Study confirms the California pension crisis is hitting now

Debates about California’s pension crisis almost always focus on the big numbers – the hundreds of billions of dollars (and, by some estimates, more than $1 trillion) in unfunded liabilities that plague the public-pension funds. For instance, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System is only 68 percent funded – meaning it only has about two-thirds of the money needed to pay for the pension promises made to current and future retirees.

Calpers headquarters is seen in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

CalPERS and its union backers insist that there’s nothing to worry about, that future bull markets will provide enough returns to cover this taxpayer-backed debt. Pension reformers warn that cities will go bankrupt as pension payments consume larger chunks of municipal budgets. They also warn that pensioners are at risk if the shortfalls become too great. The fears are serious, but they mainly involve predictions about what will happen a decade or more into the future.

What about the here and now? California municipalities and school districts are facing larger bills from CalPERS and from the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) to pay for sharply rising retirement costs. Most of them can come up with the money right now, but that money is coming directly out of their operating budgets. That means that California taxpayers are paying more to fund the pension system, and getting fewer services in return.

The “bankruptcy” word garners attention. This column recently reported on Oroville, where the city’s finance director warned about possible bankruptcy during a recent hearing in Sacramento. The Salinas mayor also has been waving the bankruptcy flag. The b-word understandably gets news headlines, especially after the cities of Stockton, Vallejo and San Bernardino emerged from bankruptcies caused in large part by their pension situation.

But there’s a huge, current problem even for the bulk of California cities that are unlikely to face actual insolvency. They are instead facing something called “service insolvency.” It means they have enough money to pay their bills, but are not able to provide an adequate level of public service. Even the most financially fit cities are dealing with service cutbacks, layoffs and reductions in salaries to make up for the growing costs for retirees.

A new study from Stanford University’s prestigious Institute for Economic Policy Research has detailed the depth of this ongoing problem. For instance, the institute found that over the past 15 years, employer pension contributions have increased an incredible 400 percent. Over the same time, operating expenditures have grown by only 46 percent – and pensions now consume more than 11 percent of those budgets. That’s a tripling of pension costs since 2002. Contributions are expected to continue their dramatic increases.

“As pension funding amounts have increased, governments have reduced social, welfare and educational services, as well as ‘softer’ services, including libraries, recreation and community services,” according to the study, “Pension Math: Public Pension Spending and Service Crowd Out in California, 2003-2030” by former Democratic Assemblyman Joe Nation. In addition, “governments have reduced total salaries paid, which likely includes personnel reductions.”

These are not future projections but real-world consequences. The problem is particularly pronounced because “many state and local expenditures are mandated, protected by statute, or reflect essential services,” thus “leaving few options other than reductions in services that have traditionally been considered part of government’s core mission.” Many jurisdictions have raised taxes – although they never are referred to as “pension taxes” – to help make ends meet, but localities have a limited ability to grab revenue from residents.

The report’s case studies are particularly shocking. The Democratic-controlled Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown often talk about the need to help the state’s poorest citizens.Yet, the Stanford report makes the following point regarding Alameda County (home of Oakland): Pension costs now consume 13.4 percent of the county’s operating budget, up from 5.1 percent 15 years ago. These increases have “shifted up to $214 million in 2017-18 funds from other county expenditures to pensions,” which “has come mostly at the expense of public assistance, which declined from a 33.6 percent share of expenditures in 2002-03 to a 27 percent share in 2017-18.”

The problems are even more stark in Los Angeles County. As the study noted, pension costs have shifted approximately $1 billion from public-assistance programs including “in-home support services, cash assistance for immigrants, foster care, children and family services, workforce development and military and veterans’ affairs.”

It’s the same, basic story in all of the counties and cities analyzed by the report. For instance, “the pension share of Sacramento’s operating expenditures has increased over time, from 3.2 percent in 2002-03 to 12.5 percent in the current year.” That percentage has gone from 3 percent to 12 percent in Stockton, and from 3.1 percent to 15.2 percent in Vallejo.

These are current problems, not future projections. But the future isn’t looking any brighter. “The case studies demonstrate a marked increase in both employer pension contributions and unfunded pension liabilities over the past 15 years, and they reveal that in almost all cases that costs will continue to increase at least through 2030, even under the assumptions used by the plans’ governing bodies – assumptions that critics regard as optimistic,” Nation explained.

So, yes, the public-sector unions and pension reformers will continue to argue about when – or even if – the pension crisis will cause a wave of California bankruptcies. But overly generous pension promises are destroying public services and harming the poor right now.

