Taxpayer Bailout of Underfunded Pension Plans

Over dinner last night with friends, my husband told a joke about Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton (or whomever you want to designate as fact-challenged individuals). The hotel heiress asks "Which is closer to us - Florida or the moon?" The reality star replies - "Hello, can you see Florida from here?" Unfortunately, this type of silliness has reared its head often over the years with regard to the topic of promising too much and funding too little. The math just does not work. To the logical observer, this flight of fantasy was always destined to self-destruct. It was more a question as to how long the downward spiral would take for impacted U.S. and non-U.S. government plans.

On July 27, 2006, I wrote "Tea Party Redux: State Pensions in Turmoil." It was blatantly clear that trouble was heading our way. Since then, headlines about retirement plan gaps continue to dominate the news.

In what could be a bellwether situation, the State of Illinois wants to address a shortfall that is referred to as "the biggest in the U.S" and is fighting the court system to be empowered to do so. See "Illinois Fights Court Block of $111 Billion Deficit Fix" by Andrew Harris (Bloomberg, November 27, 2014). In "Why Illinois pension reform may be constitutional" (Crain's Chicago Business, December 6, 2014), Joe Cahill explains that "important state interests" may justify the limiting of pension contracts that are deemed constitutional and therefore inviolable. He references Felt v. Board of Trustees. Those who disagree that reform is legally possible suggest that taxpayer hikes and/or reduced overall municipal spending are inevitable.

Now it appears that U.S. lawmakers may have their sights set on private pension plans too. In "Congress could soon allow pension plans to cut benefits for current retirees" (December 4, 2014), Washington Post journalist Michael A. Fletcher describes a move that, if enacted, would see lower payouts for plan participants of multi-employer plans in distress. The alternative is to have the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation ("PBGC") take over any failed plans. As stated in "Solutions not Bailouts" (February 2013), Randy G. Defrehn and Joshua Shapiro write that benefits would be lowered anyhow in the event of a PBGC assumption of plans deemed as insolvent. In "The lame-duck Congress plots to undermine retiree pensions," Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Hiltzik urges readers to stay tuned as the December 11, 2014 vote on an omnibus spending bill may contain language that, if passed into law, would snip dollars from union retirement arrangements. He quotes advocates of defined benefit plans as pushing for careful deliberation instead of rushing ahead.

Expect lots of changes in 2015 and thereafter. The pension crisis (at least for some sponsors and their employees) is not going away anytime soon. In the meantime, smart cookies are invited to the negotiations table. The worst thing that could happen is to ignore reality. Leave that to Kim and Paris. 

A Pension Rock and a Hard Place

Not surprisingly, the conversations about pension reform are getting louder and taking place more often. Calls for further transparency, political posturing and headlines regarding the link between municipal debt service and questions about the contractual nature of pension IOUs are three of the many factors that are being hotly debated, with no end in sight. Interested parties are invited to read "Muni Bonds, Pension Liabilities and Investment Due Diligence" by Dr. Susan Mangiero, Dr. Israel Shaked and Mr. Brad Orelowitz, CPA. Published by the American Bankruptcy Institute, the authors bring attention to the fact that courts are making decisions about critical issues such as whether creditors, in distress, can move ahead of public pension plan participants. Click here to read more about the article and the connection between retirement plan promises and municipal bond credit risk.

Others are approaching the topic of public and corporate pension plan obligations from the perspective of younger workers being asked to subsidize seniors. In "Why We Need to Change the Conversation about Pension Reform" (Financial Analysts Journal, 2014), Keith Ambachtsheer writes that "Pension plan sustainability requires intergenerational fairness." He adds that suggestions such as lengthening the time over which an unfunded liability can be amortized or assuming more investment risk "effectively pass the problem on to the next generation once again."

