In this modern mobile, global economy, few workers can honestly show a full curriculum vitae without admitting to being fired at least once. Sacrifices must be made – for the profit margins not being ample enough, a client’s displeasure, a supervisor’s ego, occasionally even someone is fired who deserves it – and we have all had our turn as the fatted ram on the altar of the pagan gods of business. I might not have the best tale, but it ranks up there fairly high. I became untouchable to mainstream editors by telling the truth.
The last article I ever attempted to publish via mainstream media was on public pensions. The pension of a public employee – teacher, firefighter, police officer – is ostensibly the biggest reason to pick public over private sector, as public pensions are generous, offer earlier retirement ages and double-dipping, and are protected by state Constitutions in some locations. In 2010, I put together facts to show that these pensions were being woefully – deliberately – underfunded.
The scam is a simple one. Like all cons, it relies on the naivety of the mark. Public pension funds are invested in the markets. The income produced through this investment portfolio is rolled back into the pension fund to pay future obligations, and the state or municipal pays forth whatever the difference is between actual portfolio earnings and total projected pension costs.
Or, that’s how most people think it works. In reality, the pension fund managers estimate “projected earnings”, and the state funds the rest (sometimes, unless something really important comes up in the budget, in which case they’ll get back to you next year… promise). Two years ago, my eye caught what appeared to be a discrepancy. Pension managers were posting projected earnings of seven, eight, even nine percent in a market experiencing a years-long meltdown. Anyone in the market already knows what I spotted then – those projected returns were laughably unrealistic.
The briefest search proves just how unrealistic. Calpers – the California public pension system – showed a return as low as 1%. This year, Colorado’s pension fund earned 1.9%. Due to the miracle of compounded returns, a DPD beat cop has had *21% of his pension evaporated by fuzzy math over the last four years. Aaaannd… it’s gone. Poof!
Wonder who Denver’s police call when they get robbed by the very people who employ them?
We might not know for years, actually, as this topic has been verboten to mainstream media outlets until very recently. Journalism has long been known as the “fourth estate” – a reference to the three branches of government, and the ultimate check-and-balance being a voting populace kept well-informed by the press. This system fails when all four branches collude to keep voters in the dark.
My working relationship with editors slowly eroded as the economy imploded. My calls on the housing market’s imminent collapse, predicting student loans as the next bubble, articles on HFTs turning our markets into casinos and regulatory agency capture… Sometimes, it is better to be wrong than to be correct when no one wants you to be. That what I wrote was true, didn’t matter nearly as much as whether editors perceived their readers as being capable of handling the truth.
So, the truth about pensions was not published. For your own good, I’m sure. Consider this story – of how one freelancer was fired from mainstream publishing for telling too much truth – when you read your daily dose of “news”.
By Jo Newton
Colorado pension official statement of returns: http://www.copera.org/pera/about/investments.htm
Biz journal analysis on Colorado pension return: http://www.pionline.com/article/20120627/DAILYREG/120629895
Biz journal on Calpers pension: http://www.bizjournals.com/triangle/morning_call/2012/07/california-pension-fund-returns-1.html
investment reports (pdf): http://www.calpers.ca.gov/index.jsp?bc=/investments/reports/home.xml
Forbes article on Calpers: http://www.forbes.com/sites/tomiogeron/2012/07/16/calpers-returns-1-for-fiscal-year/
*The 21% loss to Denver police pensions math was done with pen and paper. The above links verify a projection of 8%, a return of 1.9% for 2011, and it took me five minutes of basic math to get just under 21% (20 and big change) after four years using those official figures.