Steven Greenhut is a contributing editor for the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This piece was originally published by the California Policy Center.

How pension costs reduce government services

A think tank at Stanford University, known for bringing investment earnings forecasts into the public pension debate in California, issued a new study last week that looks at how rising pension costs are reducing government services.

The study found that while pension costs in a large sample of retirement systems increased an average of 400 percent during the last 15 years, the operating expenditures of the government employers only grew 46 percent.

Because of the “crowd out” from soaring pension costs, money for services have been reduced, including some “traditionally regarded part of government’s core mission,” said the study by Joe Nation of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

“As pension funding amounts have increased, governments have reduced social, welfare and educational services, as well as ‘softer’ services, including libraries, recreation, and community services,” said the study. “In some cases, governments have reduced total salaries paid, which likely includes personnel reductions.”

The Stanford institute drew national attention in 2010 when graduate students calculated state pension debt was much larger than reported. To discount future pension debt, they used earnings forecasts for “risk-free” bond rates, rather than stock-based investment portfolios.

Nation’s study uses both the actuarial assumptions baseline of the retirement systems and a bond-based alternative to project that pension costs, even without a big stock-market drop, will continue to crowd out funding for government services during the next decade.

“Employer contributions are projected to rise an additional 76% on average from 2017-18 to 2029-30 in the baseline projection and 117%, i.e., more than double, in the alternative projection,” said the study.

There have not been many attempts to show how rising pension costs reduce services. A report last year from a citizens committee appointed by Sonoma County supervisors found $269 million in “excess costs” in the county retirement system between 2006 and 2015.

With $10 million a year, said the committee, Sonoma County could fund 44 more deputy sheriffs or pay for 40 miles of road improvement. Some Sonoma officials said concern about pension costs played a role in voter rejection of a 1/4-cent sales tax for transportation.

A Los Angeles Times story last month said a big part of a tuition increase at the University of California is going for increasingly generous pensions, including $357,000 a year for a former president, Mark Yudof, who worked for UC only seven years.

David Crane, a Stanford lecturer ousted from the CalSTRS board a decade ago for questioning overly optimistic earnings forecasts, showed in April and July reports how rising retirement costs are “shortchanging students and teachers” despite large school revenue gains.

The new Stanford institute study has 14 separate case studies: the state, six local governments in CalPERS including formerly bankrupt Vallejo and Stockton, the independent Los Angeles system, three county systems, and three school districts in CalSTRS.

The study said their “pension contributions now consume on average 11.4% of all operating expenditures, more than three times their 3.9% share in 2002-03,” and by 2029-30 will consume 14 percent under the baseline, 17.5 percent under the alternative.

In contrast, a survey of the public retirement systems done for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Public Employee Post-Employment Benefits Commission found pension contributions had been stable for more than a decade prior to the report in January 2008:

“Even though State pension contributions have risen in the past decade, they have remained at a relatively stable 3.5% to 4% of total General Fund revenues from the mid-1990s to present. The exception is 1999 to 2002 when contributions were significantly lowered.”

Table - stanford2

The Stanford institute’s case study of state spending on CalPERS and CalSTRS said $6 billion was shifted from other expenditures to pensions this fiscal year, much of the money apparently coming from social services and higher education.

The calculation was based on the growing cost of pensions during the last 15 years that, despite an expanding state budget, took 2.1 percent of operating expenditures in 2002-03 and an estimated 7.1 percent of operating expenditures this fiscal year.

The pension share of state operating expenditures in the baseline projection reaches 10.1 percent in 2029-30 and 11.4 percent in the alternative, crowding out an additional $5.2 billion or $7.4 billion.

“This expansion in pension funding requirements could be accommodated with additional 27% reductions in DSS and Higher Education expenditures (or reductions in other agencies and/or departments), or with slightly more than 4% across-the-board budget reductions,” said the study.

In an unrelated coincidence of numbers, the state got a $6 billion low-interest loan from its large cash-flow investment fund this year to double its annual payment to CalPERS, saving an estimated $11 billion over the next two decades by more quickly paying down debt.

The big loan, criticized by some who wanted more study, was bolstered late last month by a state Finance department analysis of the cash management, repayment plan, interest rates, investment earnings, and expected savings.

Annual state payments to CalPERS are expected to average about 2.2 percentage points less over the next two decades. Peak miscellaneous rates would drop from 38.4 percent of pay to 35.7 percent, peak Highway Patrol rates from 69 percent of pay to 63.9 percent.