Legislators are slowing starting to act, in large part because they cannot afford not to do so. According to Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Dawsey, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has spent his summer with constituents, holding town hall meetings to explain his decisions about pension plan funding. See "Christie Plays Pension Issue Beyond N.J." (August 9-10, 2014). On August 1, 2014, he signed Executive Order 161 to facilitate the creation of a special group that is tasked with making recommendations to his office about tackling "these ever growing entitlement costs."

New Jersey is not alone. Prairie State politicos are attempting to forge reform. In "4 reasons you should care about pension reform in Illinois" (July 25, 2014, Chicago Sun Times reporter Sydney Lawson explains that the $175.7 billion owed to participants and bond investors will cost every taxpayer about $43,000 if paid today. According to its website, the Better Government Association estimates that replenishing numerous police and fire retirement plans in Cook County will "require tax hikes, service cuts or both."

The Big Apple retirement crisis  is no less massive. New York Times journalists David W. Chen and Mary Williams Walsh write that "the city's pension hole just keeps getting bigger, forcing progressively more significant cutbacks in municipal programs and services every year." A smaller asset base and decision-making that occurs across five separately managed funds are described as trouble spots for Mayer Bill de Blasio. Noteworthy is the mention of an investigation by Benjamin M. Lawsky, head of the Department of Financial Services, that seeks to understand how service providers were selected to work with New York City pension plans and the level of compensation they receive. See "New York City Pension System Is Strained by Costs and Politics" (August 3, 2014).

Curious about the extent of this New York City and New York State focused investigation, I asked one of my researchers to file a Freedom of Information Act request in order to obtain details. We are awaiting the receipt of meaningful results. So far, we are being told that information is not available to send. What is known so far, based on an October 8, 2013 letter from Superintendent Lawsky to Comptroller of the State of New York, Thomas P. DiNapoli, is that questions will or are being asked about retirement plan enterprise risk management and "[c]ontrols to prevent conflicts of interest, as well as the use of consultants, advisory councils and other similar structures."

Pandering for votes by promising lots of goodies may not be a successful recipe for reforming pensions that need help. Moreover, judges are in the driver's seat once a dispute about contractual status is litigated. In a recent opinion, a federal court of appeals ruling about lowering cost of living adjustments overturned an earlier decision that such an action was unconstitutional. See "Baltimore wins round in battle over police, firefighters pension reform" (The Daily Record, August 6, 2014). Click to download the August 6, 2014 opinion in Cherry v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, No. 13-1007, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Like Homer's Odysseus who was caught between Scylla and Charybdis, policy-makers, union leaders and heads of taxpayer groups are navigating some very rough waters indeed. We have not seen the end of these heated debates about what to do with underfunded municipal pension plans. Trying to align interests of seemingly disparate groups is only the beginning.

California Pension Reform

With one of the largest pension systems in the United States, California reform has been a topic of conversation for awhile. Last week, the state senate voted 36-1 to position massive changes for a final okay from Governor Jerry Brown. A combination of salary caps (used to determine pension benefits), increased retirement age and higher contributions from employees is expected to save taxpayers billions of dollars every year. Some critics say that this is a drop in the bucket and that much more is needed.

According to "Calif. Lawmakers Pass Pension Reform Measures" by Erin Coe (, August 31, 2012), Governor Brown had hoped for broader changes to "rein in rising retiree health care costs," create a 401(k) type retirement plan for new employees and allow the state's pension board more latitude in decision-making. 

Click to download the 60-page document that lays out the details of AB  340, the California Public Employees' Pension Reform Act of 2013.

Lots of people throughout the United States are watching and hoping that change occurs quickly. Plan participants want assurances about promises made. Taxpayers are groaning about possible hikes to cover what they describe as employee benefit plan largesse. Municipal bond investors are nervous about defaults.

Reason Magazine's Steven Greenhut writes that Vallejo's attempts to restructure were followed by "Stockton, then Mammoth Lakes, and now San Bernardino and soon possibly Compton," with pension and health care plan participants often showing up as creditors.According to "Battle over pension debt looms in San Bernardino bankruptcy" by Tim Reid (Reuters, August 30, 2012), the California Public Employees' Retirement System ("CalPERS") is listed as San Bernardino's largest creditor. A sign of possible trouble ahead, what is at stake depends on who you ask. CalPERS estimates that is owed $319.5 million in contrast to the city's number of $143.3 million.

