The California Public Employees’ Retirement System rode a strong year in the stock market and private equity investments to earn a return rate of 11.2 percent for the fiscal year that ended June 30, the pension fund announced Friday morning. That’s about double what CalPERS had expected to earn this year. It’s also a marked improvement over the previous year, when CalPERS’ investment return rate was .61 percent. In the budget year that ended in June 2015, CalPERS’ investment return rate was 2.4 percent.
When we split obligations into how much California owes to those who have already retired and current employees, a startling fact emerges. The assets California governments have now aren’t even enough to cover what it owes to current retirees. For all employees combined, retirees are owed $134.5 billion as compared to $112.6 billion in total assets. California governments do not have enough money to pay what they owe retirees, and they have nothing at all set aside for current employees. Every year, employees have funds deducted from their paychecks to go into the pension funds. Those funds will go to retirees. By the time it’s their turn, there will be no money left for current employees. Current employees are forced to pay into a retirement system that may be bankrupt when they retire.
Many California cities have issued “pension obligation bonds” to cover rising retiree benefit costs with borrowing rather than tax money, based on the same assumption that arbitrage – betting that the difference between loan interest rates and investment earnings – can be a net winner. However, like Orange County and SANDAG, some learned that trying to predict global markets is dangerous. The largest single debt owed by the city of Stockton when it declared bankruptcy was a pension obligation bond. Hundreds of school districts issued “capital appreciation bonds” that postpone repayments for decades while the accumulated interest magnifies debt. Poway Unified in rural San Diego County became a poster child for financial irresponsibility when it was revealed that its $105 million bond would cost $1 billion to repay.
Six years later, the state is no longer projecting massive deficits and the governor’s metaphorical wall is now more like a short fence. Tax increases approved by voters in 2012 and in 2016 have played a major role in making that happen. There’s broad agreement that a smaller “wall of debt” is good news. The problem, though, is that Brown’s original definition left out billions of dollars in obligations that someone will have to pay. And it’s unclear who that will be or when it will happen. . . . When he took office, Brown’s budget team identified 10 short-term government debts as a threat to California’s chances of recovery — debts that totaled $34.7 billion. . . By the close of the fiscal year that ended on Friday night, the state had paid off some $32 billion of the “wall of debt” identified by Brown in 2011. . . . Looming larger than anything now are the retirement promises made to state employees — totaling at least $242 billion, according to the governor’s finance team. Some insist that projection is too low, that taxpayers will have to hand over much more to fully pay off obligations to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS). Add those pension debts to other chronic obligations — transportation loans and borrowing from special budget funds during lean years — and the state Department of Finance puts the total size of existing budget debt at more than $283.3 billion.
Despite a bright economic climate, voter-approved state tax hikes and $74.5 billion that California will devote to K-12 education and community colleges in 2017-’18 — a $3.1 billion year-over-year increase — schools are in financial distress. . . . With a currently healthy state budget, the biggest threat to balanced school budgets is the growing bite taken by public retirement systems — CalSTRS for teachers and CalPERS for support staff. Next school year, those taxes will be about 15 percent of employer payroll. In four years, the CalPERS payroll tax will exceed one-quarter of salaries and is scheduled to continue growing in an effort to enable it to better cover its projected retirement payouts. CalSTRS also will also grow.