With big returns come big expenses. That’s what seems to be the case for pensions across the country, as they are forced to increase their payouts to beneficiaries due to inflation. While the past year has been a record breaker for pension fund returns, inflation will be claiming its fair share of the gains as well.
For CalPERS members, those who retired between 2006 and 2014 will receive the biggest increase at 4.7%. This will be the largest cost-of-living increase for beneficiaries in the past 32 years, dating to 1990.
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated the Consumer Price Index to have increased by 7% over 2021, CalPERS is not using the 7% to calculate its increased payments. Instead, it uses an average of each month’s numbers.
CalSTRS similarly also has built in inflation protection, thanks to a California law that requires public pensions to do so. However, CalSTRS’ method of calculating this payment is slightly different. The fund gives quarterly supplement payments to those whose annual benefit falls below 85% of their original benefit. This year’s inflation numbers will likely increase the number of supplemental payments that CalSTRS in forced to provide.
California’s climate-conscious policies aren’t matched by the investment choices of its largest public pension funds, according to a report from two environmental groups.
Of the 14 top U.S. pension funds analyzed by Stand.earth and Climate Safe Pensions Network, California Public Employees’ Retirement System, known as Calpers, and California State Teachers’ Retirement System, known as CalSTRS, were the largest investors in fossil fuel companies, with $27.1 billion and $15.7 billion, respectively, according to findings published Wednesday.
The two combined hold about half the fossil fuel assets for the entire group, according to the study. Calpers also came first in fossil fuel holdings as a proportion of its total assets under management, at 6.9%.
The New York State Teachers’ Retirement System had the second-largest share of its portfolio invested in fossil fuels, at 6.6%.
When CalPERS does something as obviously nonsensical as planning to dump $6 billion of its private equity holdings, nearly 13% of its $47.7 billon portfolio, when it just committed to increasing its private equity book from 8% to 13%, it’s a hard call: Incompetent? Corrupt? Addled by the latest fads (a subset of incompetent)?
And rest assured, the harder you look, the more it becomes apparent that this scheme is as hare-brained as it appears at the 30,000 foot level. But unlike another recent hare-brained private equity scheme, its “private equity new business model,” beneficiaries won’t have the good luck of having it collapse under its own contradictions. CalPERS has loudly announced that Jeffries & Co. will be handling these dispositions, so they will get done….at least in part. But the fact that CalPERS’ staff has gone ahead and merely informed the board, as opposed to getting its approval, is yet another proof of how the board has abdicated its oversight and control by granting unconscionably permissive “delegated authority” to staff.
The one bit of possible upside would not just be unintended, but the result of CalPERS acting in contradiction to its expressed objectives: that its allocation to private equity would undershoot its targets by an even bigger margin than otherwise.
The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) has engaged financial services company Jefferies about the potential of selling up to $6 billion of its private equity stakes, according Buyouts magazine. This comes just after CalPERS announced it would be increasing the percentage of its portfolio allotted to private equity to 13% from 8% in November.
CalPERS board member Margaret Brown told Secondaries Investor in November that the fund is considering investing in secondaries and divesting from some of its legacy private equity investments.
“We have some really old private equity that’s just sitting there and doing nothing,” she said.
California’s two biggest pension funds have invested a staggering $43 billion in fossil fuel companies, and their opposition to divesting from the industry — including fighting legislation that would have stopped them investing in firms involved with the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) — has cost retirees and taxpayers billions, research shows.
The findings hammer home the fact that the divestment movement isn’t just about protecting the planet from the worst effects of climate change. With the oil, gas, and coal industries all on the decline, pension funds’ refusal to divest from fossil fuels is also endangering the retirement savings of teachers, government employees, and other rank-and-file public workers who have paid into these funds.
While it is common knowledge that fossil fuel stocks have underperformed the broader stock market, large bank stocks have been lackluster as well — including the banks that helped finance DAPL.
If CalPERS and CalSTRS had not opposed the original DAPL divestment legislation, they could have instead put pressure on the companies involved not to move forward with the pipeline, and such efforts might have been enough to stop the project, given the pipeline project’s turbulent history.
The financial press has gone into a round of hand-wringing over CalPERS’ efforts to chase higher returns in a systematically low-return market, now by planning to borrow at the CalPERS level on top of the leverage employed in many of its investment strategies, in particular private equity and real estate.
These normally deferential publications are correct to be worried. Not only is this sort of leverage on leverage dangerous because it can generate meltdowns and fire sales, amplifying damage and potentially creating systemic stresses, but the debt picture at CalPERS is even worse than these accounts they depicted. They failed to factor in yet another layer of borrowing at private equity funds and some real estate funds called subscription line financing, which we’ll describe shortly.
CalPERS tells other less obvious fibs, such as trying to depict private equity as so critical to success that it need to put more money on that number on the roulette wheel. Remember, the name of the game in investment-land isn’t absolute performance but risk adjusted performance. Not only has private equity not generated the additional returns to compensate for its extra risk at least as long as we’ve been kicking those tires (since 2012), academic experts such as Ludovic Phalippou, Richard Ennis and Eileen Appelbaum have concluded private equity has not even beaten stocks since the financial crisis.
Let us stress that unlike German investors, who have a pretty good handle on all the leverage bets in their investment portfolios and thus can make a solid estimate of how much risk they are adding via borrowing across all their investments, CalPERS is flying blind with respect to private equity. It does not have access to the balance sheets of the portfolio companies in its various private equity funds.
And while having balance sheet would be a considerable improvement over what is has now, it doesn’t give the whole picture. CalPERS would also need to factor in operating leverage. When I was a kid at Goldman, whenever we analyzed leverage (as in all the time), we had to dig into the footnotes of financial statements, find out the amount of operating lease payments, and capitalize them, as in gross up the annual lease payments to an equivalent amount of borrowing so we could look at different companies on a more comparable basis.
