US Pension Insurer Needs A Bailout

A Growing Shortfall

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is insuring the pensions of more than 40 million Americans employed in the private sector that have defined benefit pensions. We hadn’t been aware that it has run deficits for 12 years running, but it apparently has – and it is adding up. At the moment, the fund has a cumulative deficit of $62 billion.

It has reportedly doubled just over the past year:

The deficit run up by the federal agency that insures pensions for about 41 million Americans has nearly doubled, to $62 billion. And the agency says that without changes, its program for pension plans covering 10 million of those workers will be insolvent within 10 to 15 years.

It was the widest deficit in the 40-year history of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which has now run shortfalls for 12 straight years. The gap grew wider in recent years because the weak economy triggered more corporate bankruptcies and failed pension plans. If the trend continues, the agency could need an infusion of taxpayer funds to pay retirees, who are guaranteed their pensions by law.

The PBGC said Monday that the increased deficit was due to worsening finances of some multi-employer pension plans, which are pension agreements between labor unions and a group of companies, usually in the same industry. The $62 billion deficit reported for the year ended Sept. 30 compared with $36 billion in the previous fiscal year.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said fixing the problem is vital to the retirement security of the nation’s middle-class. Agency officials called for Congress to enact legislation submitted by President Barack Obama designed to shore up the program’s finances.

The PBGC was created in 1974 as a government insurance program for traditional employer-paid pension plans, which have become much less common in recent decades as most employers turn to retirement accounts such as 401(k)s. The traditional plans are most prevalent in industries such as auto manufacturing, steel and airlines. If an employer can no longer support its pension plan, the PBGC takes over the assets and liabilities, and pays promised benefits to retirees up to certain limits.

The agency didn’t name the multi-employer plans that it expects to run out of money or how many are involved. It said they represent a minority of the total 1,400 or so multi-employer pension plans, which cover about 10 million workers.

“Plans covering over 1 million participants are substantially underfunded, and without legislative changes, many of these plans are likely to fail,” PBGC Acting Director Alice Maroni said in a statement. The agency said in its annual report that it has “sufficient liquidity to meet its obligations for a number of years.”

The agency said the deficit in its multi-employer insurance program jumped to $42.4 billion in the budget year that ended on Sept. 30, from $8.3 billion in 2013. By contrast, the deficit in the single-employer program shrank to $19.3 billion from $27.4 billion as the economy strengthened. The PBGC reported that its pension obligations grew by $30.9 billion in fiscal 2014, to $151.5 billion. Assets used to cover those obligations increased by only $4.9 billion, to $89.8 billion.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, called the multi-employer insurance program “a ticking time bomb that will inflict a lot of pain on workers, employers, taxpayers and retirees if Congress fails to act.”

To summarize: in spite of its $62 billion deficit, the insurance fund will only be insolvent in another 10 to 15 years, ceteris paribus. Although this qualification is not mentioned above, it is an important one. What if the economy suffers another severe downturn, which seems a nigh certain outcome of the many years of bubble blowing by assorted central banks?

Even in the muddle through scenario currently assumed to continue, the fund will require a tax payer bailout (this is what “Congress needs to act” means). We wonder how the fund invests its assets, given the rather paltry growth of same (after all, it also receives fees from the companies the pension plans of which it insures).

Conclusion:

We actually come across stories bemoaning the underfunding of pension plans on a regular basis. This is a problem that not only concerns defined benefit plans. Now we learn that the insurer of these pension plans is actually busy going down the drain as well. However, the government, which is supposed to bail the insurer out, has also begun to bleed red ink in its social security fund – and that deficit is going to grow and grow for many years to come.

Medicare_&_Social_Security_Deficits_Chart

Social security: from a surplus that was spent, to a deficit that is growing inexorably year after year – click to enlarge.

If one adds the projected medicare deficits to this, things look a lot worse still:

social-security-deficits-680

Social security and medicaid deficits combined – click to enlarge.

And now there is yet another hole that needs to be plugged.

Charts by: Heritage Foundation, Wikipedia

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