Monday, February 29, 2016

The Rising Mountain of New Jersey Pension Debt

This week, the Supreme Court of the United States moved to uphold a 2015 ruling of the New Jersey Supreme Court, thereby defeating a challenge to the state's plan of pension funding brought by public employee labor unions. The unions sued the state over the underfunding of the state's staggering employee pension deficit. The unions alleged that in 2014 Governor Christie failed to fund the plan at an agreed upon level, per a deal negotiated by state legislators and the unions in 2011.

To understand where this story begins, or just how dire the circumstances are surrounding the New Jersey Public Employees Pension Fund, a bit of background is required. In 2014, the State of New Jersey deposited roughly $700 million of taxpayer dollars into its employee pension fund. The State spent an additional $2.8 billion of public monies to fund retiree health care benefits. Yet, despite these significant investments in shoring up the retirement plan of its past and current employees, the State actually underfunded its statutory funding obligations by nearly $3 billion.

To understand how this is possible, we need to delve into the murky world of state and local government accounting. To fully fund the state's requirements, simply to keep pace with current pension costs - with no effort to catch up on past underfunding - would have required the State of New Jersey to contribute $6.5 billion of taxpayer funds, or 20% of the entire state budget to its pension funds. So the state "saved" $3 billion by underfunding in 2014. But year after year of these kinds of "savings" or deferrals, simply builds one heck of a mountain of debt, or pension liabilities, for the state (or more specifically, taxpayers) to climb in the future. In fact, by 2015, New Jersey's total benefits liabilities had reached a staggering $90 billion - $37 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and $53 billion in unfunded health benefits.

Now back to the Supreme Court. The case revolved around the agreement negotiated in 2011. In order to gain concessions from the unions on greater employee pension contributions, the state agreed to gradually increase its funding of pension contributions in each year, until reaching the required annual level. And in fact, things proceeded just this way in 2012 and 2013.  But in 2014, in an effort to pass a strained budget, the state reduced its annual pension contribution by the aforementioned $3 billion. Governor Christie claimed financial hardship. The unions sued saying the stated had breached its 2011 deal. The Supreme Court has now sided with the state, allowing the State of New Jersey further leeway in kicking the can down the road on its pension obligations.

Looking ahead, for the state's fiscal year 2017 beginning on July 1, the Governor has proposed $1.86 billion in pension contribution, or just 40% of its required annual contribution. And while this may help the state balance its 2017 budget, the state's pension mountain continues to rise before New Jersey public employees and cast an ever-greater shadow over its taxpayers.

Much more on the public pension and retirement crisis can be found in my new book: Up In Smoke: How the Retirement Crisis Shattered the American Dream, available on

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Retail Spending and the Consumer

I had lunch recently with a friend in a fashionable urban restaurant. When the conversation came around to the economy he said, just look around. Everywhere I go restaurants and retail shops are crowded with people eager to spend. From Fifth Avenue to Rodeo Drive. From San Francisco to Miami Beach, restaurants are crowded and consumers are spending, spending, spending.

The problem with this image, of course, is consumer behavior in these tony high end locations tells us very little about the overall health of the American consumer. How little, may be just 1%. 

For the month of January, total retail sales grew by 0.2% over the prior month. These weak results were at least partially due to falling gas prices - a good thing for consumers. Retail sales ex-auto, gasoline, building materials and food services (i.e., core retail sales) were up 0.6%. While not stellar, the January report followed an outright decline in core retail sales of 0.3% in December. Not great, but certainly not recessionary. Bear in mind also that retail sales figures are not adjusted for inflation. So 2% sales growth in an economy with 2% inflation, would mean essentially flat unit sales. 

Against this backdrop, consider that four states are already officially in a downturn, as reported by Bloomberg News: Alaska, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming. Likewise, other states are threatened, as well, including Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma, according to Moody’s Investors Service. And of course there is Texas, which is also struggling with plunging oil prices, layoffs and reduced consumer spending.