“It is expected that any deviation from assumed CalPERS returns, or projected U.S. Treasury rates, will still result in significant net savings, and that any issues with funds’ ability to repay its share of the loan can be absorbed by the repayment schedule and effectively resolved,” said the Finance analysis given to the Legislature.

The California Public Employees Retirement System, like many public pensions, has not recovered from huge investment losses in the financial crisis a decade ago. The CalPERS state plans only have 65 percent of the projected assets needed to pay future pensions.

CalPERS estimates the $6 billion extra payment will increase the funding level of the state plans by 3 percentage points. The Finance analysis also said the extra payment would “partially buy down the impact” of a lower CalPERS discount rate.

Last December CalPERS lowered the investment earnings forecast used to discount future pension costs from 7.5 percent to 7 percent, triggering the fourth employer rate increase since 2012.

The annual valuations CalPERS gave local governments this fall reflect a drop of the discount rate from 7.5 percent to 7.35 percent next fiscal year, the first step in a three-year phase in.

number of cities unsuccessfully urged the CalPERS board last month to analyze two ways to cut pension costs: suspend cost-of-living adjustments and give current workers lower pensions for future work.

The Oroville finance director, Ruth Wright, told the CalPERS board: “We have been saying the bankruptcy word.” Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter created a stir by using the “bankruptcy word” at a city council meeting on Sept. 26 while talking about rising salaries and pension costs.

“How do we get this under control? How do we keep this city sustainable so we don’t have to file for bankruptcy?” Gunter asked.

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. 

This article was originally published by Calpensions.com.

Average “Full Career” CalPERS Retirement Package Worth $70,000 Per Year

Calpers headquarters is seen in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

“‘What makes the ‘$100,000 Club’ some magic number denoting abuse other than the claims of anti-pension zealots?’ said Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, a coalition of 1.6 million public workers and retirees.”

This quote from a government union spokesperson, and others, were dutifully collected as part of Orange County Register reporter Teri Sforza’s eminently balanced reporting on the latest pension data, in her August 8th article entitled “The ‘100K Club’ – public retirees with pensions over $100,000 – are a growing group.”

In the article, Sforza’s team evaluated data released by Transparent California on 2015 CalPERS pensions, and reported the number of pensioners receiving $100,000 or more per year was 3.5% of total retirees, up from 2.9% in 2013. That truly does seem like a low percentage, but it ignores two key factors, (1) the total retiree pool includes people who only worked a few years and barely vested a pension, and (2) the total retiree pool includes people who worked many decades, sometimes 30 or 40 years or more, but they only worked part-time during their lengthy careers.

So if you restrict your pool of participants to those who worked a full career, and retired within the last 10 years, what percentage of those retirees would belong to the $100,000 club? As it turns out, there are 75,279 CalSTRS retirees who worked more than 25 years and less than 35 years, retiring after 2006. And as it turns out, 9,763 of them, or 13%, are receiving pensions in excess of $100,000 per year.

Moreover, CalSTRS doesn’t report the value of retirement health benefits and other retirement benefits, which almost certainly exceed $10,000 per year. If you make this reasonable assumption, you now have 14,901 CalPERS retirees, or 19% of our 75,279 pool of full career retirees, receiving a retirement package worth over $100,000 per year. Worth noting – we didn’t have the data necessary to screen the part-timers out of this pool. If we did, the numbers would be higher.

So if you use the appropriate denominator, the “$100 Club” isn’t 3.5% of the pie, it’s 19%, but so what? It’s still not a very big slice. Here’s where the flip-side of “full career pension” comes into play. Most people don’t work 25-35 years in public service. But most of them do vest their pension benefits, which can be vested in as little as five years. What happens when someone quits after five years, and only goes on to collect, say, a $20,000 per year pension? Someone else is hired, they work five years, and they also qualify to eventually collect a $20,000 per year pension. Then someone else, and then someone else – until you have three or four (or more) people who are all going to receive a $20,000 per year pension – for a job that one person could have performed if they’d stayed with the agency for a full career.

This is a critical point to understand. The significance of “full career” pensions is this: The taxpayer will fund pensions at that level of generosity, even if the benefit is split among multiple partial career participants – people who presumably worked elsewhere (where they also saved for retirement) during the majority of their careers. Should you expect a $100,000 per year pension if you only worked for five years? Of course not. But that’s what taxpayers are funding – whether it goes to one person, or to five people who worked a few years each to collectively fill one person’s full-career position in government.

