Archive for August, 2013

Why Rhonda Fields Is Worse Than Wrong

In a committee hearing yesterday, State Senator Vicki Marble found herself on the wrong end of a Rep. Rhonda Fields race-baiting attack.  Marble – in a committee hearing devoted to race- and ethnicity-based sources of and effects of poverty – had the temerity to suggest that there might be some cultural and dietary contributors to poverty in certain groups.  In reality, this isn’t even a particularly controversial statement.  It was said without malice, and African American State Rep. Tony Exum, who spoke immediately after Marble, apparently didn’t even react.  It was only Fields who went nuts, supposedly taking offense, attacking Marble, posing as a victim of racism – in a meeting devoted to racial disparities in poverty rates.

Fields is the one who deserves to be condemned here.  Not because she’s effectively played the ever-popular race card for partisan political reasons, but because she’s hurting the very people whom we all agree need help the most, while pretending to defend and support them.

Let’s be clear – it is a dangerous and socially destabilizing situation when a group of people believes that it’s denied participation in the fruits of the American dream because of their race.  It is fundamentally unfair and indecent to the extent that it turns out to be true.  There is every reason for the state government to take an interest in the welfare of its citizens, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.  And there is every reason for a state to try to determine the extent to which actual, real, discrimination exists.

Which is why Rep. Fields’s outburst is so reprehensible.  Instead of identifying areas where Blacks and Hispanics might be able to take their destiny into their own hands, she actively encourages them to think of themselves as victims, nurse grievances, and tend to resentments.  Instead of looking for actual sources of discrimination, she invents reasons for outrage.  Instead of finding ways that people can lift themselves off the Safety Net, she is more interested in keeping them enmeshed in it.

In Detroit, in spectacular fashion, we’ve seen where this leads.

Rep. Fields has no business serving on such a committee.

And anyone who truly cares about the welfare of poor African Americans and Hispanics should stand up and say so.

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Access Denied

Ed News Colorado reports on last Thursday’s State Appeals Court ruling denying State Treasurer Walker Stapleton access to dereferenced PERA data for high-salaried members:

Stapleton, a Republican, is a vociferous critic of the current PERA structure. The state treasurer is automatically a member of the 16-member PERA board. First elected in 2010, Stapleton in 2011 asked the board for access to individual records (without names) of the top 20 percent of PERA retirees, based on pension amounts.

High-dollar pensions have been something of a fixation for GOP critics of PERA, even though the average monthly benefit paid by the system is $3,020. Most PERA members aren’t eligible for Social Security. The PERA system covers all Colorado teachers and many higher education employees.

That last paragraph requires some rebuttal.  High-dollar pensions are a fixation in large part because the rest of the PERA board decided to go to the mattresses to keep the information from being released.  One might just as easily ask why keeping high-dollar pensions secret is something of an obsession for PERA.

That said, there are some excellent reasons for wanting to examine PERA’s high-dollar pensions.

First, at least some of those pensions come from teachers’ union reps, who are frequently no longer doing work for their school district, and instead are working exclusively for the union.  The status of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT) union rep became a major point of contention during open negotiations, mostly because she would have continued to accrue PERA benefits, even though the union offered to pay both her salary and her personal PERA contribution.  With a $1 billion tax increase likely to be on the ballot this fall, and with much of the opposition to that tax increase based on the fact that about half of it would go to fund teachers pensions rather than classrooms, non-teaching union reps receiving outsized pension benefits would be embarrassing both for PERA and for tax increase supporters.

The other reason for concern over high-dollar pensions is the agency problem surrounding the PERA board itself.  Most of the board are PERA members, and many receive high salaries, and so will be eligible for high-dollar pensions when they retire.  With the PERA board having opposed recent attempts at reorganization, so that fewer board members are voting on their own benefits, the last thing they want is for attention to be focused on those benefits.

