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Was it constitutional for Proposition 124 to replace PSPRS' permanent benefit increases with a capped 2% COLA?

In this blog I and multiple commenters have broached the subject of the suspect constitutionality of PSPRS' replacement of the old perma...

Monday, November 24, 2014

The sideshow finally ends: Completed federal investigation into PSPRS real estate valuations finds no criminal wrongdoing.

This article, "Arizona public safety pension fund cleared in probe," by Craig Harris appears in today's Arizona Republic.   It references a letter by U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Strange to PSPRS' attorney that states:

As you are aware, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona (“USAO”) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) have been conducting a criminal investigation concerning certain valuation decisions and disclosures made by your client, the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (“PSPRS”).
I can now confirm, through this letter, that your client is not a subject or target of the investigation. Based upon our joint investigation with the FBI, at this time we do not believe that PSPRS committed any criminal misconduct. This Office takes no position on civil or administrative liability, however, as our review focused exclusively on whether PSPRS engaged in criminal conduct in violation of federal law. Thank you for your assistance and professional courtesy in this matter.

I hope that this finally ends this whole sorry episode.  PSPRS had (and still seems to have) a disproportionate share of its real estate portfolio invested with Desert Troon.  This never made any financial sense, but neither did PSPRS' former equity-heavy portfolio and appears to be a legacy of past administrations.  However, the notion that PSPRS staff knowingly inflated real estate valuations for the express purpose of triggering their own bonuses always seemed absurd to me. 

This blog addressed the issue of potential criminal wrongdoing in the January 2014 post, Notes on a (PSPRS) scandal.  Readers can see that post for more detail, but in short, PSPRS addressed the problems noted by the Arizona Auditor General and revalued the Desert Troon portfolio accordingly.  In the end, the adjusted valuations done per the Auditor General's required standards were closer to the allegedly "inflated" Desert Troon valuations than they were to the "correct" and lower, initial valuations.  This hardly makes the case for a criminal conspiracy.  What it does make the case for is a more diversified real estate portfolio.  A better real estate portfolio would be one in which the investment in a single company would not impact PSPRS' total value to such an extent that staff bonuses could even remotely factor into the choice of a valuation methodology.  A better real estate portfolio would be one in which its value can be clearly determined and not be so opaque that a consensus can not be reached even among PSPRS' own in-house personnel and the Board of Trustees.

One final absurdity is that, in addition to all the unnecessary legal costs incurred by PSPRS to defend itself against charges of criminal behavior, the state of Arizona is on the hook for the private legal expenses of the four former PSPRS staffers who accused PSPRS of misconduct.  According to the Arizona Republic, Desert Troon is suing the four employees for "engaging in a post-employment conspiracy to defame and falsely disparage senior management at the company and the pension system."  Hopefully, for the sake of the former employees and Arizona taxpayers, Desert Troon will drop the lawsuit now that the U.S. Attorney has exonerated PSPRS of any wrongdoing, but who knows what they will do, especially if these accusations led to lost business for their company.  Some expressed outrage that former PSPRS Administrator Jim Hacking had a stipulation in his severance package that PSPRS would pay any legal costs "relating to actions taken in the course and scope of his employment" with PSPRS, but now it appears that PSPRS' accusers could end up costing taxpayers more.

Now that the sideshow is over maybe the misplaced outrage can be redirected where it should have gone in the first place.  Issues like pension spiking, unsustainable COLA's, intergenerational inequities, and the fragility of PSPRS in the face of future financial crises are the real problems that plague PSPRS.  People got their investigation and they got Mr. Hacking's job, now can we end the collective tantrum and move on to more important things?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The financial markets will not save you: the limited effect of investment returns on PSPRS' funding ratio

While we are on the subject of investment returns, I thought it would be interesting to see the effects past years' investment losses have on PSPRS' funding ratio.  The following is taken from PDF page number 23 of the 2014 PSPRS Consolidated Actuarial Valuation Report:

A. Beginning Year Funding Value $ 5,905,509,127
D. Non-investment Cash Flow $    (65,772,608)
E.Amount for Immediate Recognition $    461,000,892

F1. FY14 (Just ended)  $    33,458,496
F2. FY13  $      9,542,555
F3. FY12  $  (72,234,304)
F4. FY11  $    40,557,028
F5. FY10  $      9,473,791
F6. FY09  $ (183,695,537)
F7. FY08  $ (118,855,348)

G1. End of Year Funding Value (Prelim)  $ 6,018,984,092

Total Accrued Liability  $12,233,016,817
Funding Ratio 49.20%

This shows how PSPRS calculates its funding ratio.  The funding ratio is calculated by dividing its funding value (a valuation of its investments as of June 30, 2014) by its total accrued liability (what it needs to pay all the benefits it owes to retirees and current workers).  Calculating the funding value is not as simple as reporting the market value of all its investments as of June 30. 2014.  PSPRS, like many pension systems, uses a smoothing period when recognizing investment gains and losses.  PSPRS uses a seven-year period, while other systems use longer or shorter smoothing periods.

