California has done some really really stupid things (like a tax credit for first time homebuyers), but the NYT did the state and its readers a disservice in going after California's pension fund liabilities. The basic story is that if you assume a 4.14 nominal rate of return on pension fund assets, then the state's pension liabilities look really really bad.
The big question that readers should ask is, so what?
There have been few people who have been more critical of assuming exaggerated market returns than me, but 4.14 percent nominal? Anyone want to take a bet that California's pension funds will do better than this?
Look, the market has plummeted from its prior levels. This is good news for future returns. Lower price to earnings ratios open the door for higher future returns. The logic is simple: you are paying much less for each dollar of profits. For this reason, the assumption of 4.14 percent average nominal returns (that gives us just over 2.0 percent real, assuming a 2.0 percent inflation rate) is ridiculously low.
Suppose we assume that pension liabilities grow at the nominal rate of 5 percent a year. If we sum the liabilities over 40 years, using a 4.14 percent discount rate gives a 70 percent higher cost than using a 7.0 percent discount rate. Stocks have historically provided a real return of 7 percentage points above the inflation rate, so assuming a nominal return of 7.0 percent for the mixed portfolio is hardly unreasonable.
In short, the story of outsized pension liabilities in this article is driven largely by a ridiculous assumptions about pension returns. There is no reason whatsoever that the state of California should use this 4.14 percent discount rate in assessing its pension liabilities. This calculation would lead it to exaggerate its pension liabilities and therefore raise taxes or cut pensions and/or other spending unnecessarily.