So what's going on? Fortunately, the Commerce Department, in its monthly report of consumer spending, gives us a broader view of how people are spending, or not spending. If we drill down into the January Retail Sales Report, here's what we find beneath the headlines. On a year over year basis, food and beverage store sales were up just 1% (the CPI in January on a year over year basis was up 1.4% so sales grew by an amount less than inflation). But sales at bars and restaurants were up a solid 5.4%, indicating a preference for meals out to those at home for many consumers. Yet, furniture and home furnishings grew by just 1.4% (about the rate of inflation) while clothing stores were flat (no increase in sales, before inflation). And department store sales fell 4.5%, while electronics stores were off 5.4%.

So while the anecdotal evidence of a healthy consumer eating out more often and buying lavish clothes may be what some of us see, others see a far more bleak picture of retail spending, lending yet further support to the case for an impending recession.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

How to Spike Your Pension

When Marty Robinson was elected Chief Executive of Ventura County, California in 2008 supporters cheered her appointment. A councilwoman from the Ventura County city of Oxnard claimed, “That’s a glass ceiling broken”. At her retirement ceremony in 2011, her colleagues offered tributes that lasted nearly two hours. The Board of Supervisors renamed a stretch of the County Hall of Administration, “The Marty Robinson Trail”. Ms. Robinson’s compensation that final year? She was paid a total of $330,000.  

Startling as this may be for a public servant, this level also forms the basis by which her lifelong pension payments will be calculated. Her highest year compensation of $330,000 entitles Ms. Robinson to lifetime annual retirement benefits of $272,000, an amount it turns out, that is actually higher than her base salary for the year of $228,000.  By adding unused vacation time, overtime, car allowances and other perks, Ms. Robinson was able to significantly raise (or "spike") her final year compensation as the basis for all future pension benefits she will receive in her retirement. While this practice was outlawed by the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) in 1999, counties like Ventura who do not participate in CalPERS, but rather manage their own internal employee retirement systems are free to allow the practice to continue. In fact, twenty of the state’s fifty-eight counties run pension plans that are outside of this CalPERS mandate, following a 1937 law that granted counties a choice between joining the statewide retirement system and creating their own. These twenty counties, known as 37 Act counties, are not required to follow mandates of CalPERS or other statewide directives.

Assuming Ms. Robinson lives to age 85 and the CPI averages three percent over the next twenty years, Ms. Robinson will receive total retirement benefits from Ventura County of $15,702,608 (or $24,221,167 should she live to age ninety-five).  Now here’s where it gets interesting.  Had she not tried to manipulate the system by spiking her final year income - artificially boosting her salary in the manner described above - her total retirement benefits to age eighty-five would still have totaled $10,849,000, placing her in the top 0.01% of retirees.  

Sadly for us, as taxpayers, Ms. Robinson is not alone. Despite a $761 million unfunded pension liability for Ventura County, 84% of its retired county employees earning more than $100,000 per year pre-retirement saw higher income in retirement than they did as employees on the job. The former Ventura County Sheriff is reportedly receiving $272,000 per year in retirement pay (twenty percent higher than his salary) while the former county Undersheriff is receiving $257,997, a full thirty percent above his base due to spiking.

Following these and other alarming details of the Ventura County retirement system, a measure was placed on the November 2014 ballot called the Sustainable Retirement System Initiative, designed to stop these and other abuses. Among other reforms, the Sustainable Retirement System Initiative would shift new county employees to a 401(k) style defined contribution retirement plan, thereby relieving county taxpayers of future pension liability for these employees. Proponents argued that the measure could save county taxpayers millions. 

A group backed by the Ventura county employee unions quickly sued, however, arguing that if such a measure were to be approved, the county would face great difficulty in recruiting new employees (i.e., if their benefits more closely resembled those of private sector employees). Before taxpayers could have a say one way or the other, on August 4, 2014, Ventura County Superior Court Judge Kent Kellegrew ordered the item be removed from the ballot, thus denying taxpayers an opportunity to vote on the proposal. One last thing in case you are wondering. Yes, County judges are covered by the same Ventura County pension plan.

Much more on the public pension and retirement crisis can be found in my new book: Up In Smoke: How the Retirement Crisis Shattered the American Dream, available on