How Wall Street Bought the Public Employee Unions

Earlier this week, on December 7th, 2011, as reported by the San Jose Mercury, the “San Jose City Council votes 6-5 to place pension reform on June ballot.”

This plan is drawing fierce resistance, but there are two financial considerations that most critics of pension reform don’t take sufficiently into account when making their arguments:

(1) Pension contributions are very sensitive to how much the fund can earn. A pension that earns 3% per year, i.e., allows someone who works for 30 years to retire with a pension equivalent to 90% of their final salary, will require a 10% increase in annual required contributions (as a percent of pay) for every 1.0% the earnings on the pension fund drop. That is, if the contribution to a firefighter’s pension is currently 35% per year (based on employer and employee contributions combined), and CalPERS lowers their expected rate of annual return by just 1.0%, from 7.75% to 6.75%, then the required annual contribution as a percent of salary goes up to 45% per year.

(2) The rate of return being currently maintained by most pension funds, 7.75% per year, is much higher than can be sustained going forward. A key reason for this is because equity growth over the past 20-30 years, and especially over the last 10-15 years, was fueled by increasing debt. By enabling massive borrowing – consumer, commercial and government – more consumer spending [...] Read More

How Much of California’s Budget is Personnel Costs?

An influential blogger in Orange County, California, made the following claim on January 25, 2011 in a post “Busting The Myths About Public Employee Pension Costs,” “For California’s budget, salaries represent 7.5 percent of the total state budget. The costs for healthcare and pension benefits are another 3.7 percent.” If only this were true.

Because this claim is being repeated as if it were fact, such as by guest columnist Nick Berardino in the Orange County Register, who on February 4th, 2011 in a “Reader Rebuttal” accused that newspaper of having “continued its misleading and irresponsible assault on public employees,” it is important to take a closer look. Using core data, as well as some studies funded by union-friendly think-tanks (hopefully to avoid accusations of bias), here are some numbers:

As a baseline, the California Governor’s Budget Summary for fiscal 2011 shows projected revenues and expenditures balanced at $89.6 billion. Using straightforward multiplication, if salaries and benefits only consume slightly more than 10% of California’s state budget, this means salaries, healthcare and pensions should cost (.075 + .037) x $89.6 = $10.4 billion. So how much does California’s state government actually spend on total employee compensation?

According to California’s own state government payroll records, in March of 2008 there were 393,989 full-time workers employed by the state of California, and their payroll for that month was $2,235,947,296 (ref. Read More

Pension Rhetoric vs. Pension Reality

As California’s public employee retirement system teeters on the verge of complete financial collapse, defenders of the current system continue to deny this, often accusing reformers of being “public servant bashers.” But politically motivated rhetoric will not change financial reality – or the pursuit of reforms so private workers don’t endure punitive taxation to sustain a privileged class of government employees. Last week the Sacramento Bee published a guest viewpoint written by Bruce Blanning, the Executive Director of the Professional Engineers in California Government. His commentary, entitled “State retirement benefits make an easy – and unfair – target,” invites a rebuttal.

The “real truth” about CalPERS, and other public employee pension funds, is they have consistently overestimated their long-term rates of return, adjusted for inflation. Currently CalPERS official rate of return, used for projecting the funds they will have available in the future, is 4.75%. This rate exceeds key long-term indicators that should govern these projections. For example, the inflation adjusted rate of return for the Dow Jones stock index for the period 1925 through 2008 averaged 2.8% per year. Similarly, the real rate of global economic growth for the period 1950 through 2000 averaged barely 4.0% per year, and this rate was skewed upwards by debt-fueled, unsustainable growth during the 1990’s. Even at a rate of 4.75% per year, CalPERS and the other pension funds are in a precarious state, because their asset values have been [...] Read More