This time CalPERS plans for stock market drop

When its investment fund had a huge loss during a stock market crash a decade ago, plunging from about $260 billion to $160 billion, CalPERS was caught by surprise and had to sell assets at a market bottom to pay bills.

Despite a fund reaching $368 billion last week during a record bull market, CalPERS is far from recovering its 100 percent funding in the year before the 2008 crash. It still has only 70 percent of the projected assets needed to pay growing future pension costs.

Gone is the careless optimism of CalPERS a decade before the crash.

Sponsoring a generous state worker pension increase (SB 400 in 1999), CalPERS told legislators the cost would be covered by a surplus, “continued excess returns”, and inflating the value of assets — without “costing an additional dime of taxpayer money”.

Last month the CalPERS board, at the request of several members, received a staff report on planning for the next “drawdown,” defined as a 20 percent drop in the market for at least three months.

The new CalPERS chief investment officer, Ben Meng, who began work in January, told the board his day-one project was the development of a “liquidity management and action plan” to pay bills and take advantage of investment opportunities during a drawdown.

News that the current economic recovery is the longest in U.S. history implies that a drawdown may be near, Meng said, but “we also know that economic recovery does not have to die of old age.”

He pointed to two extremes after a downturn in 1990-91. Japan is at one end, still not fully recovered. Australia is at the other end, “experiencing economic recovery for close to 30 years.”

In the past, Meng said, economic cycles have averaged roughly ten years, with six or seven good years and two to three bad years. The “unconditional probability” of a drawdown in the next 12 months is about 15 percent.

But if the economy is late in the cycle, the probability of a drawdown is much higher. Meng said the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank recently estimated the probability of a drawdown in the next 12 months is 44 percent, the New York Federal Reserve 30 percent.

“It is important to know that the estimate is based on history and backward looking,” Meng said, “so it’s only if history is any indication.”

Even if there is no drawdown, the CalPERS funding shortfall could widen. An earnings forecast given the board last month expects the CalPERS portfolio to earn 6.1 percent over the next decade, below the target of 7 percent.

CalPERS is a long-term investor, and over 60 years the forecast is 7 percent. Meng’s takeaways: The 6.1 percent estimate could vary and is not alarming, a drawdown can wipe out several good years, and drawdown probability and severity tend to be underestimated.

Meng said normally during a recession Federal Reserve interest rates are lowered to aid recovery. But rates are already low, he said, calling it “uncharted territory” because interest rate cuts in the last three recessions were larger than current interest rates, 2.25 to 2.5 percent.

“This all sounds very scary for our members,” said board member Theresa Taylor, recalling that the 6.1 percent forecast has been discussed for several years. She said CalPERS had good investment earnings in recent years and forecasts are not an exact science.

Board member Lisa Middleton, appointed by Gov. Newsom in May to replace Bill Slaton in the local government seat on the 13-member board, referred to the jump in record-high CalPERS employer rates from lowering the earnings forecast used to discount debt.

“Knowing the impact that taking the discount rate from 7 1/2 percent to 7 had on municipalities across the state,” said the Palm Springs city council member, “seeing a 6.1 percent number is …”

“Concerning,” Meng offered.

“I’m looking for the right word, and it’s not coming,” Middleton said. “Scary is only the beginning.”

A chart in the CalPERS drawdown report uses the example of the S&P 500 stock index to show the difficulty in replacing an investment loss. Recovering from a 50 percent investment loss requires a 100 percent increase in earnings.

“If you’ve got a dollar and you lose 50 percent of that, you go to 50 cents,” as board member Henry Jones put it. “And you go 50 percent up, you don’t go back to a dollar, you go to 75 cents.”

Meanwhile, during the recovery period investment earnings are replacing the loss rather than adding to the previous total funding at a compounding rate, while in the case of CalPERS pension debt or the unfunded liability continued to rapidly grow. It’s about $140 billion now.

Another reason that CalPERS funding has not recovered is a delay in increasing rates paid by employers, which did not begin until 2012, four years after the stock market crash in 2008.

Rates employees pay to CalPERS are bargained by unions or set by statute, often ranging from 10 to 15 percent of pay. Unlike employer rates, employee rates are not increased to pay off debt or unfunded liability, usually resulting from below-target investment earnings.

CalPERS employer rates have soared, causing some local government officials to warn of bankruptcies. Police and firefighter rates have reached 70 percent or more of pay for two dozen local governments, a CalPERS funding level and risks report said last November.

“The greatest risk to the system continues to be the ability of employers to make their required contributions,” the report said.

Meng said a drawdown plan is needed to reduce the impact on employer-employee rates. An optimistic earnings target, 7 percent, and riskier investments help keep pensions affordable for employers, but also make CalPERS more vulnerable to drawdown.

Four steps already taken that make CalPERS less vulnerable to a downturn are the lower discount rate, an asset allocation with less risk, a $6 billion extra state contribution, and reducing the amortization period for new debt from 30 to 20 years.

A group from several CalPERS departments is said to be making progress on a “liquidity management and action plan” to avoid running out of money to pay bills during a drawdown while also having money to take advantage of new investment opportunities.

Meng said he is personally involved in a project for “a more real-time monitor and scenario analysis” and faster response to a drawdown, which may require asking the board to update policies designed for normal times.

