The California Public Employees’ Retirement System has reported – with no small elation – that it has recouped virtually all of the $95 billion in investment losses it sustained during the global financial crisis.
A steadfast investment strategy and a generally rising stock market are responsible for the recovery, CalPERS says.
The good news comes just a few months after Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature enacted a pension reform plan they say will shrink the long-term liabilities of CalPERS and local pension systems.
So the public pension crisis that was a political preoccupation over the last decade is history, right?
CalPERS and its smaller cousins – especially the California State Teachers’ Retirement System – still have multibillion-dollar unfunded liabilities, plus many billions more in retiree health care commitments that have remained unfunded.
The Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, pointed out in his overview of Brown’s latest state budget that under Brown’s multiyear budget plan, the state “would not have begun the process of addressing huge unfunded liabilities associated with the teachers’ retirement system and state retiree health benefits.” He added, “As such, the state faces daunting budget choices in a much-improved fiscal environment.”
It would take all of the $6 billion-per-year tax increase approved by voters last year in Proposition 30, and then some, to deal with the unfunded liabilities that Taylor cites, plus those in CalPERS and the University of California’s independent pension system. But none of the new tax money is being devoted to those debts.
There is, moreover, some reason to believe that those debts are much bigger than the official numbers would indicate.
Moody’s Investors Service, which rates the creditworthiness of state and local governments, has proposed a new way of evaluating public pension liabilities that lowers the “discount rate” – in effect the assumed future earnings of pension fund investments – to the level of high-grade corporate bonds, similar to the rate private pension systems use.
It also adjusts other accounting techniques that public funds use to minimize liabilities, such as spreading investment losses over many years.
The result of such changes, Moody’s says, is that the $766 billion in unfunded liabilities that U.S. pension funds claim triples to $2.2 trillion and if the firm adopts the proposed system for credit ratings, it will amp up pressure on those funds to get more money from taxpayers and/or employees.
That would imply that California, with about 12 percent of the nation’s population, could have an unfunded pension debt approaching $300 billion, plus another $100 billion for retiree health care. That’s big money in anyone’s book.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Reach him as firstname.lastname@example.org.