From a political point of view, it also makes sense for Treasurer Stapleton to try to split PERA beneficiaries between the average member and the high dollar recipient.  While the PERA board and its allies have a history of resisting attempts to limit benefits overall, or to change the benefit calculation formula, a graphic demonstration of the actual distribution of benefits could lead many average PERA recipients to rebel against leadership, and accept limits at the high end of the scale.  From the board’s point of view, that would be an ominous development.

While the Appeals Court has decided that Colorado taxpayers are not entitled to this information about their senior government employees, there is yet hope that the State Supreme Court will decide differently.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post mistakenly attributed the ruling to the State Supreme Court.

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Real Returns and Solvency – Part I

One of the biggest problems with the way that pension plans report their solvency numbers is the assumption of constant returns over the life of the plan.  By assuming constant returns, plans end up hiding the single biggest factor in why they’re likely to go bust: risk.  This post will try, with a hugely (and unrealistically) simplified example, to illustrate the problem this poses when trying to figure out whether a plan has enough money to cover its liabilities.

For this first cut, the aspect I want to capture is that with mandatory annual outflows, a pension fund puts itself at risk of falling behind, and never being able to catch up.

Let’s take this example: a $1,000,000 liability, timed to last 30 years, with $250,000 annual payouts, and payments into the fund that are calculated based on the expected return on assets.  Here’s what the fund balance will look like if we assume a constant 8% return on assets:

Payments into the fund each year are calculated to be a little over $161,000 a year in order to make this happen.  Also note that all this is being conducted in real dollars; we’re ignoring inflation, which is going to drive some people up the wall, but 1) we can always make a calculation in real dollars, 2) there’s really no good way of predicting inflation over a 30-year span, and 3) this is a thought exercise.

Where can I get an 8% a year return for 30 years?  Well, I could put it in bonds that return 8%, but those may not always exist.  Right now, we have a low-interest rate environment, and even corporate bonds that are highly-rated don’t necessarily return 8%.  Surely investment-grade municipal bonds don’t get me 8% at 30 years.  And remember, I need to find a place to put each year’s inflow, so by the end of the 30 years, I’m unlikely to find a 1-year corporate or municipal bond that pays me 8%, absent a pretty severe inflationary environment.

One investment that is liquid, that also provides reliable 30-year returns over 8%, is the S&P 500 index of large-cap US stocks.  The S&P has been around since 1926.  So starting in 1955, we have 30-year return profiles for it. Here’s the distribution of annualized 30-year returns for the S&P 500, from 1955 – 2011:

The thing has never returned less than 8.5% over that time, and averages 11.76% (although the median is lower).  This is a period of time that covers a World War, a Depression, inflation, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the 2000 Tech Bubble Burst, and the 2008 Real Estate Bubble Burst.  That’s a pretty good track record.

Here’s the rub.   Here are the annual S&P 500 returns over that time:

Not so good.  You have a pretty good chance of losing money; in 11 years out of 85 you’d be down 10% or more, and in 6 of those years, down 20% or more.  In three of those years, you’d lose 35% or more of your total investment.  You can see the problem: the risk of running one really bad year, or a couple of moderately bad years, early on, where you might have to spend your seed corn, is high enough to be worrisome, even if the total 30-year return is comfortably higher than your planning.

In order to see our imaginary fund’s chances of making to 30 years solvent, we need to put in not a constant 8% return, but a random variable that looks like the S&P 500 annual return.  Surprisingly, there’s considerable debate over whether or not such a variable is even possible to construct.  The returns are clearly not normally distributed, and adding more moments (skewness, how fat the tails are, etc.), doesn’t produce unique random variables.  When you look at the returns, it also looks as though the year-to-year returns may not really be independent, either; that is, a losing year seems to follow another losing year.

Given all this debate, I just figured that, with 57 separate 30-year runs available to us, the easiest thing to do would be to use those 30-year runs themselves.  I.e, 1956 – 1985, 1957 – 1986, etc.  Here’s a pretty typical return profile:

One really bad year, a couple of downers soon after, but positive almost all the time, and a number of eye-popping returns of over 40% to make up for it.  Should work out, ok, right?