“One of the ways we generate additional liquidity (money for an investment opportunity) is put on leverage on the total fund, so we borrow money,” Meng said in response to a question from a board member.

Other board members urged early communication with CalPERS members and other stakeholders to build support for the part of plan that calls for staying the course during a drawdown, avoiding risky changes or the panic selling of assets that locks in losses.

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at Posted 1 Jul 2019

7 Responses to “This time CalPERS plans for stock market drop”

  1. John Moore Says:

    The article implies that the market has failed to sufficiently recover, the hottest market of all time. It is the creation of new liabilities, salary increases and spiking that prevent the creation of massive annual pension costs and deficits.
    Each time an agency legislative body grants a new salary increase(and increases step increases), that body has intentionally agreed to ratify the 1999-2000 criminal caper and to intensify the cost and deficits of its pension plan, with full knowledge that the increases and deficits will destroy the agency. The agency will then tax, spend and force development in a futile attempt to grow pensions beyond its now murderess level.
    In the Monterey bay area, agencies have approved a new water supply project that will attempt to treat and recycle legacy Salinas Valley agriculture waste basins and ditches for drinking water. There is no precedent for such recycling for potable use(and no expert opinion that it is safe), but “hey” they need the development to keep the growth of pensions on track. Comparable insane development is on the table throughout the state, all to grow pensions at “any” cost, even the health of the biological world, including humans.
    Pacific Grove, Ca., the new Vernon, will pay 120% of safety salaries to PERS by next year. The sky is not the limit after that.

  2. mreck Says:

    The article does NOT imply that the market has failed to sufficiently recover. It has recovered. So has PERS, but only to the level it was at before the recession (as explained, if you lose 50%, you have to gain 100% to break even, not counting whatever returns you *should* have gotten in the meantime. In order to get back to the funding level PERS had before the recession, it needs double the recovery that has happened – and unless you were really lucky with some risky investments, you haven’t seen that, and neither has PERS. It’s been a good recovery, but not THAT great a recovery.

    Recent article elsewhere talked about the yield curve being inverted, now, for a full quarter. That implies a recession within the next year or so. PERS better be planning for that now (as implied by this article) and it better be effective. We don’t know how deep the recession will be – the inverted curve doesn’t predict that, only that there will be a recession. If it’s only a minor dip, it’ll be a buying opportunity. If it’s another 1989 or 2008, we’re all f******* (whether we depend on PERS for retirement or not).

  3. Ken Churchill Says:

    CalPERS should be giving elected officials classes on how manage their pension costs because they don’t seem to have a clue. I doubt many, if any know that if they were to freeze salaries for say 5 years versus giving 3% cost of living adjustments and using the savings to pay down their pension debt they would save a fortune. But other than John Moore above no one is even talking about this option.

    I should add that there is no vested right to retiree healthcare and that should be eliminated and folks can receive medicare like the rest of us and that savings could also be used to reduce pension costs.

    Or a better option for taxpayers might be to just move to another state.

  4. SeeSaw Says:

    Mr. Churchill, no public employee has vested rights to retiree-health care–it is a negotiated benefit. I am a public-sector retiree with 36 years service credit. My former employer pays up to $532/mo for retiree health care for a retiree with at least 25 years credit–$155/mo for an employee with 15-25 years credit; nothing for employees with less than 15 years. All retirees from my entity must sign up for Medicare at age 65 The employer-provided cost is only secondary to Medicare. We must sign on to the secondary providers contracted through the employer. Before the new contract in 2018,the out-of-pocket costs for my share of the Anthem Blue Cross Premium, including Part D and my own Medicare part B payment, was $1900/mo. In 2018, with a new secondary provider, the out-of-pocket costs for me, including secondary coverage for my spouse are $1095/mo.

    It is up to the individual employers to work with their employees to determine how they are going to pay the pension bills. PEPRA 2013, was reform for new hires and is reasonable. I have a hunch that the CA Supreme Ct. is going to side with the lower court rulings regarding the spiking benefits that are in the 1937 Act County plans–CalPERS ended spiking long ago.. Certain pension rights are vested in the CA Constitution-health care is not one of them.

  5. SeeSaw Says:

    I must insert a correction into my previous comment as I erroneously referred to two categories of retirees of my former employer as employees:

    My former employer provides a capped, health-care benefit of $532 for retirees with at least 25 years’ service credit; a capped benefit of $155/mo. for retirees with at least 15 years’ service credit; it does not provide health care coverage for retirees with less than 15 years’ service credit. (All full-time employees receive health care coverage.)

  6. CalPERSon Says:

    @ John Moore: you want to know the real reason Pacific Grove is struggling? It’s because that tiny little burg shouldn’t be a city to begin with. The population is too small and it has no productive economy to speak of, except sucking tourists for dollars.

    Just merge with Monterey and let the bigger city deal with the pension problems.

  7. Stephen Douglas Says:

    I believe state employees retiree healthcare is vested. 50 percent after 10 years and 100 percent after 20.

    In contrast, Alameda County says pensions and COLAs are vested (guaranteedlifetime), but retiree healthcare is “Non-Guaranteed benefits, or Non-vested benefits,”

    provided through the Supplemental Retirees Benefit Reserve (SRBR). As long as SRBR has funds, retiree healthcare will be paid.

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