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Pensions Depend on Bubbles Never Popping

Summary:
We’re living in a fantasy, folks. Bubbles pop, period. The nice thing about the “wealth” generated by bubbles is it’s so easy: no need to earn wealth the hard way, by scrimping and saving capital and investing it wisely. Just sit back and let central bank stimulus push assets higher. The problem with bubble “wealth” is it’s like an addictive narcotic: now our entire pension system, public and private, is dependent on the current bubbles in stocks, real estate, junk bonds and other risk assets never popping. But a funny thing eventually happens to financial bubbles: they all pop. And when the current bubbles pop, they will gut pension reserves, projections and promises. Take a look at the chart below of taxpayer contributions to

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We’re living in a fantasy, folks. Bubbles pop, period.

The nice thing about the “wealth” generated by bubbles is it’s so easy: no need to earn wealth the hard way, by scrimping and saving capital and investing it wisely. Just sit back and let central bank stimulus push assets higher.

The problem with bubble “wealth” is it’s like an addictive narcotic: now our entire pension system, public and private, is dependent on the current bubbles in stocks, real estate, junk bonds and other risk assets never popping.

But a funny thing eventually happens to financial bubbles: they all pop. And when the current bubbles pop, they will gut pension reserves, projections and promises.

Take a look at the chart below of taxpayer contributions to Calpers, the California public pension fund. Note that in the heady days of Bubble #1, the dot-com era, enormous gains in Calpers’ stock holdings meant taxpayers’ contributions were a modest $159 million annually.

Based on bubbles never popping and monumental annual gains continuing forever, Calpers projected taxpayer contributions in 2010 of $6.6 billion. But since Bubble #2 had popped in 2008-09, stock market gains had cratered and as a consequence taxpayers had to pay almost four times the Calpers projection: $24.6 billion.

In a few short years, taxpayer contributions have nearly doubled, despite the outsized returns generated by Bubble #3, the largest of them all. By 2015, taxpayer contributions to Calpers totaled $45 billion, even as Calpers reaped huge gains in its stock portfolio.

So what happens to taxpayer contributions when all the asset bubbles pop?They go through the roof right when taxpayers are themselves facing staggering declines in their own personal wealth and the inevitable declines in income that accompany recessions. (What’s a recession? I thought the Fed banned those.)

Pensions Depend on Bubbles Never Popping

Here’s a chart of the three stock market bubbles. Note the current bubble is the most extreme bubble.

Pensions Depend on Bubbles Never Popping

Stock bubbles inflate on the euphoric belief that corporate profits will soar ever higher, forever and ever. But history suggests corporate profits tend to crash in global recessions and financial crises.

Pensions Depend on Bubbles Never Popping

Charles Hugh Smith
Charles Hugh Smith is an American writer and blogger. He is the chief writer for the site "Of Two Minds". Started in 2005, this site has been listed No. 7 in CNBC's top alternative financial sites. His commentary is featured on a number of sites including: Zerohedge.com., The American Conservative and Peak Prosperity. He graduated from the University of Hawaii, Manoa in Honolulu. Charles Hugh Smith currently resides in Berkeley, California and Hilo, Hawaii.

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