Every January, the New Year sees millions of Americans make a host of resolutions; to give something up, exercise more, and of course most common of all, be more financially responsible. We look at our bank account and non-pension investments knowing that the more we save today, the more comfortable we will be when we retire.
But new research suggests that the financial cushion we spend years building up, may not be what be enough. According to a study released last week by Spectrum Group, many pension members are unaware that a significant number of public funds are underperforming and underfunded, partly at least, because they are increasingly focusing on socially or politically motivated investment strategies.
Spectrum’s study examined public pension members’ awareness of two of the nation’s largest and most politically active funds – the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the New York City Employees’ Retirement System (NYCERS). Conducted last November, the survey revealed that 63 percent and 80 percent of members respectively, “believe their funds are fully funded, even though both funds are underfunded.” Perhaps that unawareness can be explained by the fact that some of the shortfalls are covered by taxpayers: Annual taxpayer contributions have risen from $7.2 billion to $12.3 billion over the past 10 years in California and from $1.4 billion to $9.3 billion in New York since 2002.
Unsurprisingly, the research showed that pension members were not happy about these deficits when this was explained. Nearly three-quarters of CalPERS and two-third of NYCERS respondents said that managers should focus on maximizing returns and ensuring funds were able to cover their liabilities. Nationwide, members believe managers should spend only 9 percent of their time using public resources to “advance worthy political and/or social causes” and instead devote two-thirds of their efforts to meeting financial performance targets.
Ultimately, members reiterated that they want the performance of their funds to be financially driven, strongly preferring to maintain personal control over any charitable donations or socially motivated investments. That focus on financial performance is the biggest and most important takeaway from the Spectrum research – pension members simply don’t see their funds as a political tool to advance social issues and causes.
Sadly, large funds are increasingly being used for activism, with members' retirement treated as a subordinate concern. For example, CalPERS and NYCERS have both embarked on strategies investing heavily in alternative energies at the expense of more traditional energy resources, despite the fact that many renewable energy stocks continue to underperform. According to a recent report by the American Council for Capital Formation (ACCF), four of the nine worst performing funds of 238 private equity investments in the CalPERS portfolio in March 2017, focused on Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) ventures. In contrast, none of CalPERS’ 25 top-performing funds were in the ESG asset category.
As the ACCF report notes, “Over the past ten years, CalPERS has increased its ESG investing and activism while converting a $3 billion pension surplus in 2007 to a $138 billion deficit today. This performance lag comes as the value of the S&P 500 index has increased by more than 275 percent over the past eight years.”
A similar picture emerges in New York, where pension managers have consistently increased holdings in the Developed Environmental Activist class over the last three years, despite those investments consistently underperforming overall market returns. Indeed, the 12 worst-performing private equity funds in the New York City Retirement System in 2016 focused on renewable and clean energy assets.
Understandably, pension members are concerned about the investment allocations that play such a critical part in determining the quality of life in retirement. Managers have a responsibility to be transparent and accountable about the strategies behind their investment decisions, and make maximizing returns a priority. Members should be given a say in how their money is being invested and be able to challenge their managers on the decisions they make.
Spectrum’s research shows that all too often that’s simply not the case. It highlights an alarming trend among America’s large public pensions, where managers are increasingly using the funds entrusted to them for their own political agendas, with dangerous financial consequences for entire generations of workers.
As people around the country resolve to be more careful and responsible with their day-to-day finances this year, CalPERS and NYCERS managers should remind themselves of their own fiduciary responsibilities. A good New Year’s resolution for them would be to give financial performance the highest priority, and not political activism. The future of America’s public pension members depends upon them doing so.
Mark J. Perry is a scholar at The American Enterprise Institute and professor of economics at the Flint campus of The University of Michigan.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.