Not so much:

The actual balance in the account falls below the projection in Year 9, and never really is able to gain altitude again.  By Year 20, the fund is bust, and has to either get bailed out or stop making payments.

What’s interesting is that it’s not the Year 6 Catastrophe that does the fund in.  Given the good years that preceded it, the balance after Year 6 is right at the projected levels.  A fund manager could easily persuade himself that everything’s going to be ok.  What really causes the problem is the two bad-but-not-disastrous Years 9 and 10 consecutively.  The S&P comes back in consecutive years with 20%, 25%, 20%, 35%, and it’s still not enough to put any real air between the balance and the ground.  So by Year 15, when the S&P loses less than 10% – less than it had lost in any of the previous losing sessions – it’s effectively all over.

How often does this happen?  Well, here are the failure rates for various return assumptions, starting with the average of 11.76% that the S&P actually returns, and going to 7%, for the ultra-conservative fund manager:

The manager who doesn’t leaving himself any breathing room cashes out over 60% of the time, which might be a little surprising.  It’s not until we assume a 10% return (corresponding to annual pay-ins of $143,000), that we get to a 50-50- chance of seeing 30 years.  Our 8% manager still fails over a quarter of the time, and it’s not until we get past a 7% assumed return (pay-ins of $169,000) – where we’re effectively giving up 40% of the actual S&P historical return in our planning, that we almost get to an 80% chance of solvency in Year 30.

Now, to be clear, you don’t end up in such bad shape most of the time that you don’t go bust.  You’re often well in the black.  For the fund manager who’s planning on 7%, he ends up over $10,000,000 in the black over a third of the time.  So often, when you win, you win really big.

But in pensions as  in baseball, you can’t spend those winnings from other timelines.  The Cardinals beat the Reds 15-2 today, but tomorrow, it’s 0-0 when the pitcher takes the mound.  My concern as a pensioner is being able to plan on a certain amount of money coming my way after I retire.  If the plan goes bust when I’m 75, it’s too late for me to make other plans.  And if the plan ends up with an extra $9,000,000 on-hand when I’m 80, there’s not much benefit in that, either.  The cost of losing is very, very high; the unlikely rewards from extra winnings don’t make up for that, which is why I put my money into a “safe” pension plan in the first place.

Understand, as stated at the outset, this is a hugely simplified example, on about 100 different levels.  Real pension plans don’t consist of a single individual.  They generally don’t make payouts at the same time they’re collecting contributions.  The lifetime of the plan for an individual is longer than 30 years.  Their portfolio is more diversified than putting everything in US stocks.  Inflation actually matters to pensions, possibly for benefits, certainly for wage calculations.

But the basic point – that the actuarial assumptions of flat returns, assumptions that fail to take into account risk as well as reward – are serious planning flaws that can ultimately lead to a plan’s demise.

My hope is, over time, to make these models more complex, remove some of the simplifications, give something approaching actual likelihoods of Colorado’s PERA going bust, and ultimately, create an online model where you, the reader, can enter your own assumptions and see what happens to PERA’s long-term prospects.  That’s a big project, and it’s going to take a long time to complete.  But there’s nothing in the finish product that isn’t here in the basic principles: returns move around all over the place, and the cost of providing ownership in a liability rather than an asset can be ruinous.

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The PERA Fire Sale, The Gift That Keeps On Taking

Over at the Denver Post, Vince Carroll details the price that PERA has been paying for its “fire-sale” of pension benefits from 2001-2005:

There are many PERA beneficiaries like Coffman who bought years of service — often at a very advantageous discount — and who now receive pension checks larger than you would expect based upon the span of their careers.

A large number of those transactions occurred over a three-year period a decade ago, when “PERA conducted what one executive called, in retrospect, a ‘fire sale’ on the service credit,” according to a 2005 analysis by the Rocky Mountain News.