Earlier this year, Senator Orrin Hatch's office published a report that showed that state and local pension plans with funding ratios below eighty percent had risen from about five percent in 2000 to forty percent in 2006. The study adds that eleven states will likely exhaust their defined benefit plan assets by 2020. The report suggests that heightened disclosures on the part of state and local plan sponsors and a change from a defined benefit plan arrangement to something else merit emphasis before taxpayers are asked to pay more. Click to read "State and Local Government Defined Benefit Pension Plans: The Pension Debt Crisis that Threatens America," United States Senate Committee on Finance, January 2012.

Notably, this blogger addressed the issue of public pension plan funding on July 27, 2006 in "Tea Party Redux: State Pensions in Turmoil." The reference to "tea party" was to a historical event and not the political party.

Public Pension Reform is Seen as Urgent

According to "State Pension Reform, 2009-2011" by Ron Snell (National Conference of State Legislatures, March 2012), all but seven states have made "major changes" in order to lower pension fund obligations. Increasing employee contributions, reducing employer contributions and/or tightening up age and service requirements that dictate when someone can retire are a few of the reforms underway. Modifying how benefits are calculated, offering limited benefits to new employees and replacing defined benefit plans with defined contribution plans are a few of the action steps taken by legislators who worry that there is not enough money to maintain the status quo.

For a state by state listing of the types of retirement plans in place, check out the "Checklist of State DB, DC, and Other Retirement Plans" by Ronald K. Snell (National Conference of State Legislatures, January 2012).

While the pace of change has been noticeably faster in the last few years than ever before, budget reformers still angst about whether various courts will prevent reform by insisting that benefits are guaranteed pursuant to the terms of a given state's constitution and therefore cannot be altered.

Palm Beach Post reporter John Kennedy reports that workers in the Florida Retirement System may not have to add 3 percent to their pensions if the highest court in the state rules that doing so would violate its governing dictates. See "Challenge of Florida's forced pension contribution goes to Supreme Court" (March 16, 2012). In "Pension-deal danger: Vote twist leaves door open to lawsuit," New York Post reporters Fredric U. Dicker and Erik Kriss explain that a new pension tier system, signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo on March 16, 2012 may face a legal block by "Senate Democrats or one of the public-employee unions that are trying to fight this." As described in "Untouchable Pensions May Be Tested in California" by Mary Williams Walsh (New York Times, March 16, 2012), cities in the Golden State may be barred from enacting reform because of binding provisions in the state constitution. Whether a financially troubled municipality that files for bankruptcy protection will be subject to federal laws - with state mandates taking a legal back seat - is another "hold your breath" issue.

In "Tea Party Redux: State Pensions in Turmoil" by Susan Mangiero (, July 27, 2006), the question was asked whether taxpayers will "enough." With numerous headlines squarely focused on budget crises related to benefit plan funding, "enough" may not come soon enough for some.

U.S. Postal Service Pension Suspends $800 MM Contribution

Let me start out by saying that the persons at my local post office are courteous, helpful and generally terrific people. That said, like most, I was surprised at the news about a suspension of nearly a billion dollars owed to this federal pension plan.

I guest blogged about this issue for CNBC on June 23, 2011. My commentary is reproduced below.

No Pension Checks for the Postman to Deliver?

The mail gets delivered in rain or snow but it might not include pension checks for postal workers. According to a June 22, 2011 press release from the United States Postal Service, it intends to suspend what it owes to its pension plan as a way to “conserve cash and preserve liquidity.” By doing so, it frees up $800 million in cash for the current fiscal year.

This federal plan sponsor is not alone.

In what seems like an unending stream of bad news on the government pension front, countless cities and states are making adjustments to their existing pension and health care plans for retirees.

