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Archive for May, 2017

If your financial adviser suggested that you invest in an arbitrage arrangement but offered no information concerning the risks, would you?

That is exactly what State Treasurer John Chiang and Governor Brown want us to do with $6 Billion of our money.

The plan to allow Calpers to borrow from the state’s short-term investment pool to pre-pay the state’s contribution to the pension plan is inherently risky. It is a pig-in-a-poke without a thorough independent analysis. Did Chiang earn his degree from the Robert Rizzo School of Management?

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office: “…the administration is asking the Legislature to approve a large commitment of public resources with insufficient consideration. The administration has provided few of the legal or quantitative analyses that the Legislature should expect when receiving a request of this magnitude and complexity.”

The LAO went on to state: “Instead, the administration plans to conduct this analysis after the Legislature has approved the loan.”

The budget deadline is fast approaching; it all but appears that the proposal is going to be forced through with scant analysis and even less time for the public to voice concerns to their legislators.

The governor is motivated by pure selfish politics, but there is no excuse for someone in Chiang’s position to advocate for its passage. He should know better.

It is possible the deal might not even be legal.  It can be construed as the equivalent of a pension obligation bond, which would be unconstitutional based on a 2003 case.

The administration does not care.  Meeting the June 15th budget deadline is all they care about…that, and papering over an unsustainable pension plan rather than negotiating for structural improvements requiring higher employee contributions.

To make matters worse, the rate the state wants to charge Calpers smacks of a sweetheart deal.  The duration of the loan will likely be eight years, yet a rate approximating short-term US Treasuries may be used (estimated by the LAO to be less than 1%) .  Something approaching the 10-year yield of 2.25% would be a far better match.

But that would make Chiang’s optimism more suspect. He is anticipating a long-term savings of $11 Billion, provided Calpers hits its a targeted return of 7%, overwhelmingly considered way too high by the investment community.

A major market correction would completely destroy his assumptions and make the unfunded liability worse.

You don’t play games when guaranteed benefits are on the line.  Calpers is already doing just that.  It takes an aggressive investment strategy to hit 7%, which translates to higher risk. Chiang and Brown would be raising the ante.

In other words, it is an attempt to bet their way out of the pension time bomb, just as  gambling addicts double their bets in the face of a losing streak.

 

 

 

 

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In a recent news release, State Treasurer John Chiang said:  “…the Governor and I are partnering on a fiscally prudent plan to buy down our pension debt using what Albert Einstein once called ‘the eighth wonder of the world,’ compound interest. ”

It’s not Albert Einstein he should be crediting, but Bernie Madoff.

The plan calls for shifting $6B from the state’s short-term investment pool, where it earns less than a point, to Calpers, where it could conceivably earn 7% (the most recent 20-year average).  The difference in earnings could generate $11B over the next 20 years for the financially challenged fund.

The math is theoretically correct, but it is a classic example of papering over a problem.

Just as Madoff used cash from recent investors to pay established clients, Chiang is shortchanging the needs of the rest of the state by denying access to these monies for general purposes.

He is also ignoring the risks of shifting funds from a risk-free pool to a highly volatile investment fund.  As I have stated before, the world economy has undergone major structural change over the last few decades.  Increased competition, which has been generally good for consumers, has also heightened investment risk.  Chiang should know that past performance is no indicator of future returns, especially when the past has little resemblance to the present. Whipsawing is a more appropriate description of Calpers performance in more contemporary times.

Rather than coming to grips with the real problem, that is, insufficient employee contributions to cover very generous benefits, Chiang wants to play a shell game. Yes, even assuming the 5.1% rate for the most recent 10 years, more cash would be generated, but any improvement in returns is lost to the general fund.

Chiang should be considering altering the investment strategy of the short-term pool.  A targeted rate of 1.5 points (about one-third more than  the current return) could be accomplished without undue exposure to additional risk. It would be much safer than allowing Calpers to roll the dice and pray we do not have a major economic crisis.

But regardless, he is re-purposing cash and locking it up at a time when the state has other pressing needs.

Once the $6B is transferred to Calpers, it becomes political capital benefiting only one segment of the state’s population – public employees.

But then, they are who Brown and Chiang represent.

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Governor Brown is making an appeal to the Trump administration to transfer oversight of environmental reviews of the high-speed rail project from the federal government to the state.

If this strategy sounds familiar, it is.  The City of Los Angeles allows developers to arrange their own EIRs.

Brown has a vested personal interest in pushing HSR.  It’s his vanity project.  It will probably put the state in a position where it will have to subsidize the system, in direct violation of Proposition 1A, as approved by the voters in 2008.

He and his colleagues, along with other politically connected interest groups who stand to benefit from the most expensive folly in history, are hell-bent to complete the project, regardless of the cost and the diversion of funds from far more critical needs.  Do not think for one moment that the state will take an unbiased approach in evaluating the results of an EIR under its control.

