery, it is difficult to imagine that these neighborhoods once were filled with homes, set 35 feet apart and carpeting the land for mile after mile.

According to the so-called “right wing propaganda machine,” the tale of Detroit’s demise is attributed to the unchecked power of labor unions. Private sector unions were inflexible in the face of foreign competition, driving Detroit’s auto industry into irreversible decline. Public sector unions gobbled up every dime of taxpayer revenue they could bully and intimidate politicians into granting, further straining the finances of an already imploding city. Financially unsustainable pension benefits, ultimately, drove the city of Detroit into bankruptcy.

20140722_DetroitDetroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood  –  Homes used to stand 35 feet apart along this street.

 A different tale emerges from the left side of the ideological spectrum. Taken from a guest column written for MSNBC.com, here’s a quote from Jordan Marks, executive director of the National Public Pension Coalition, a group largely funded by public sector unions:

“While public coffers were running dry, Wall Street banks were out to make millions. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who now sits in jail, worked with Wall Street banks that designed an illegal borrowing scheme that evaded state debt limits and piled on unwise interest rate swaps. When interest rates plummeted, Wall Street demanded more than $300 million from Detroit to terminate these swap deals – making a bad situation even worse. These same Wall Street firms stand to make millions if other cities move to privatize their pension plans.”

These two tales of Detroit’s struggles both have elements of truth. With respect to Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy, it is unfair to blame public sector unions as the primary cause. While the city’s unions were unwilling to adjust their pensions and benefits until it was too late, even if they had, the city’s finances would have failed anyway because it lost nearly two thirds of its tax base. And while the automotive industry’s unions were unwilling to adjust their pensions and benefits until it was too late, that industry would have shrunk anyway, because very capable foreign competitors gained strength starting back in the 1960’s. It is unrealistic to expect, under any circumstances, that Detroit’s auto industry could have maintained the overwhelming global market share it had up to and through the 1950’s. Without economic diversification, Detroit was destined to fall hard.

The tale that comes from the left, however, strains credulity even further. First of all, public sector unions don’t represent the “left.” They represent the state. When Jordan Marks writes about banks colluding with corrupt politicians, he is referring to politicians elected and controlled by public sector unions. His assertion that “Wall Street banks” exploited Detroit does not reflect reality. Bankers issue bonds – debt – to cities who willingly borrow the funds because their union agenda forces them to spend more than they collect in taxes and fees. Government pension fund managers pour billions of dollars into Wall Street investment firms every year. Bankers and city governments – controlled by government unions – work together to exploit taxpayers and private businesses. They use the state power of imprisonment to enforce punitive levels of taxation, to pay down debt and unfunded liabilities incurred so they could live beyond their means. Wall Street bankers and municipal government unions work together to build a financial house of cards, and when it collapses they deserve equal blame.

How Detroit has solved its pension crisis will not please the ideologues. For the libertarian right, the failure to throw everyone into 401K plans must rankle. For the left, the new plan’s built in “triggers” that adjust benefits when necessary to compensate for possible future shortfalls in investment returns violates their goal of an immutable defined benefit. But it works. And the libertarian’s ideological enthusiasm for individual 401Ks contradicts their entirely valid criticism of overly optimistic investment return projections on the part of pension funds (Detroit’s was 7.9% a year). When the market tanks, and periodically it does, only a pooled plan with multi-generational, active payees plus retired participants, with adjustable benefits, can maintain solvency through a balance of contributions from active workers and returns from invested assets. A pooled 401K plan is nothing more than an ideologically impure version of individual 401K plans. An adjustable defined benefit plan is nothing more than an ideologically impure version of a fixed defined benefit plan. They can be functionally identical, two tales of the same thing, and they are both practical compromises.

Detroit’s failures, and Detroit’s probable ascendancy from now on, is easy to describe using hyperbole and polemics. But ultimately there is one destiny, one tale in reality, that will define Detroit’s future. Cutting through the rhetoric, cities around the nation may look to Detroit for answers, especially regarding their new pension plan, because Detroit has passed through a clarifying crucible of pain and self-evaluation that cities with better weather and more diversified economies have deferred. One big market correction will erase those advantages. The tale of Detroit makes for compelling analysis, from New York to LA.

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