Featured Post

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...

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Different people, same foolishness: The stupidity of COLA policy comes full circle in the PSPRS reform proposal

Now that the new PSPRS reform plan is out, it might be a good time to look at the numbers, particularly as to how it will affect cost of living allowances (COLA's).  The proposed formula will award of COLA that is the lesser of a regional consumer price index (CPI) or 2% annually.  This will be the rate going forward and will be embedded in the Arizona Constitution.  Retirees will always get some type of COLA as long as there is inflation in the region.  One of the big changes is that the COLA will no longer be based on the average normal service pension, and instead, will be based each retiree's own pension benefit.  This COLA will be funded each year in the normal costs paid by employees and employers.

Since we cannot know what will happen in the future, let us look at past inflation going back to 1999 to see how retirees would have fared if the proposed COLA reform had been in place since 1999.  I used 1999 since PSPRS only has reports going back to 1998.  The inflation figures are as of June of each year.  The chart uses the national CPI, not the regional CPI, though if I were to speculate, I would guess that the regional CPI is lower than the national CPI.  Regardless, here is a comparison of the benefits with actual inflation and the proposed COLA reform:

               Actual         New      Reform        New
Year      Inflation     Benefit     COLA       Benefit
1999       2.00%        $2,432     2.00%        $2,432
2000       3.70%        $2,522     2.00%        $2,480
2001       3.20%        $2,602     2.00%        $2,530
2002       1.10%        $2,631     1.10%        $2,558
2003       2.10%        $2,686     2.00%        $2,609
2004       3.30%        $2,775     2.00%        $2,661
2005       2.50%        $2,844     2.00%        $2,714
2006       4.30%        $2,967     2.00%        $2,769
2007       2.70%        $3,047     2.00%        $2,824
2008       5.00%        $3,199     2.00%        $2,880
2009       -1.40%      $3,154      0.00%        $2,880
2010       1.10%        $3,189     1.10%        $2,912
2011       3.60%        $3,304     2.00%        $2,970
2012       1.70%        $3,360     1.70%        $3,021
2013       1.80%        $3,420     1.80%        $3,075
2014       2.10%        $3,492     2.00%        $3,137
2015       0.10%        $3,496     0.10%        $3,140

Increase                    $1,112                       $756
Average   2.29%                        1.74%

I used a starting monthly benefit of $2,384, which was the average normal retirement benefit at the end of fiscal year (FY) 1999.  As can be seen, using the proposed COLA, a retiree would have been making $3,140/month after 17 years, which is $356 less than the actual cost of inflation.  Over a year this would mean a loss of $4,272, or that some goods that could have been purchased in 1999 would have to be foregone in 2015.  This equates to the retiree having only about 90% of the purchasing power in 2015 that he had in 1999.  Inflation averaged 2.29% over the 17-year period, while the retiree received only an average of 1.74% a year.

I projected the numbers forward for another eight years, which assumes that our hypothetical retiree lives for 25 years after retirement.  This is what we get:
              Projected       New       Reform      New
Year       Inflation      Benefit     COLA     Benefit
2016       2.29%         $3,581     2.00%      $3,203
2017       2.29%         $3,668     2.00%      $3,267
2018       2.29%         $3,757     2.00%      $3,332
2019       2.29%         $3,848     2.00%      $3,399
2020       2.29%         $3,942     2.00%      $3,467
2021       2.29%         $4,037     2.00%      $3,536
2022       2.29%         $4,135     2.00%      $3,607
2023       2.29%         $4,190     2.00%      $3,679

After 25 years, the retiree has about 88% of the purchasing power he had in 1999.  For another comparison, this is what retirees actual got between 1999 and 2015 with the excess earnings formula:

1999    $81.95           2008    $134.34
2000    $87.37           2009    $138.66
2001    $93.24           2010    $146.74
2002    $98.17           2011    $152.84
2003    $102.53         2012    $159.13
2004    $111.90         2013    $121.19
2005    $116.82         2014    $65.20
2006    $121.76         2015    $0.00
2007    $127.06         Total     $1,858.90

This total was $747 more than the actual cost of inflation and $1,103 more than what the proposed COLA change would have paid.  Under the excess earnings formula, our retiree would be making $4,243 in 2015 and would be 21% ahead of the inflation.  Since the excess earnings formula used the average normal benefit to calculate the annual PBI, someone making less than that average would be even further ahead of inflation, while someone making more would be less far ahead of inflation.