There is no private investor interest in the project.  That is unlikely to change even if an initial segment, constructed over the easiest terrain and serving markets with the least possible need, were to be completed. The risks of tunneling through faults in the San Gabriel Mountains, essential for fulfilling the promise of service between San Francisco and Los Angeles, will be too risky to attract sensible investors unless the state were to offer substantial guarantees and establish reserve funds.  Such a move would put California on the hook for losses. Like a subsidy, that would contradict taxpayer protections in 1A.

CAHSR will collapse under its own weight and from voter frustration with pouring more money in what will be a system which grossly underdelivers for the costs.

There is no scenario where it can be built and operated within the limits of Prop 1A.  The sooner the governor and legislature put aside their personal ambition and admit it will be a fiscal failure, the more likely the state will be able to afford far more pressing capital improvements.

There is much work to do; we do not have endless sources of affordable debt and tax revenue. Choices have to be made, and HSR is near the bottom.

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Illegal sources of income are subject to federal and state income tax; so, why would I object to the City of Los Angeles collecting Transitory Occupancy Tax (TOT) revenue from illegal short-term rentals, such as Air BnB?

In the former case, taxation does not exempt scofflaws from prosecution.  If anything, tax compliance requirements are useful tools to bring criminals to justice or enhance their sentences . If Al Capone were alive, he would agree.

The latter is different – it creates an impediment to enforcing zoning laws.  A cash-strapped city like Los Angeles will not want to bite the hands that feed it.  It is the equivalent of bribery.  Pay to play, and the city will not pursue enforcement of residential zoning codes. The City Council and mayor will drag their feet, if not completely overlook, the protection of honest residents’ right to enjoy their neighborhoods without the adverse effects associated  with revolving door occupancy.

In his annual budget letter to the mayor and City Council, City Controller Ron Galperin weighed in.  He said the city must be “vigilant to consider the potential TOT revenue impacts to the general fund.”

As I read between the lines of his statement, that’s not really an endorsement of the policy. If anything, it is a carefully nuanced assessment.  Ron is the controller and he is required to advise the city on any financial matter – good or bad.

But zoning violations should not be ignored just because the cash generated by the TOT partially mitigates the effects of the city’s reckless approach in managing its budget. Please note that Galperin also emphasized the importance of a prudent and well-balanced budget. Ignoring laws does not meet the definition of prudent.

It’s a good thing that a city-sanctioned, short-term rental scheme did not exist when Scarface Al was around. No telling how much more power he would have wielded in Chicago.

We now face an army of non violent mini-Als, no baseball bats or Chicago pianos, but armed with industry lawyers and plenty of money.

 

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Mayor Eric Garcetti caught some flak in a recent LA Times article for failing to mention the $1.1B the city must pay to fund employee pensions.

But let’s be fair: the Chair of the Budget and Finance Committee deserves an equal share of the criticism:

“Despite recent funding shortfalls, over long periods the performance of the pension system’s investments has met or surpassed expectations.” Council Member Paul Krekorian, as quoted in the LA Times, November 18, 2016.

This is an example of the naivete of our elected officials. Mr. Krekorian forgets, or chooses to ignore, that past performance is no indication of future returns;  the further back in time, the less relevant are the results. The 15-year return for LACERS is 6.5%; the 10-year is 5.9%. The world economy has undergone major structural changes over the 30 year period, for which the average return was 8.4%.  Projecting investment performance based on data from over 20 years ago is as useful as comparing Barry Bonds’ stats to Hank Aaron’s.

Or maybe its an acknowledgement that city officials do not represent the public as a whole, only the city employees and retirees, many of whom reside outside of the city. According to the results of a 2014 study reported by the Times, about two-thirds of city employees live elsewhere. So much for a multiplier effect. While those employees cannot vote in city elections, the unions representing them are powerful political forces.

The mayor and City Council hope to make a dent in the problem by taxing short-term, Air BnB style rentals, effectively trashing zoning in residential neighborhoods.  Certainly, a share of the new gas tax will flow to the city, along with some “legalized” pot-related revenue (it remains to be seen how the Justice Department deals with the conflict between federal and state laws).  However, the city could lose some, or all, of the surplus transfer from the DWP.

The fact remains, 20% of the general fund goes to cover the city’s pension contribution, a rate that has increased from 5% in 2002. It’s been fairly flat at around 20% for a couple of years. In 2012 it was 15%, the same for 2008, during the height of the subprime mortgage meltdown. Overall, city revenue has increased by $1.2B since Garcetti took office. With that much of an increase, one would expect the city’s contribution rate to drop considerably.  It’s an inconsistency any CEO would have to explain to a board in the form of a simple variance analysis.

It is the result of the deteriorating pension position.  While explaining what an unfunded liability means would put any general audience to sleep, it is far easier – and more understandable – to present an analysis of the contribution rate over a period of several years.  It would make the growing unsustainability of pension promises apparent in terms the public could appreciate.

I will propose to the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) to make such information a required disclosure in the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR).

Who knows – maybe Paul Krekorian would be enlightened.

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