Two legislative bills in Minnesota would freeze public pensions as of July 1. Following an arbitration, City of Detroit policemen will see smaller payouts. Florida teachers are suing over a new retirement income tax. Congress is seeking more transparency about public pension plan IOUs and has talked about how large scale municipal bankruptcies related to retirement plan liabilities could adversely impact the financial landscape.

While some sources say that the underfunding crisis is improving for states and cities, others angst that the problem is getting worse and that major reforms are needed now. As we head into an election year, politicos are atwitter about the funding gaps associated with entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. Add underfunded public and corporate plans to the mix and things get scary fast.

Some retirement plans are trying to make up for losses by investing in riskier assets. Absent a robust risk management infrastructure, taking on more risk could worsen funding problems later on.

There are solutions but someone has to lead the way. Raising taxes and/or rescinding benefits is unhappy news to voters. More likely to occur is a legislative mandate to pass the retirement plan hot potato onto Corporate America.

Unfortunately, individuals are unlikely to escape unscathed. The tax man cometh almost surely. Joe Q Citizen may end up footing the bill for someone else’s pension plan even if his doesn’t offer one. The gap in funding for entitlements, public plans and personal savings makes for a trifecta with few winners unless material changes are made soon.

Note to Readers:

Public Pensions, Politics and Risk Management

According to "Florida governor wants cheaper state pensions" by Michael Connor (Reuters, February 1, 2011), Governor Rick Scott wants to put public employees into 401(k) plans and migrate away from traditional defined benefit plans. Though the state's system is "relatively strong financially," the article goes on to say that local town halls "pay between 9 and 20 percent of each worker's salary for pensions" and that "Florida's 572,000 state and local-government workers now see no paycheck deductions for a fixed-benefit pension program, which supports 319,000 retirees."

Expect more to come after Governor Scott puts his budget to the Florida taxpayers on Monday, February 7, 2011.

Notably, risk management is not any less important for defined contribution plans. To the contrary, a quick survey of some of the litigation underway is focused on 401(k) issues relating to fees, portfolio selection choices, investor education and much more. Moreover, greater pressures for reform are going to force enhanced transparency and allow little time and latitude for decision-makers to focus on prudently realizing risk-adjusted returns. The last thing a board member, lawmaker, regulator or politician wants to address is a worsening retirement IOU situation when taxpayers, shareholders, employees and other stakeholders are grumpy and impatient.

If you did not get to read it when originally published, click to download "Pension Risk Management: Necessary and Desirable" by Susan Mangiero, PhD, CFA, FRM, Journal of Compensation and Benefits, March/April 2006.

Editor's Note: Fiduciary Leadership, LLC is the new name for BVA, LLC.

Taxpayers and Public Pensions - Comments

Regarding today's post entitled "Taxpayers and Public Pensions," several people asked for air time. I've included their comments below. If you are interested in rebutting or adding a similar opinion, email

"All public sector retirement plans should be the same. We need to cure the actuarial issues caused by retirees thinking they can contribute relatively minuscule amounts for 20 or 25 or 30 years and retire for 30 or 40 or even 50 years thereafter. It can't be done and we are seeing that now. Retirement before age 65 years should be discouraged. It is important to increase the number of years of participants' contributions and reduce the number of years associated with paying out benefits. I further recommend a maximum payout of $5,000 per month, regardless of sick days, overtime, unused vacation or any other nonsense included in the benefit calculation. Remember that the maximum payout for Social Security recipients  is about $3,000 per month."