So the excess earnings formula generally put retirees ahead of inflation, while it appears that the proposed COLA reform will leave them behind inflation.  It becomes clear that there is a disconnect here.  If you watch this video of Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona (PFFA) president Bryan Jeffries, you will see him explain that the PBI formula was put in place in 1985 because retirees were "literally living on food stamps."  I do not know how much of what Mr. Jeffries says in the video is accurate, as he also states that the PFFA was for SB 1609 when the record shows the PFFA was publicly opposed to it.  I do not know what retirees did to keep up with inflation back then, nor do I know if this PBI policy was the same excess earnings formula we have today.  Mr. Jeffries talks as if it was.  However, let's go back and see if we can get some historical perspective.

I used Inflation Calculator to obtain the inflation numbers.  If you are old enough to remember back to 1985, you probably have an idea why they had to do something for retirees then.  I will not use another chart, but if we go back 17 years from 1985, inflation averaged 6.94% over that period of time.  If we used the same $2,384 beginning salary, a retiree would need $7,408 to keep himself even with inflation.  Under the proposed COLA reform, he would have gotten the maximum 2% each year, ending with a monthly benefit of $3,338, $4,070 less than what he needed to keep up with inflation.  This retiree would have only 45% of the purchasing power he had when he began retirement.  Even if he had gotten the maximum 4% allowed under the excess earnings formula, he would only have a monthly benefit of $4,644 and 62% of his original purchasing power.

Inflation was 10.9% in 1979, 14.4% in 1980, 9.6% in 1981, 7.1% in 1982, 2.6% in 1983, and 4.2% in 1984.  I can see why retirees were having to go on food stamps in 1985.  Can you imagine being a newly retired Tier 3 member, living with this type of inflation in the future, who has to watch his purchasing power dwindle away but still having to wait up to seven years before becoming eligible for a COLA?  If you can, you see the problem here.

The policy put in place in 1985 was meant to deal with high inflation.  High inflation generally means that investment returns will increase, even on risk-free investments.  Between the years 1979 to 1984, the yields on 10-year Treasury bills were 9.10%, 10.80%, 12.57%, 14.59%, 10.46%, and 11.67%, respectively, so PSPRS could easily earn its expected rate of return of the safest of investments and much more on riskier investments.  In 1985, retirees would have been legitimately hurting financially and something needed to be done, but policymakers did not understand the problem.  They assumed the problem was that high inflation and corresponding high returns were permanent fixtures, and they designed a bad policy, the excess earnings formula, to deal with it.

Flash forward to today and we see Mr. Jeffries talking about that situation from 1985 as if it were a good-hearted mistake to help impoverished retirees.  What it was was bad policy created by short-sighted people who were either clever/greedy or ignorant/impetuous, or some combination of all of those.  Now we have people with "good intentions" trying to fix PSPRS, but they seem intent on not learning from history and want to put in place another bad policy, albeit with the opposite rationale.

Now we have people who are assuming that inflation will always be low.  How do they know that?  Because their union leaders and politicians, of course.  Let's see what happens to retirees if they are even a little off on their prediction.  If we have 3% average inflation over 17 years, a retiree will lose 15% of purchasing power, 3.5% loses 22% purchasing power, and 4.0% loses 28% purchasing power.  Who believes inflation will be limited to only 2% in the future?  Probably the same people that believed that oil would permanently stay over a $100 a barrel.

The issue here is keeping retirees even with inflation.  This cannot been done with a unchanging, fixed formula that we will function in perpetuity.  The COLA policy for Tier 3 members is especially restrictive and inequitable, and these are the PSPRS members who will have the longest time horizon.  COLA policy should be determined by an independent board with input from all stakeholders, especially retirees, based on the current rate of inflation, funded status of PSPRS, and actuarial projections.  COLA's cannot be set in 2016, when we do not know what inflation will be in 2025, much less the inflation conditions for those retiring in 2042 and beyond.   Worst of all when inflation takes off again in the future like it did in the 1970's and 1980's, there will not be an option to raise COLA's since the maximum 2% will be embedded in the Arizona Constitution.  Do you think Reason Foundation and the Arizona Legislature will be there to help us then?


  1. So our "current" brothers and sisters, threw their retired brothers and sisters under the bus!? ..to save their own butts?

  2. yup, disgusting. The worse part is none of us had any input into this!


Relevant comments are welcome, but please adhere to the following rules:

1. No profanity or vulgarity.
2. No spam or advertising.
3. No copyrighted material may be posted unless you are the copyright owner.
4. Stay on topic.
5. Disagreement is fine, but please avoid ad hominem attacks.

Comments reflect the views of the authors alone, and do not reflect the opinion of this website.