The administration of Gov. Bill Owens, in a major blunder, lobbied for the fire sale as a shortsighted way to encourage early retirement and infuse new blood into the bureaucracy.

As Carroll notes, this problem was known as early as 2005, when David Milstead of the late, lamented Rocky wrote about it:

But the deal got sweeter. Gov. Bill Owens, then in the early part of his first term, wanted to streamline government and bring new employees into the state work force. In 2000, with his encouragement – some say pressure – PERA cut the already-low price of purchasing extra years by 14 percent, to 15.5 percent of salary.

Owens said he doesn’t recall the specifics of what was said to PERA, but “I thought it was valuable to have the flexibility to get new employees into some of the positions in the state bureaucracy.”

Service-credit purchases kicked up by 38 percent in 2001, topping $100 million.

PERA decided to raise the price back to 18.1 percent of salary for members under 50 and increase it to 22.1 percent for older members. But they told employees it wouldn’t happen until November 2003.

Given that window, thousands of employees raced to the sale.

Indeed they did.  In 2002, PERA’s income to its State and School Division from Purchased Credit exceeded its income from regular employee contributions.   In 2003, PERA got almost half of its income from Purchased Credit, according to its own CAFRs:

It also calls to mind an excellent article by Josh Barro in National Affairs,Dodging the Pension Disaster,” where he suggests a way (perhaps) to actually reduce the unfunded liability after a defined benefit-to-defined contribution transition:

A working paper by Maria Fitzpatrick, a fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, attempts to determine just how highly some public employees value their pension benefits. She examined Illinois teachers’ choices when, in 1998, they were offered a chance to make a one-time payment up front in exchange for more generous benefits in retirement. The terms of the purchase varied significantly depending on a teacher’s salary and years of service. Using reasonable discount rates, the up-front purchase cost was lower than the present value of benefits for nearly all teachers — 99% could expect at least a 7% annual return on investment, with no risk so long as the state did not default. But the deal was sweeter for some teachers than for others, a variation that made it possible to estimate the subjective present value that teachers placed on future benefits.

Fitzpatrick’s finding is, in a way, depressing: On average, teachers were willing to pay only 17 cents on the dollar to obtain a pension-benefit increase. This suggests that defined-benefit pensions are a highly inefficient form of compensation, costing taxpayers far more than they are worth to public employees.

But it also suggests an appealing policy solution: Governments can offer to buy back promised pension benefits at a discount, and employees may be inclined to take the deal. Admittedly, the proposal presents a political problem to lawmakers, in that it requires them to produce an immense sum of cash up front in order to eliminate a long-term liability. To alleviate some of that pain, however, governments could responsibly issue bonds to raise the money — since this would mean simply substituting explicit debt for a larger amount of implicit pension debt. Governments would incur an obligation to pay interest on the bonds, but in most cases that amount would be more than offset by the reduction in required employer pension contributions.

In Colorado’s case, the price was about 15.5 cents on the dollar, but there was huge interest, so a fair price may be considerably higher than that.  Add to that the fact that people are often less willing to let go of a perceived cash benefit than they are to buy it in the first place, and there’s reason to think we can’t possibly buy it back for 15.5%.  Still, having a limited-time “open season” market, or Dutch auction, with a declining price, might be a way of disposing of some of the liability.

Barro goes on to note that there’s a federal early-withdrawal penalty for taking such a buyout, but that it can be avoided by rolling the payout over into an IRA.  Given that many of these purchases were made with IRA, 401(k), and 457(b) money in the first place, waiting to see retirement money until retirement hardly seems unfair.

PERA’s the price for purchasing service credit has since returned to reasonable levels, we’ll be living with the cost of selling long-term debts cheaply for a long time to come.  At this point, it’s almost impossible to tell how much of PERA’s long-term debt obligation comes from this sale; I can’t find aggregate numbers in the CAFR, and the charts above show only the price paid, not the goods sold, but it certainly warrants further investigation.

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