This is why, when you are considering whether or not pensions are fair and affordable, the full career average pension is the only relevant measure. So what is the full career average?

For CalPERS in 2015, participants with between 25 and 34 years of work who retired in the last ten years, on average, received a pension of $60,277.  Add to that the value of their retirement health benefits and other retirement benefits and the average was probably closer to $70,000 per year.

Just for comparison, for Orange County (OCERS) retirees in 2015, participants with between 25 and 34 years of work who retired in the last ten years, on average, received a pension of $73,628.  Add to that the value of their retirement health benefits and other retirement benefits – information which OCERS also refuses to provide – and the average was probably over $80,000 per year. As for the OCERS “$100,000 Club”? Within the pool of full career retirees as described, and accounting for retirement health benefits, 31% of them were members. Nearly one in three.

Public sector spokespersons frequently point out that public employees don’t get Social Security. Actually, about half of them do get Social Security, but never mind that detail. Because the maximum Social Security benefit, which one must wait until they are 68 years old to receive, is a whopping $31,668 per year.

Calling critics of this double standard “anti-pension zealots” is lazy rhetoric. The problem with defined benefits is not that they exist. The problem is that we have set up a system where public employees operate under a set of retirement benefit formulas and incentives that are roughly four times better than what private sector workers can expect. Yet these private sector workers pay the taxes to fund these pensions and bail them out when the investment returns falter.

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

Study Shows CalPERS / CalSTRS Have Nearly $1 TRILLION in Unfunded Liabilities

As the Chief Whistle blower for KSFO San Francisco (560), I was on the Brian Sussman show at 6:45 am, as I have for six years. Today we discussed three issues:

Calpers headquarters is seen in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

1.  The Stanford University study showing that CalPERS and CalSTRS have a total of just under one trillion in unfunded liabilities. (Full story here)

2.  Why does the UC Irvine Administration allow students to protest around the campus, and in the face of Jewish students with the chant, “Long Live the Intifada”? (Full story here)

3.  Why do some cities, like Madera, population 63,000 pay the City Manager $214,000 and nearby city of Fresno with a population of over 500,000 pay its City Manager $235,000? (Full story here)

All of these stories, and more, are found at California Political News and Views.

Remember only 239 more days of “Barack the Last” in the White House.

How Government Unions Are Destroying California

Calpers headquarters is seen in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

California was once the state that everyone looked up to. With the best weather and natural resources, we were full of hope and innovation. We had the best public schools, a world class system of higher education, the best freeways, infrastructure to provide fresh water to our growing population, which also doubled as a source of clean energy through hydro-electric power, a business-friendly environment where entire industries grew in entertainment, aerospace and technology, making our economy virtually recession-proof.

Then in 1978, then-governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order that imposed union-shop collective bargaining on public agencies in California, and the rise of public-sector union power began.

Today, public-sector unions are the most powerful political force in our state. They control a majority of our state Legislature and might control a supermajority in November if a few swing districts fall their way. No politician, Democrat, Republican or Independent, acts without considering how it will affect the union agenda.

These government unions press 100 percent for a progressive agenda, and they consistently agitate for increased spending. In two areas, the quality of our public education system and the financial health of our cities and counties, the consequences of government union power have been catastrophic.

Public Schools

The teachers’ unions, usually a local affiliate of the California Teachers Association, control most of our school boards, leading to control of our public schools. It is more than a coincidence that our public schools rank near the bottom in every category among the 50 states.

As lobbyists for staff and teachers, who are paid to run our public schools, public sector unions fight to maintain the status quo. They protect incompetent teachers, they permit excellent teachers to be dismissed in layoffs, they actively oppose charter schools, they fight poor parents who try to employ Parent Trigger Laws, and they conduct an active campaign 24/7 against any form of school choice.

The financial power of teachers unions:

  • There are over 266,255 public school teachers in California.
  • Each pays at least $1,000 in union dues annually.
  • The CTA acknowledges spending up to 40 percent of those dues explicitly on politics. That is $106 million per year.
  • If the lawyers in Friedrichs are right — that all public union spending is political — the actual total is $266 million per year.
  • Unions for non-teacher staff also are active. There are 215,000 school staff employees who are members of the CSEA (California State Employees Association), who each pay approximately $500 annually in dues. If all of those dues are spent on politics, that adds $107 million more for political spending annually.
  • The total spent by public education unions alone is estimated to be $373 million per year – just in California.

