Latest earnings report is more evidence California retirement agency will reform or die
By Ed Ring | California Policy Center
The officials who run California’s public-employee retirement system should have released today’s earnings report with sound effects – a flugelhorn, maybe, or horror-movie screams.
Through the year ending June 30, the California Public Employee Retirement System earned just 0.61% on its investments – not even close to it 7.5% projection.
CalPERS is the nation’s largest public employee pension fund. Like all such funds, it relies on investment earnings to pay retired public employees far more in retirement benefits than those employees – along with their employers – deposited into those funds during their careers. The better the market, the less CalPERS has to lean on local government employers and employees for cash. But when the market goes south, as it has, CalPERs has to push its contributors for more cash.
Today’s report includes grim warnings about future earnings too. And that means everyday Californians should expect government service cuts, higher taxes, delayed maintenance of critical infrastructure, and a push to take on great government debt.
The earnings report directly contracts the system’s recent bullish assessments of fund performance. When the Orange County Register in January asked why CalPERS was still predicting a return of 7.5% when the stock market was producing more anemic results, fund officials offered a political rather than responsible financial response: even a modest downward estimate would force them to demand that local officials bail out the fund. That “would have caused financial strain on many of California’s local municipalities that are still recovering from the financial crisis,” CalPERS officials said in a press release.
In March, the agency was at it again, arguing that its projection of 7.5% returns was “not unrealistic” – is in fact historically reasonable because CalPERS has occasionally hit that number.
Then, reality began to set in. Last month, Ted Eliopoulos, the system’s Chief Investment Officer, warned the public that the next five years will be “a challenging market environment for us. It is going to test us.”
Our analysis relies on three measures of stock-market health: ratios of price/earnings, price/sales, and price/GDP. They show the stock market is overvalued by about 50 percent, suggesting that pension funds are headed for a major correction.
At the moment, California’s state and local agencies contribute an average of about 33 percent of their payroll to CalPERS and other state/local pension funds. In the event of a market slide of 50 percent, followed by annual returns of 5 percent per year, with no changes to retirement benefits, we estimate the required annual contribution from local governments would rise to a crushing 80 percent of payroll. The total cost to California’s taxpayers of keeping CalPERS and the other state/local pension systems afloat: an additional $50 billion per year.
If market returns are just one point lower – 4 percent instead of 5 percent – we estimate local governments having to make annual payments equal to a staggering 113 percent of their payroll. That’s an additional $86 billion per year.
There are ways to preserve the retirement funds and protect taxpayers. But if investment performance falters, reducing the formulas used to calculate defined benefit pensions will have to be part of the solution. Lowering or even suspending cost-of-living increases for retirees and reducing the rate at which pension benefits are earned by new and existing employees would be a good start, as would capping pension benefits and raising the age of eligibility.
But implementing reforms is a political impossibility – unless the people running CalPERS and the other pension systems stop fighting to preserve the status quo. They need to work their client agencies and their union-dominated boards of directors to accept benefit reductions that will restore financial sustainability to these funds without crushing taxpayers. They might even exercise true creativity, and explore new portfolio strategies such as investing in California’s neglected infrastructure.
There’s little chance of that so long as denial characterizes the agency’s response. CalPERS officials accompanied today’s weak earnings report with cheery language. The near-zero return rate was a “positive net return” that the agency “achieved” “despite volatile financial markets and challenging global economic conditions.”
For his part, Eliopoulos, the fund’s top investment officer, expressed a kind of optimism about the future. So be it. But if he and his CalPERS colleagues truly want to prove their optimism – if they are so sure they can hit their numbers – they should freeze the amount they demand from cities and other agencies at a fixed percent of payroll.
That would mean putting an end to the blank checks Californians have sent to Sacramento. And that news could be heralded by something like a trumpet blast of angels or a marching band.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ed Ring is president of the California Policy Center. He directs the organization’s research projects and is also the editor of the email newsletters Prosperity Digest and UnionWatch Digest. His work has been cited in the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and other national and regional publications.