The California Public Employees’ Retirement System – the nation’s largest pension trust fund – took a beating during the Great Recession, dropping nearly $100 billion in value.
However, it recovered nicely as the nation emerged from recession and finally got back to its pre-recession level three years ago.
At the time, it sparked much celebratory verbiage from the system’s professional cheerleaders. But the public employee union flacks have been noticeably quiet since then – for good reason.
CalPERS’ investment portfolio barely eked out a profit during the 2014-15 fiscal year and it performed even more poorly during the 2015-16 cycle that ended June 30, declining by $8 billion (2.6 percent) to $293.7 billion.
Thus, CalPERS is falling extremely short of its earnings benchmark, known as the discount rate, of 7.5 percent per year, and its average earnings over the last two decades are now under that level.
It also means the fund is scarcely 70 percent of fully covering liabilities, even at 7.5 percent, and therefore under the 80 percent deemed to be minimally sufficient,
The timing for flat earnings couldn’t be worse. CalPERS is seeing pension outlays rise as baby boomer workers retire in large numbers and claim benefits that politicians irresponsibly increased during a brief period of high earnings. Moreover, the projected lifespan of retirees continues to increase, which means even more outlays.
Nor is CalPERS alone in seeing, at best, flat earnings. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that public and private pension trust funds are being clobbered worldwide. It implies that despite its immensity there’s little that CalPERS can do to counteract the trend.
It could, as it once did, commit more money to more speculative investments in hopes of increasing returns. But that policy backfired badly during the recession. In recent years, the system has shifted to safer investments that have less upside potential and has slowly reduced its discount rate, although it’s still probably higher than it should be.
CalPERS has been demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in additional contributions from state and local governments – hitting cities particularly hard – to offset rising outlays while hoping that the mild pension reforms instituted by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature will have a moderating effect in the long run.
The public employee unions whose members are dependent on CalPERS for retirement security have portrayed, through the aforementioned flacks, anyone who questions its long-term viability as zealots bent on destroying the pension system. They’ve declared jihad on those who have proposed pension system reforms, such as former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed.
However, union members themselves have the most to lose if, in fact, CalPERS and other public pension systems are promising more than they can reasonably expect to pay without massive infusions of cash from taxpayers.
Sticking one’s head in the sand and denying hard financial reality is not responsible, either for the unions or the politicians they sponsor.