Pensions

Police and firefighter unions do the most damage at the local level. They have attained unsustainable pensions, known as “3%@50”, meaning that a member of that bargaining unit is eligible at age 50 for a pension equivalent to 3% of his highest salary times their number of years of service. While the age of eligibility has been raised for new public safety employees entering the workforce, the vast majority of active police and firefighters still retain these “3%@50” benefits. So at age 50, a 20-year veteran can retire with a pension equivalent to 60% of their highest year’s salary, which can be manipulated through spiking, and a 30-year veteran is eligible for 90% of his or her highest salary.

These pension requirements are held under the “California Rule” to be irreversible. In other words, once they have been adopted, democracy is incapable of turning off the spigot. With the spigot running constantly, communities go bankrupt. First, they cut other services. Then they increase taxes. Then they refuse to pay bondholders, so no one will invest again.

Current unfunded liabilities in California:

At CalPERS: $93.5 billion (ref. page 120, “Funding Progress,” CalPERS 6-30-2015 financial report).

At CalSTRS: $72.7 billion (ref. page 118, “Funding Progress,” CalSTRS 6-30-2015 financial report).

Local Unfunded Liabilities add considerably to this total, since CalPERS, with assets of $301 billion, and CalSTRS, with assets of $158 billion, only constitute 62 percent of California’s $752 billion in state and local pension fund assets. If all of these systems in aggregate were 75 percent funded, which is probably a best case estimate given the poor stock market performance since the official numbers were released, the total unfunded pension liabilities for California’s state and local government workers would be $256 billion.

And $256 billion in unfunded liabilities, a staggering amount, still understates the problem for two reasons: First, these pension funds may not succeed in securing a 7.5 percent average annual return in the coming decades. If not, then they will not earn enough interest to prevent their funding ratios from getting even worse. Also, this doesn’t take into account “OPEB,” or “other post employment benefits,” primarily health insurance. The unfunded OPEB liability just for Los Angeles County is officially recognized at over $30 billion.

A realistic estimate of the total unfunded liabilities for retirement obligations to state and local workers in California is easily in excess of $500 billion. These benefits, which are financially unsustainable and far more generous than the taxpayer funded benefits available to ordinary private sector workers, were forced upon local and state elected officials through the unchecked p0wer of government unions.

*   *   *

Bob Loewen is the chairman of the California Policy Center.

War on Soda Continues in S.F.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to pass legislation that would require posted advertisements for sodas and other beverages to include health warnings. Additional legislation bans the use of city funds to purchase sodas and sugar-sweetened beverages. The placement of ads for such beverages is also prohibited on city-owned property.

“Today, San Francisco has sent a clear message that we need to do more to protect our community’s health,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, in a prepared statement. “These health warnings will help provide people information they need to make informed decisions about what beverages they consume. Requiring health warnings on soda ads also makes clear that these drinks aren’t harmless – indeed, quite the opposite – and that the puppies, unicorns, and rainbows depicted in soda ads aren’t reality. These drinks are making people sick, and we need to make that clear to the public. All three pieces of legislation passed today will improve the health of our community.”

“This prohibition on advertisements for sugar sweetened beverages will align our city’s policies closer with our existing public health goals,” Supervisor Malia Cohen said in the same release. “Our residents, particularly our youth, deserve to be in an environment where residents are exposed to messages and advertisements that promote health, not harmful substances.”

The three ordinances and their requirements are detailed below:

  • “Supervisor Wiener’s legislation requiring health warnings on all posted advertisements for sugar-sweetened beverages with 25 or more calories per 12 ounces. The warning will read the following “WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco.” The size of the warnings will be at least 20 percent of the ad space, which is the standard required by the FDA on tobacco warnings. The warnings will only apply to advertisements posted after the effective date of the legislation.
  • “Supervisor Cohen’s legislation will prohibit the placement of advertisements for sodas and sugar-sweetened beverages on city owned property. Currently, tobacco and alcohol advertisements are subject to this prohibition. There will be an exception for permitted events in public spaces, like Outside Lands in Golden Gate Park, where the permit and lease can grant separate rules.
  • “Supervisor Mar will introduce legislation that bans the use of city funds, whether by city departments or city contractor, on the purchase of sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages.”

The ordinances do not require warning labels on individual bottles or cans.