The smoothing period lessens the effect of year-to-year fluctuations in market returns so that funding ratios and contributions do not dramatically change from year to year.  This is especially important to employers who have to budget for employee costs and do not want their contribution rates yoyoing up and down each year.  With the seven-year smoothing period that PSPRS uses, this means that only 1/7th of each gain or (loss) incurred over the last seven years is recognized in the current year's  funding ratio.  Lines F1-F7 represent 1/7th of the gains and (losses) of each of the past seven years above or below the 7.85% expected rate of return (ERR).  The $461 million in Line E represents the expected 7.85% return that PSPRS should have earned on its investments in fiscal year (FY) 2014, which ended June 30, 2014.  This amount is recognized immediately.  The $33,458,496 in Line F1 represents 1/7th of the amount over 7.85% that PSPRS earned in FY14.  This means, for funding purposes, any year that PSPRS does not achieve its ERR will show a loss.

Each year, the oldest year drops off and is replaced by the newest year.  Looking at the table we can see that the two oldest years, FY08 and FY09 covering the two-year period from July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2009, are responsible for gigantic losses to PSPRS.  Over $118 million in losses will fall out of next fiscal year's calculations, and over $183 million in losses will fall out when FY16 ends June 30, 2016.  Hopefully, these losses will be replaced by large gains, but regardless, it is unlikely that losses of such size recur unless we have another financial crisis of the magnitude of the Great Recession. The funding ratio should increase, and that is good news for all of us and our employers. A higher funding ratio will mean lower employer contribution rates and more money available in employers' budgets.

So how much will the funding ratio increase when these losses drop off?  It is impossible to predict what will happen this fiscal year, so the best we can do is simply change some of the amounts in Lines F1-F7. I tried several different scenarios.  The first scenario used was one where PSPRS had suffered no losses or gains in either FY08 or FY09.  This would mean that PSPRS earned exactly 7.85% each of those years.  Under this scenario the End of Year Funding Value (Line G1) would increase to $6,321,534,977.  Liabilities of $12,233,016,817 would remain the same in all scenarios, so the funding ratio would go from 49.20% to 51.68%, an increase of 2.47%.

In the second scenario, I made it so PSPRS suffered no losses or gains in FY08, FY09, and FY12 and earned exactly 7.85%.  Line G1 increased to $6,393,769,281 and the funding ratio improved to 52.27%, an increase of 3.06%.

In the third scenario, I made it so PSPRS, instead of suffering losses, actually gained the same amount each year in FY08 and FY09 as it did in FY14, $33,458,496.  Line G1 increased to $6,388,451,969, and the funding ratio increased to 52.22%, an increase of 3.02%.  The increase here is less than the second scenario since the gains plugged into FY08 and FY09 do not fully make up for the loss in FY12.

In the fourth, most optimistic scenario, I made it so PSPRS actually gained the same amount each year in FY08, FY09, and FY12 as it did in FY14.  Line G1 increased to $6,494,144,769, and the funding ratio improved to 53.09%, an increase of 3.88%. 

These numbers are very sobering.  The losses from FY08 and FY09 falling out of the seven-year smoothing period produce an immediate gain of almost 2.5% in the funding ratio.   That is great.  However, when we look at the most optimistic scenario where all the loss years were turned into years of gains similar to FY14, we only improve our funding ratio by another 1.4% above the initial 2.5% increase.  While I hope I am wrong about this, I think the the gains in FY14 are likely to be as high as PSPRS will ever earn in its current risk-adjusted portfolio.  This means that investment gains going forward will have limited effect on raising PSPRS' funding ratio in the near-term.

PSPRS investment returns through September 2014

The following table shows PSPRS' investment returns, gross of fees*, versus the Russell 3000 for September 2014, the third month of the current fiscal year, with the June 2014 returns included for comparison:

Report PSPRS PSPRS Russell 3000 Russell 3000
Date Month End Fiscal YTD Month End Fiscal YTD
6/30/2014 0.78% 13.82% 2.51% 25.22%

7/31/2014 -0.67% -0.67% -1.97% -1.97%
8/31/2014 1.73% 1.05% 4.20% 2.14%
9/30/2014 -1.53% -0.49% -2.08% 0.01%

There is usually about a two-month lag in PSPRS reporting its investment returns.  This is usually not a problem, but with such volatile markets, it would be nice to see a shorter reporting time.

If there is a pattern for market returns for the current fiscal year, it is that there is no pattern. Year-to-date returns should return to positive since October 2014 returned 2.75%, though daily returns were a roller coaster ride.  November 2014 has had much less volatility and is up about 1.0% month-to-date.

* Returns, gross of fees, are used because PSPRS usually does not report returns, net of fees, except on the final report of the fiscal year.  The past two years fees have reduced the final annual reported return by about one-half of a percent.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

PSPRS actuarial reports by employer are now available

PSPRS actuarial reports by employer for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2014 can now be found here.  These reports give the current funded ratios and contribution rates for fiscal year 2016, which starts July 1, 2015, for each individual employer.  PSPRS had previously posted the aggregate report, but each employer will have a different funded ratio and contribution rate depending on their own particular situation.