California Admits to Almost $1 Trillion in Unfunded Pension Obligations

The three largest California public retiree plans (CalPERS, CalSTRS, and UCRS) that administer pensions of approximately 2.6 million State and Local public current and retired employees have been under tremendous scrutiny since last year’s release of the Stanford University Institute for Public Policy report: “Going For Broke”. The study concluded that California retirement plans liability was under-funded by over $500 billion.

The report blamed most of the shortfall on the pension plan’s expectation of future annual investment returns of 7.75%; versus a realistic expectation of a 4.14% annual return. The cabal of California politicians, bureaucrats, and crony consultants that justified granting lucrative benefits to employees while failing to contribute enough to support the true pension costs; solemnly dismissed the Stanford report as unsophisticated reflections by academics. But now that a swarm of local governments want to abandon the floundering retirement trusts; the State plans are only willing to credit a 3.8% expected return. If the California State pension plans adopted the same 3.8% rate they are only willing to credit when participants want to leave; their published $288 billion in pension shortfall would metastasize into an $884 billion California State insolvency.

It doesn’t take a Stanford MBA to realize producing consistently high investment returns since 2007 has been a difficult in the extreme. The California State pension plans that currently control $432 billion in assets, suffered a $109.7 billion in losses during the 2008 to 2009 recession. Pension plans normally require employers and their employees to mutually increase contributions to make up pension shortfalls. But public pension plans are notorious for not requiring employees to make significant contribution. California police, prison guards, firemen, and lifeguards can retire at age 50, but have never been required to contribute to fund pensions. With headlines that California plans are in big trouble; many government agencies applied to withdrawal from the State plans. But as calculated below; compounding investments at 7.75% grows to more than three times the amount of compounding investments at a 3.8% rate of return.

When I was elected as Orange County, California Treasurer in 2006, I was flabbergasted to discover that the County’s $8 billion of retirement investments was covertly leveraged up by $22 billion of derivatives. I quickly learned that many unions see pension benefits as contracted rights; and pension investing as a no risk crap-shoot for extraordinary returns.

If the pension investment returns sky-rocket, the unions will bargain for increased benefits. If the pension investment returns crash; the public employees are protected by rock-solid contract law that prevents any reduction in benefits. In 2007, I was fortunate to gain the support of enough OC Pension Trustees to reduce speculative derivative use by 90%. At the time, Trustees for the California public pension plans solemnly dismissed Orange County as unsophisticated. Shortly thereafter the stock market crashed and the State Pension Trustees stopped making comments.

Once famous as the Golden State for leading the nation in high tech growth industries that provided excellent wages; California is now tarnished for having the second highest unemployment and worst state credit rating in the nation. Forbes recently quoted a top venture capitalist that compared the California business climate to France: “I try not to hire here, and I certainly would not launch a company here. But the wine is good.” Tripling of the burden for under-funded pension liability to almost $1 trillion will probably ruin the taste of California wine for most taxpayers.

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