“The new warning label requirement on sugary drink ads does exactly what the beverage industry has long called for: provides consumers with education. Now, for every advertising message saying ‘live for now’ or ‘open happiness,’ consumers will also receive a science-based reminder that these products contribute to diabetes, obesity and tooth decay,” Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of California Center for Public Health Advocacy, said in a prepared statement.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors previously passed a resolution in support of Senate Bill 203, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning, D-Carmel. SB203 would have made California “the first state to require health warning labels to be placed on sugary drinks, including sodas, sports drinks, and energy drinks.” The bill failed to clear the Senate health committee and will be eligible for reconsideration on January 2016.

In 2014, The Field Poll released survey results revealing “broad voter support for posting a health warning label on sodas and sugary drinks and taxing their sale to provide funds for school nutrition and physical activity programs.”

But opponents to the ban say it isn’t fair to penalize sugary drinks and advertising.

“It’s unfortunate the Board of Supervisors is choosing the politically expedient route of scapegoating instead of finding a genuine and comprehensive solution to the complex issues of obesity and diabetes,” Roger Salazar, a spokesman for CalBev,told the AP.

“The beverage industry already provides consumer-friendly labels on the front of every can, bottle and pack we produce,” American Beverage Association vice president William Dermody wrote in an email to NPR. “A misleading warning label that singles out one industry for complex health challenges will not change behaviors or educate people about healthy lifestyles.”

All three ordinances go into effect 30 days after the mayor has signed the legislation.

Originally published on CalWatchdog.com

CA Dems Want State’s Overdrawn Pension Systems to Dump Fossil-Fuel Stocks

CalSTRS1California’s two mammoth public-pension funds — the California Public Employees Retirement System and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System — are short a shocking $225 billion that they’re going to need to pay for the retirements of government workers. But what is it about the two pension funds that worries the state’s Democratic Party? Their fossil-fuel investments.

Delegates to the state’s annual Democratic Party convention voted over Memorial Day weekend in favor of a resolution urging the funds to dump oil, natural gas, and coal stocks. The vote follows the introduction earlier this year of state legislation that would require the pension funds to sell all coal-related stocks and study the implications of dropping oil and natural gas stocks. With the resolution, local Democrats jumped on the divestment bandwagon, inspired by radical environmentalist Bill McKibben, which has so far persuaded the endowment funds of about two dozen universities to sell shares in fossil-fuel companies. Yet if CalPERS and CalSTRS’s past social-investing records are any indication, the real losers from divestment won’t be the energy companies, but California taxpayers.

“I’ve been involved in five divestments for our fund,” CalSTRS chief investment officer Chris Ailman told his board earlier this year. “All five of them we’ve lost money, and all five of them have not brought about social change.”

For several decades, California’s pension funds have been subjected to a dizzying array of social-investment prerogatives. A 2011 Mercer Consulting study found that CalPERS investment officials had to follow 111 different investment priorities relating to the environment, social conditions, and corporate governance. Many of these directives have proven calamitous to the two funds’ bottom lines. Eight years after CalSTRS and CalPERS divested their portfolios of tobacco stocks in 2000, a study found that the move cost CalSTRS $1 billion and CalPERS about $750 million in foregone profits. CalPERS also ditched investments in developing countries such as Thailand and India, because board members objected to labor standards in these countries. A 2007 report found that avoiding investments in developing counties cost CalPERS about $400 million.

Considering its investment track record, CalPERS can hardly afford to absorb such losses. A 2012 study ranked CalPERS in the bottom 1 percent among pension funds in rate of investment returns over the previous five years. Only recently has the fund’s investment performance started to improve.

Last year, CalPERS introduced a new policy discouraging divestment. “Fiduciary obligations generally forbid CalPERS from sacrificing investment performance for the purpose of achieving goals that do not directly relate to CalPERS operations or benefits,” the policy stated. “Divesting appears to almost invariably harm investment performance.” The pension fund also argued that divestment is a poor way of achieving social goals.

Advocates counter that the state shouldn’t put profits above people. The author of the Democratic Party fossil-fuel divestment resolution, R.L. Miller, who chairs the party’s environmental caucus, said that the declaration would send a “moral message that California will not invest in those businesses that burn our planet in the name of profit and this resolution is that message.” Delegates compared the action with worldwide divestment in South Africa’s economy beginning in the mid-1980s—a movement intended to isolate the country and persuade its government to dismantle Apartheid. In 2006, Wilshire Consulting estimated that divesting from South Africa had cost CalPERS about $1.9 billion.

