By one estimate, CalPERS has missed out on $3 billion in financial returns by refusing to buy tobacco stocks. But the pension giant decided Monday to stick with the ban despite a recommendation from its staff that the ban be relaxed.

By Dan Walters
January 2, 2017 – 12:01 AM

It’s very rare, but always welcome, when reality intrudes on political decision making.

Thus, it’s noteworthy that overseers of the nation’s largest pension trust fund, the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), last month reduced – albeit reluctantly – its projection of future earnings by a half-percentage point.

With earnings on investments the last two years barely exceeding zero, CalPERS has been compelled to sell assets to make its pension payments, which far outstrip contributions from state and local governments and their employees.

Reducing the “discount rate” to 7 percent will force employers, and perhaps employees, to kick billions of more dollars into the system to slow the growth of CalPERS’ “unfunded liabilities,” as the $150-plus billion debt is termed.

However, the extra contributions generated by lowering the discount rate will not erase that debt, which is likely to keep growing if CalPERS’ investment earnings continue to fall short, as many economists expect.

In fact, CalPERS’ own advisers see a prolonged period of relatively low earnings and say the system shouldn’t count on more than 6.2 percent.

Rationally, the discount rate should have been lowered by at least another full percentage point. But CalPERS already has increased its mandatory contributions by 50 percent to make up for investment losses during the Great Recession and other factors, and cutting the discount rate to 6 percent would probably mean bankruptcy for a number of local governments, particularly cities.

All in all, therefore, while reality did make a rare visit to the CalPERS boardroom, its impact fell well short of what is needed to make the public employees’ pension system actuarially sound.

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