Mitchell’s Musings 9-26-16: Measurement for What? – Part 2

23 Sep 2016 11:40 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 9-26-16: Measurement for What? – Part 2


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


I had hoped to be done, for a while anyway, with defined-benefit pensions with last week’s musing.[1] But it was not to be. Recently, the New York Times got interested in CalPERS, the giant California pension fund that covers most state employees (other than employees of the University of California [UC]) and many local government employees.[2] The essence of the Times article is that something nefarious is going on because when a local government wanted to terminate its pension plan with CalPERS, CalPERS used a low interest rate to calculate the liability that the government would have to pay to CalPERS. The rate was lower than CalPERS official expected rate of earnings which is otherwise used by CalPERS as a discount rate for liabilities generally.


So let’s separate some issues here. Last week, we dealt with the question of using a lower interest rate for discounting pension liabilities than is used for expected earnings on pension assets. We noted that some folks argue that because the pension liability to employees and retirees is ironclad, the discount rate should reflect a riskless investment. What we indicated last week was that an ongoing pension plan has no finite duration and that, if over a long period it earns what it expects and funds the plan in accord with that expectation, it will have enough money in the till to meet its liabilities. Apparently, there are some folks (including an adviser to the UC Board of Regents) who think that if you expect to earn, say, 6% per annum, you fund accordingly, and you in fact earn 6%, you will still run out of money unless you discount liabilities by a lower rate than 6%. Simple arithmetic says that conclusion is wrong.


Of course, the big IF in that idea is that you in fact earn in the long run what you today reasonably can expect. If you use an unreasonably high rate of return to discount future liabilities and to estimate future earnings, you will indeed come up short. The lesson is that you should use a reasonable rate. And you should keep adjusting that estimated rate based on incoming information. There is little question about that simple notion.


What the Times seems to be saying is that using the lower rate for the local government that wanted to terminate its plan proves somehow that CalPERS’ expected earnings rate is too high and that really the termination discount rate for liabilities is what it should be using to calculate its funding ratio. To be fair, the article is not entirely clear about what is wrong, but the reader is left with the impression that using two rates shows something is phony. The headline with “two sets of books” suggests outright corruption and false measurement.


According to the CalPERS actuary, CalPERS’ official estimate rate of earnings, 7.5%/annum, is too high. But that view has nothing to do with the rate charged to terminating plans. The actuary simply believes that, looking ahead, earnings will be lower over the long term than 7.5%/annum.


CalPERS should be using a reasonable rate, as recommended by its actuary. If it isn’t, that failure is a sign of bad governance. (And there have been problems over the years with bad governance at CalPERS, including outright corruption.) But none of this concern is related to the low termination discount rate.

CalPERS is actually a set of plans, not a single plan. If a local jurisdiction has a pension plan for its employees, CalPERS separately calculates its liabilities. Liabilities will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction depending on employee demographics and behavior. If a local government decides to terminate its plan, the plan still has a liability to covered incumbent workers and retirees. Termination shifts the plan from one with an indefinite duration to one with a finite end. Someday, the last participant will die and the plan will truly end. CalPERS must ensure that it has enough money in that plan to pay off that last participant. By law, it cannot take money from other jurisdictions’ plans and subsidize any remaining shortfall in the terminating plan.[3]


Given the shift from an indefinite duration to a finite duration, and given the bar against moving money from one plan to another, CalPERS must take a reduced risk approach to the terminating plan. It must invest in low risk assets. So, of course, it uses a low discount rate because the plan itself will earn a low rate on its low-risk assets. There is nothing nefarious about using a lower rate for terminating plans; it is just prudent pension management.[4]


In short, CalPERS does have management problems. It should be using realistic estimates of future earnings. But the fact that it discounts terminating plans using a low interest rate is entirely appropriate.

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[1] http://employmentpolicy.org/page-1775968/4254643#sthash.o4FvbDLf.dpbs.

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/18/business/dealbook/a-sour-surprise-for-public-pensions-two-sets-of-books.html.

[3] California governor Jerry Brown recently vetoed an ad hoc bill that would have allowed moving money from one plan to another because it would violate the longstanding principle that each plan is a separate entity. See https://www.gov.ca.gov/docs/SB_1162_Veto_Message.pdf.

[4] The California Legislative Analyst’s Office recognizes that prudence requires low-risk (and thus low-return) assets for plans that are terminating. It provided an analysis of a proposed ballot initiative (that never made it to the ballot) that would have phased out defined-benefit pensions and noted that “there are costs related to the closure of defined benefit plans. As these plans ‘wind down’ over the decades, their pension boards likely would change investments to those with lower risk and lower expected returns. This would result in higher costs for these closed plans.” Source: http://www.lao.ca.gov/BallotAnalysis/Initiative/2015-033.  


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