The analogy between South Africa under Apartheid and fossil-fuel companies is strained, to say the least. The world was able to isolate South Africa because few major industrialized countries depended heavily on its economy. But fossil fuels are pervasive throughout the world, and the energy they produce drives the economies of most nations. More than 80 percent of the energy the world uses currently comes from fossil fuels, while only 9 percent comes from alternative energy sources (including nuclear). Even under the most optimistic scenarios, it will be decades before countries can end their reliance on fossil fuels, so the demand for them, and the profits they generate, will attract investors around the world, regardless of whether endowments and government-controlled funds divest of their shares in these firms.

More important in the coming years will be technological advances that allow cleaner energy from fossil fuels. The rapid shift in the United States to natural gas—which emits nearly 50 percent less carbon dioxide than coal when burned — has already helped the United States cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent since 2005. Meanwhile, some 1 billion poor around the world await electricity, and coal will likely fire their dreams.

None of this matters much to California’s advocate-legislators, who always have the state’s overburdened taxpayers to fall back on when their social-investing schemes backfire. California residents already face an enormous bill for unfunded pension liabilities. Last year, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation more than doubling the annual amount that school districts must contribute to CalSTRS over the next five years. Meanwhile, local governments have been absorbing steep funding increases from CalPERS. An April Manhattan Institute report by senior fellow Stephen Eide found that 25 California municipalities saw their pension costs increase by between 47 percent (Garden Grove) and 537 percent (San Francisco) over the last decade. The report estimated that CalPERS’s bills would increase another 20 percent to 48 percent over the next five years for the largest municipal governments in the pension plan. CalSTRS and CalPERS, meanwhile, will have to take this new tax money and produce above-average investment returns to make up for big gaps in pension funding. If the funds miss their investment targets, taxpayers will be on the hook for additional money.

The proposed legislation mandating divestment offers insight into what California’s elected leaders think of their taxpayers. To assure pension-fund officers and board members that they won’t be blamed for any investment losses generated by divestment, the legislation says that these officials will be “held harmless and eligible for indemnification” in such cases. If only California’s taxpayers could be held harmless from their legislators.

Teachers demand CalSTRS unload firearms investments

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

When a gunman slaughtered 26 children and adults at a Connecticut elementary school, California’s teacher pension fund responded with a forceful denunciation of gun violence and said it was rethinking its investment in the company that manufactured the firearm used in the shooting.

Two years later, the investment remains intact, and some of CalSTRS’ chief constituents – schoolteachers – are losing patience.

The California Federation of Teachers plans a protest outside a CalSTRS board meeting in West Sacramento on Thursday, demanding the pension fund follow through on its pledge to unload its investment in Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity firm that owns gun manufacturer Freedom Group.

The Glass Jaw of Pension Funds is Asset Bubbles

“CalPERS argued that the California constitution’s guarantee of contracts shielded pensions from cuts in bankruptcy. The fund also asserted sovereign immunity and police powers as an ‘arm of the state,’ including a lien on municipal assets.”

–  Wall Street Journal Editorial, “Calpers Gets Schooled,” February 8, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CalSTRS chart

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

How paid sick leave can be healthy for pensions

President Obama said during his State of the Union address last week that 43 million workers have no paid sick leave, forcing “too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home.”

The president wasn’t talking about government employees.

Most of them not only have paid sick leave, but also an incentive not to use it. When they retire, their unused sick leave can be converted into “service credit” for time spent on the job, which increases the amount of their pensions.

Is this “spiking,” the improper boosting of pensions by manipulating the final pay or time on the job used in the formulas that set monthly pension amounts?

Many do not think so. The higher cost of pensions presumably is paid for in advance by rate increases resulting from what the actuaries assume will be the cost of converting unused sick leave to service credit.

California Public Employees Retirement System actuaries assume, when calculating future costs, that service credit for unused sick leave will increase pensions and other benefits by 1 percent for state workers and non-teaching school employees.

Actuaries for the California State Teachers Retirement System, making the calculation in a different way, assume that unused sick leave will increase the service credit for educators by 2 percent.

An analysis by the CalSTRS actuary, Milliman, issued in 2010 found that the average amount of unused sick leave converted to service credit was 0.5 years for members retiring after 26 years on the job.

Unused sick leave was not considered in the development of the anti-spiking provisions in Gov. Brown’s pension reform (AB 340 in 2012). The bill barred final pay boosts through overtime, bonuses, one-time payments or terminal pay.

