The Pension Fund That Ate California
CalPERS’s corruption, insider dealing, and politicized investments have overwhelmed taxpayers with debt.Steven MalangaWinter 2013
Economy, finance, and budgets
After spending years dogged by unpaid debts, California labor leader Charles Valdes filed for bankruptcy in the 1990s—twice. At the same time, he held one of the most influential positions in the American financial system: chair of the investment committee for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, the nation’s largest pension fund for government workers. Valdes left the board in 2010 and now faces scrutiny for accepting gifts from another former board member, Alfred Villalobos—who, the state alleges, spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to influence how the fund invested its assets. Questioned by investigators about his dealings with Villalobos, Valdes invoked the Fifth Amendment 126 times.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY SEAN DELONAS
California taxpayers help fund CalPERS’s pensions and ultimately guarantee them, so they might wonder: How could a financially troubled former union leader occupy such a powerful position at the giant retirement system, which manages roughly $230 billion in assets? The answer lies in CalPERS’s three-decade-long transformation from a prudently managed steward of workers’ pensions into a highly politicized advocate for special interests. Unlike most government pension funds, CalPERS has become an outright lobbyist for higher member benefits, including a huge pension increase that is now consuming California state and local budgets. CalPERS’s members, who elect representatives to the fund’s board of directors, ignored concerns over Valdes’s suitability because they liked how he fought for those plusher benefits.
CalPERS has also steered billions of dollars into politically connected firms. And it has ventured into “socially responsible” investment strategies, making bad bets that have lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Such dubious practices have piled up a crushing amount of pension debt, which California residents—and their children—will somehow have to repay.
When California’s government-employee pension system was established in 1932, it was a model of restraint. Private-sector pensions were still rare back then, but California lawmakers had a particular reason for wanting a public-sector pension system: without one, unproductive older workers had an incentive to stay on the job and just “go through the motions” to get a paycheck, as a 1929 state commission put it. Pensions would encourage those workers to retire. The commission cautioned, however, against setting a retirement age so low that it would “encourage or permit the granting of any retirement allowance to an able-bodied person in middle life.”
Accordingly, California set its initial retirement age for state workers (and, beginning in 1939, for local-government employees) at 65, at a time when the average 20-year-old entering the workforce could expect to live for another 46 years, until 66. The system’s first pensions were modest, though far from miserly. An employee’s pension equaled 1.43 percent of his average salary over his last five years on the job, multiplied by the total number of years he had worked. That formula typically provided workers with pensions equal to half or more of their final salaries, noted California’s Little Hoover Commission, a government agency, in a 2010 study. For example, a state worker who retired at 65 after 40 years on the job would qualify for a pension equal to 57.2 percent of his average final salary (that’s 40 times 1.43). If that salary was $50,000, his pension would be nearly $29,000.
The pensions were funded by three sources: contributions from employers (that is, state and local governments); contributions from employees (though some governments opted to cover that expense); and money that the pension fund would gain by investing those contributions. With the 1929 stock-market crash in mind, California opted for a cautious investment approach, allowing the fund to buy only safe federal Treasury bonds and state municipal bonds. “An unsound system,” the 1929 commission warned, would be “worse than none.” The employees’ contributions were fixed, so if investment returns weren’t sufficient to fund the promised pensions, the employers’ contributions would have to increase to make up the difference.
In 1961, California enhanced non-public-safety state workers’ retirement packages by enrolling them in federal Social Security, a program that’s optional for state and local government employees. But the state made few other changes to the pension system over its first 30 years.
Then came the late sixties, a time of rapidly growing public-sector union power. In 1968, the California state legislature added one of the most expensive of all retirement perks, annual cost-of-living adjustments, to CalPERS pensions. Other enhancements followed quickly, including, in 1970, a far more generous pension formula: a worker’s pension was calculated from 2 percent, not 1.43 percent, of his average final salary, and he could start getting his pension at 60, rather than 65. Thus, an employee who worked for 40 years and retired at 60 with an average final salary of $50,000 could collect an annual pension equal to 80 percent of that sum, or $40,000; if he kept working for another five years, his pension fattened to 90 percent of his final average. In 1983, public-safety workers got an even better pension formula: 2.5 percent of average final salary for every year worked, which could be taken starting at 55. A police officer or firefighter who began work at 20 and retired 35 years later with a final average salary of $50,000 now qualified for a yearly pension of almost $44,000.
As benefits increased, so did pressure to pay for them by boosting CalPERS’s investment returns. The shift started in 1966 when voters approved Proposition 1, a measure, promoted by CalPERS, that let it invest up to 25 percent See Full Article HERE
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