The Pension Fund That Ate California
CalPERS’s corruption, insider dealing, and politicized investments have overwhelmed taxpayers with debt.
After spending years dogged by unpaid debts, California labor leader Charles Valdes filed for bankruptcy in the 1990s—twice. At the same time, he held one of the most influential positions in the American financial system: chair of the investment committee for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, the nation’s largest pension fund for government workers. Valdes left the board in 2010 and now faces scrutiny for accepting gifts from another former board member, Alfred Villalobos—who, the state alleges, spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to influence how the fund invested its assets. Questioned by investigators about his dealings with Villalobos, Valdes invoked the Fifth Amendment 126 times.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY SEAN DELONAS
California taxpayers help fund CalPERS’s pensions and ultimately guarantee them, so they might wonder: How could a financially troubled former union leader occupy such a powerful position at the giant retirement system, which manages roughly $230 billion in assets? The answer lies in CalPERS’s three-decade-long transformation from a prudently managed steward of workers’ pensions into a highly politicized advocate for special interests. Unlike most government pension funds, CalPERS has become an outright lobbyist for higher member benefits, including a huge pension increase that is now consuming California state and local budgets. CalPERS’s members, who elect representatives to the fund’s board of directors, ignored concerns over Valdes’s suitability because they liked how he fought for those plusher benefits.
CalPERS has also steered billions of dollars into politically connected firms. And it has ventured into “socially responsible” investment strategies, making bad bets that have lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Such dubious practices have piled up a crushing amount of pension debt, which California residents—and their children—will somehow have to repay.