Sick leave can vary through labor bargaining or for other reasons. State workers in CalPERS get eight hours of sick leave per month. CalSTRS members get one day of sick leave per pay period, and employers are charged more for exceeding a limit.

In the Vallejo bankruptcy, the lack of a cap on unused sick leave was an issue. A city consultant, Charles Sakai, said in a court filing that a firefighter working 20 years could accumulate up to 5,760 hours of sick leave worth nearly three years of service.

Vallejo firefighters retiring after 20 years on the job could take half of the unused sick leave in cash, Sakai said, and use the other half to boost their CalPERS pensions by adding 1½ years of service credit.

Unused sick leave helped give a San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District chief a pension far exceeding his salary, one of the cases reported by Daniel Borenstein of the Contra Costa Times that prompted the introduction of anti-spiking legislation.

The fire chief, Craig Bowen, age 51, with a salary of $221,000, retired in December 2008 after 29 years on the job with an annual pension of $284,000. Unused sick leave boosted his service credit to 30.3 years, adding $10,700 to the pension.

Bowen is in the Contra Costa County Employees Retirement Association, one of 20 independent county pension systems operating under a 1937 act. After anti-spiking legislation for CalPERS was approved in 1993, similar legislation for counties in 1994 cleared the Senate but died in the Assembly.
sick
The conversion of unused sick leave to service credit began for both CalPERS and CalSTRS with legislation in 1973-74. The reason for the CalPERS change, modified several times since then, was not readily available last week.

Why CalSTRS members were allowed to begin converting unused sick leave into larger pensions was explained in a later bill analysis.

“It was anticipated that this benefit would reduce sick leave usage and enable employers to achieve some salary savings from not having to hire substitute teachers to replace teachers who might otherwise have been absent from the classroom,” said a CalSTRS analysis of AB 1102 in 1998.

“However, the anticipated reduction in sick leave usage and the projected salary savings were not realized. Consequently, employer costs increased as employers continued to pay salary for teachers who were absent from work because of illness, covered the cost of substitute teachers, and also paid STRS for the cost of the additional benefit at retirement.”

The costs were capped by legislation in 1979 that limited the conversion of unused sick leave to persons hired before July 1, 1980. Legislation in 1985 paid for the conversions by raising the CalSTRS employer contribution from 8 to 8.25 percent of pay.

Then in 1998 the unused sick leave conversion was reinstated by AB 1102 for those retiring on or after Jan. 1, 1999. Backers said the bill was needed for “equity” with CalSTRS members hired before July 1, 1980.

The bill was part of a package of increased pension benefits enacted as the funding level of CalSTRS, which was about 30 percent in the 1970s, climbed toward 100 percent under the Elder full-funding plan enacted in 1990 and a booming stock market.

An Assembly analysis of AB 1102 said supporters believe the bill and others in the package are “a fair compromise on the use of the Elder full funding money and will encourage teachers nearing retirement age to postpone retirement and stay in the classroom a little longer.”

Much of the current CalSTRS funding gap, which a $5 billion rate increase being phased in over the next six years is intended to close, is due to state and teacher contribution cuts and benefit increases enacted around 2000. Finally reaching the long-sought full funding was treated as a windfall to be spent.

The state CalSTRS contribution was cut from 4.6 percent of pay to 2 percent. For 10 years, a quarter of the teacher contribution to CalSTRS, 2 percent of pay, was diverted into a new individual investment plan. A half dozen small increases included the unused sick leave conversion and a longevity bonus.

CalSTRS would have had a funding level of 88 percent if it had not made the contribution and benefit changes around 2000 and continued to operate under the 1990 structure, a Milliman report said in 2013 when the funding level was 67 percent.

Last week President Obama called on Congress to “send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave. It’s the right thing to do.”

The president said the U.S. is “the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers.” California has been in the vanguard of change.

Gov. Brown signed legislation last September requiring businesses to give employees at least three days of paid sick leave each year. In 2006, San Francisco required employers to give workers paid sick leave.

The president expanded paid sick leave for federal workers this month by adding six weeks to care for a new child or ill family members. And during his first year in office he expanded the conversion of unused sick leave to boost pensions.

Only federal workers hired before a cost-cutting pension reform in 1987 had been allowed to convert unused sick leave to pension service credit. In October 2009, Obama signed a bill giving a similar benefit to federal workers hired after the 1987 reform.

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at Calpensions.com. Posted 26 Jan 15

Originally published by CalPensions.com