By Ed Mendel
Monday, January 23, 2012

A new advisory panel, following a move by CalPERS last year, recommends that public pensions take a small step that touches on a big issue: What happens if pension fund earnings fall below the forecast?

Investment earnings are expected to provide two-thirds or more of the money needed to pay pensions in future decades. Critics say earnings forecasts, 7.75 percent a year for CalPERS and CalSTRS, are too optimistic and conceal massive taxpayer debt.

To make more pension information public, the first report of an actuarial panel recommends, among other things, that retirement systems add a “sensitivity analysis,” which is likely to show what happens if earnings miss their target in the next few years.

It’s not a long-term forecast like a Stanford graduate student study two years ago. Using a lower risk-free bond rate advocated by some economists, 4.1 percent, the study showed how state pension debt ballooned from the reported $55 billion to $500 billion.

Pension debt has become a political issue cited by reform advocates, who say public pensions must be overhauled to prevent the growing cost from eating up money needed for basic government services.

A short-term “sensitivity analysis” is intended to be practical, a way to help state and local governments know how much their annual pension costs may vary in the next few budget cycles if investment earnings or other factors miss their target.

For the first time, the annual California Public Employees Retirement System actuarial report last fall on state and non-teaching school pensions included a sensitivity analysis.

The report showed how employer contributions could vary if, all other factors remaining unchanged, earnings during three fiscal year are above or below the target by a little or a lot.

For example, if earnings hit the target of 7.75 percent the employer contribution in fiscal 2015-16 for most state workers would be 19.5 percent of pay. (The employee contribution, 8 percent of pay, is bargained with labor and presumably unchanged.)

But if total investment earnings this fiscal year and the next two fiscal years show a loss, minus 3.64 percent, the employer contribution in 2015-16 would increase by about half to 28.9 percent of pay.

Falling short of the 7.75 percent target with earnings of 2.93 percent would increase the 2015-16 contribution to 22.6 percent of pay. Exceeding the target with earnings of 19.02 percent would produce little change, dropping the rate to 18 percent.

The sensitivity analysis may not be the long-term debt calculation sought by reformers. But it does clearly show the risk of how a double-dip recession, and another plunge in the stock market, could drive up government costs.

The California Actuarial Advisory Panel, with eight members appointed by public officeholders and agencies, was created by legislation recommended by the California Public Employee Post-Employment Benefits Commission four years ago.

“There is no single clearinghouse for funding policies and practices from around the state and country which can be used to evaluate the actuarial assumptions, crediting rates, or proposed actions of a particular retirement system,” the commission said.

Actuaries have a key role in setting the annual payment that state and local governments must make to pension funds. During a push to cut pension costs, former Gov. Pete Wilson obtained legislation giving lawmakers control of the CalPERS actuary.

A labor-backed initiative, Proposition 162 in 1992, returned control of the actuary to the CalPERS board, while also giving all public pension boards control of their administration and pension funds to prevent Wilson-like “raids” on “surpluses.”

The importance of actuary control was seen in a major state pension increase, SB 400 in 1999. The trendsetting benefits now called “too rich” and “unsustainable” by some are being rolled back for new hires and blamed for soaring pension costs.

CalPERS, the SB 400 sponsor, told legislators the increased pensions would be paid for by a surplus, investment earnings and inflating pension fund assets, leaving state pension costs unchanged for a decade, said a legislative bill analysis.

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