On May 17th the Los Angeles Police Protective Leagues “Board of Directors” authored a post on their LAPPL blog entitled “Inventing the headline number,” attacking the research and the motives of California Public Policy Center. Here’s how the post began:
“The playbook is familiar now—gin up a study on public pensions and government debt to be released to media outlets with a headline-grabbing number shrieking doom for public finances. The latest exhibit is a propaganda piece tossed out to the media by the anti-public employees group California Public Policy Center (CPPC) purposely inflates pension debt.”
Despite claiming the CPPC study was mere propaganda, the LAPPL failed to convincingly refute any of its findings, including the estimate that California’s state and local government debt totals between $648 billion and $1.1 trillion, depending primarily on what assumptions one uses to discount future pension obligations. The “discount rate” used to estimate a present value for future retirement payments – already earned – is equivalent to the interest rate the fund managers believe they will be able to earn each year on the assets that must be already set and invested. To the extent the market value of the invested assets at any point falls short of the estimated present value of the projected future retirement payments at that same point in time, a plan is underfunded. So the lower you set a discount rate, the lower you believe your rate of interest will be on your investments, i.e., the lower the discount rate, the greater the present value of the liability.
It is fair to hotly debate what this amount should be. A lot is at stake. For example, if the estimated interest rate on pension funds goes down by 1.0 percent, the amount of total state and local government pension underfunding goes up by at least $100 billion. Put another way, for every 1.0% the estimated interest rate on pension funds goes down, the required annual contribution by cities and counties to their pension funds goes up by at least 10% of pension eligible payroll.
As shown in the CPPC study “Calculating California’s Total State and Local Government Debt,” here’s what happens to California’s total pension liability based on various interest rate earnings assumptions for the pension funds:
At 7.5% = $128 billion (official number as of June 30, 2011 – most recent financial data available)
At 5.5% = $329 billion
At 4.5% = $450 billion
There are compelling reasons why 5.5%, or even 4.5%, are probably more realistic numbers than 7.5%, which is skewed upwards by the stock market bubble of the 1990’s combined with the real estate bubble of the 2000’s. And throughout this period, since around 1980, a debt bubble has been growing worldwide – government, commercial and consumer – that is reaching its practical limit. When debt, overall, is being paid down instead of growing, it is harder to sustain the same rates of economic growth. On top of all that, the global population is aging, meaning a larger percentage of people are selling their assets to finance their retirements, pushing down returns. For these reasons, it is unlikely that public employee pension funds can earn 7.5% per year.
This is the issue. Even reducing the earnings rate projection to 6.5% would be catastrophic to the solvency of California’s pension funds. But instead of confronting this issue in good faith, in their recent post the LAPPL made a grossly misleading statement in reference to Moody’s original intention to evaluate the credit of cities and counties based on a discount rate of 5.5%. According to the LAPPL:
“Their justification [the CPPC’s use of the a 5.5% rate for their what-if analysis]: a July 2012 Moody’s statement that considered using 5.5 percent to calculate pension debt. Of course, they simply ignored Moody’s statement of April 17, 2013, that they wouldn’t be using a fixed 5.5 percent rate.”
What the LAPPL doesn’t acknowledge here is that in Moody’s statement, they did indeed say they would not simply use a 5.5% rate. Apparently the LAPPL expects their readers to assume this means Moody’s will use a higher rate than 5.5%. But if you actually read an explanation of Moody’s final adopted method, it says this:
“Actuarial accrued liability (AAL) will be discounted using a high-grade, long-term taxable bond index rate. For adjustments to pension data, Moody’s will use the Citibank Pension Liability Index (Index) posted on the date of the valuation instead of its original proposal to apply a single rate for all plans each year.”
Here are those rates, courtesy of the Society of Actuaries: Pension Discount Curve and Liability Index. And if you take a look at these rates, you will see that they are currently lower than 5.5%. Which is consistent with our position that macroeconomic headwinds make it unlikely that 7.5% can be achieved, and that even hitting 5.5% is going to be very tough.
Did the LAPPL do their homework before making this claim? Was it an honest oversight, or a deliberate misrepresentation to their members of financial reality? In either case, LAPPL isn’t just misrepresenting financial reality, they also completely misrepresent the CPPC:
“Driven by hatred of public employees and public employee unions, and a belief that public employees and unions are the main cause of the “downfall” of California (and perhaps, the nation and mankind as we know it), this group endeavors to influence the media through ‘research” and “studies.'”
“Hatred of public employees”? Not a chance. “Belief that public employees and unions are the main cause of the “downfall” of California”? Not a chance. Here’s a revision however that might be somewhat accurate:
“Belief that public employee unions are the main cause of the ‘downfall’ of California.”
That would be closer to the mark. A serious bipartisan debate over just how Californians can wrest control of their state, cities and counties from the grip of public employee unions is long overdue.
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