Pricing A Taxpayer Bailout of California’s Pensions

Last month both of California’s largest government employee pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, released their portfolio earnings numbers for the most recent twelve months. In a statement released on January 24th, “CalSTRS Calendar Year-End Investment Returns Show Slight Gains,” CalSTRS disclosed “Investment returns for the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) ended the 2011 calendar year posting a 2.3 percent gain.” CalPER’s statement released on January 23rd, was titled “[CalPERS} Pension Fund earns 1.1 percent return for 2011 calendar year.”

These funds, and the rest of California’s many local government employee pension funds, are still clinging to long-term rate of return assumptions of between 7.5% and 7.75% per year. So how much would taxpayers be on the hook for if rates of return stay this low?

The first step towards determining this would be to estimate the average pension paid out to a state or local worker in California, based on recent retirees who have worked a full 30 year career. Despite the claim that “The average CalPERS pension is $2,220 per month” (made yet again in the final paragraph of their above-referenced press release), for a more accurate figure, one must look at the average pension awarded recent retirees, based on a full 30+ year career. The problem with the low figure used by CalPERS and others is that it includes people who retired decades ago [...] Read More

Government Pensions Increasing Hedge Fund Investing

In less than five years California will have over 10 million residents who are over the age of 55 (ref. U.S. Census, California Demographics). If every one of these people were to receive a pension equivalent to what the average public employee in California can now expect after working full-time for no more than 30 years, it would cost taxpayers nearly $700 billion per year. To put this in perspective, $700 billion is 40% of California’s entire gross domestic product.

When spokespersons for California’s public sector unions claim that pension reformers are “trying to destroy the middle class,” they should be asked this question: How on earth can any system of retirement security – not even including health insurance benefits – possibly expect to consume 40% of the entire economic output of the state or nation in which such benefits are being provided, and yet remain financially sustainable? Universal and equitable retirement security in America will never be realized by offering everyone the deal that public sector employees currently receive. Their benefits must be reduced. But instead, government worker pension funds are making riskier investments.

Public sector pension funds rely on investment returns to make up for the shortfalls in taxpayer revenues. But can investment returns really hope to sustain public sector pensions when there are as many people drawing pensions out of the fund as there are people (and taxpayers) contributing money into the fund? That tipping point, where there is as much money going out as [...] Read More

Public Safety Compensation Trends, 2000-2010

Today’s Wall Street Journal published an article by Phil Izzo entitled “Bleak News for Americans’ Income,” where, citing U.S. Census Data, it was reported that U.S. median household income – adjusted for inflation – fell by 7% over the past ten years. In constant 2010 dollars, the average household in the U.S. saw their income drop from about $54,000 per year in 2000 to just under $50,000 today.

When debating what level of compensation is appropriate and affordable for public safety personnel, the average income of private sector workers is an important baseline. It provides context for determining whether or not the premium paid to public safety employees – for the risks they take – is exorbitant or fair. The trend of the past ten years is also an important baseline when making this comparison. For example, if the level of risk, the value we place on safety and security, and the degree of training required for public safety personnel have all elevated over the past decade – and they have – does this justify their pay increases exceeding the rate of inflation? Even over this past decade, when ordinary private sector workers have seen their total pay and benefits decrease by 7% relative to inflation?

Here then, also relying on U.S. Census data (ref. 2010 Public Employment and Payroll Data, State Governments, California, and Read More