Newport Beach City officials are advocating for policies aimed at increasing long-term sustainability in the state public employee pension fund, CalPERS, as Newport Beach continues to make significant progress in paying down its debt obligations to the system.
On November 16, the CalPERS Board of Administration decided to maintain the fund’s discount rate, or the expected rate of return of the pension fund investments, at the current 6.8 percent. The discount rate had been lowered from 7.0 percent to 6.8 percent in July through CalPERS’ Funding Risk Mitigation Policy, which automatically lowers the discount rate in years when investment returns are above the assumed rate of return. Prior to the recent discount rate change, Newport Beach had asked CalPERS to lower its discount rate to 6.5 percent or below, a more conservative number that could help further reduce future risk.
Newport Beach expects to eliminate its unfunded liability by 2030, thanks to an aggressive payment schedule. Beginning in 2018, the City Council decided to increase annual payments to $35 million a year, $9 million more than required. This fiscal year, for the second year in a row, the City will contribute $5 million more as an additional, discretionary payment, bringing the total contribution to $40 million.
The CalPERS board voted Monday to select a portfolio with a return of 6.8% and an expected volatility rate of 12.1%. This expected rate of return is two-tenths of a percentage point lower than last year’s target of 7%. The vote concluded a review of the pension fund’s assets, which occurs once every four years.
This expected reduction in the rate of return means that some employees will have to contribute more to their pension funds because the fund expects to earn less from its investment portfolio.
For employees hired after the implementation of the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act (PEPRA) in January 2013, CalPERS estimates they will contribute an average of 1.2% to 1.5% more toward their pensions. These changes will go into effect for school employees, excluding teachers, in July 2022 and will be enacted for most other local government employees in July 2023.
The graphic “Settlement Bet” shows options that policyholders have to choose from in the Settlement. The graphic “Settlement Happens??” shows the consequences of the “Settlement Bets” if the Settlement happens or not.
Policyholders not wanting to terminate their CalPERS policies will select not to participate (“opt out”) in the Settlement (as participation will end policyholders’ policies if the Settlement is approved).
Policyholders whose preference in light of announced rate increases would be to terminate because of the new CalPERS rate increases can be divided into two groups in light of the Settlement options: (1) those that wish simply to terminate and stop paying premiums; and (2) those who wish to terminate but are prepared to gamble with CalPERS to get a refund.
In making these choices, all policyholders are being forced to gamble a lot of money. Why the Settlement is structured as a gamble is unclear, but it is. That seems incredibly unfair to policyholders who can ill afford more financial losses after their losses already caused by CalPERS LTC.
The ongoing CalPERS long-term care insurance program crisis continues to unravel. It is also revealing overarching behavior which is both unethical and contrary to law.
CalPERS announced insurance premium increases of 52%-90% that become effective very shortly, at the same time that CalPERS has agreed to a class action lawsuit settlement over its last 85% rate increase. (In my next article I will discuss why I suspect the settlement is another con job by CalPERS.) But here I first must address a shocking revelation previously unreported about CalPERS long-term care insurance program (LTC) which needs to be recognized before moving on to the issues of the proposed settlement.
There is new and truly disturbing information about the CalPERS long-term care insurance program from a recent review of the enabling legislation prepared by a former California Deputy Attorney General and Court of Appeal Attorney, Linda J. Vogel.
According to Vogel’s analysis, the CalPERS long-term care insurance program since inception in 1991 has operated contrary to law.
But we also have Meng’s unreported stock trades. And Meng’s arrival happened to coincide with a big spike in personal trading violations, which CalPERS attempted to minimize by saying they came mainly from one person.
What if it turns out that the Olson report showed that Meng was a very active trader the entire time he was there? There is no way CalPERS could suppress this information, since it was required to have been reported on the Forms 700.
This would be hugely embarrassing to CalPERS, in that it would show it had hired a CIO who didn’t have his full attention on his very big ticket say job. And it would be vastly worse if Meng as head of the investment operation had been routinely violating SEC requirements for trade pre-approvals to prevent insider trading.
This possibility seems even more likely when you look at the board transcript below. Marlene Timberlake D’Adamo droned on and on and on trying to justify CalPERS not having reviewed Meng’s Form 700 to see if it looked internally consistent and/or matched up with his trading records. At first I thought this was to exhaust the board and dissipate their energy so they’d not be as persistent about their issues when they finally got the mike. But it may also be that the compliance department was clearly remiss in not reviewing Meng’s Form 700 by virtue of him being an active trader. And if he indeed was the person who’d made the big personal trading violations, that would almost mandate reviewing his Form 700.
In fact, all of the damaging information that got Meng so upset that he quit was public, and it all came directly from or was generated by Meng.
Yet the CalPERS board acts as if it’s the victim of internal saboteurs. As the transcript shows, CEO Marcie Frost and her key allies on the board, Board President Henry Jones and board member Rob Feckner repeatedly and falsely present Meng as a victim of secrets having been tossed over the transom to the press. Not only was everything that embarrassed Meng out in the open for competent reporters to write up, but in at least one and arguably two cases, Meng’s defensiveness made his situation much worse.
As we’ll show, Frost used the bogus idea that CalPERS is full of traitors as an excuse for continuing to keep the board in the dark about crucial matters like Meng being investigated for his financial conflict of interest. Frost and Feckner also claim that Meng believed that his bad press was due to saboteurs. That suggests that Frost and other senior staffers stoked Meng’s paranoia and helped precipitate his departure.