"Civil Servant pensions are extraordinarily generous (with rich formulas, early retirement ages, and post-retirement COLA increases) and therefor extraordinarily EXPENSIVE. The total cost (as a level annual percentage of cash pay) of civil servant pensions is typically 25+% for non-safety workers and 35+% for Safety workers (due to an even richer benefits). This compares to a private sector pension that generally costs the employer about 7.5% of an employee's pay. With cash pay in the public sector now equal to or greater than cash pay in comparable Private Sector jobs, there is ZERO justification for ANY (yes, ANY) larger public sector pension benefits. Therefore, the cost of public sector pension in excess of the 7.5% offered in the private sector should be paid-for by the EMPLOYEES .... NOT the taxpayers. Hence, non-safety workers should contribute 25% less 7.5% or 17.5% of each person's pay. Safety workers should contribute 35% less 7.5% or 27.5% of each person's pay. Now, do I really believe this will even happen? No, of course not. My point is to demonstrate how ridiculously EXCESSIVE the pensions are for public workers and to state that the best (and very NECESSARY) solution is an immediate reduction in the BENEFIT LEVEL of at least 50+% for FUTURE years of service for CURRENT (yes CURRENT) workers. The taxpayers have been hoodwinked long enough."

Taxpayers and Public Pensions

As I've long maintained, THE pension dilemma of an aging population, low savings and greater liabilities is not simply a matter of economics. No politician wants to rescind benefits and/or raise taxes yet the reality in the United States and around the world is obvious. Taxpayers will increasingly force change by voting for candidates who promise reform.

A few days ago, I was sent a press release by the California Foundation For Fiscal Responsibility and was given permission to reprint it here. If you want to provide a countervailing opinion, send an email to with a few paragraphs stating your position. Let this important debate continue!

Release: January 28, 2011

Contact: Marcia Fritz

Should Public Employees Pay Half

the Cost of their Retirement Benefits?


SACRAMENTO – Continuing its online conversation about pension reform, today asked the public to share their views on a second issue central to the debate over public pension reform:

Should public employees pay half the cost of their retirement benefits?

“Earlier this month, we announced that will host an online conversation about pension reform,” said Marcia Fritz, president of California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility (CFFR). “Our first Question of the Week asked if public and private employees should have similar retirement plans. A related question is whether government employees should contribute half the cost of their retirement plans. I’ll be thrilled if the responses are as thoughtful and instructive.” will circulate the Question of the Week and periodic updates to those who sign up on its Web site. Future questions include:

  • Should public safety employees have different retirement plans than other government employees?
  • Should taxpayers pay healthcare costs for the lifetime of an employee who retires from government service?
  • Should an employee’s unused vacation and sick pay be considered when his/her annual pension is calculated?  

On January 6, CFFR posted two alternative pension reform approaches on its Web site and invited the public to comment. Proposals from others will be posted for public comment as they become available. CFFR is reaching out to economists, legal scholars, financial analysts and pension managers to analyze pension reform proposals and contribute to the online library. “California can’t solve its fiscal problems until it solves its public pension crisis. Whether lawmakers or voters do the job, we need a plan that has been thoroughly analyzed and debated by voters, stakeholders and experts,” Fritz said.


Not 21 But Lots of Great Opportunities Ahead

A man is not old until his regrets take the place of dreams.
- - - - John Barrymore, "Good Night, Sweet Prince" 1943

If Betty White can rock Saturday Night Live to its highest ratings at the age of 88 and Sunset Daze is media gold for the senior reality television set, there is hope for anyone who wants to stay in the game rather than "retire" from the mainstream. In "Famous folks launched careers after 50" by CNN's Ethan Trex (May 16, 2010), more than a few individuals have realized great commercial success as seniors, including Colonel Sanders (of Kentucky Chicken fame), President Ronald Reagan and Takichiro Mori (twice reported by Forbe's as the world's richest man "with a net worth of $13 billion").

Good news is everywhere for the gray haired set if you accept current research about preservation and growth. In "Creativity and successful brain aging: Going with the flow" by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD (March 23, 2010), having friends, enjoying leisure activities such as bridge or dancing and developing a "flexible mental attitude" are three hallmarks of a productive and enjoyable "later life."

At a time when the world is getting older, employers are challenged with managing the costs of providing post-employment retirement benefits as well as having skilled and experienced workers in place.

In a summary slide show, Business Insider excerpts from the 2009 EU Ageing Report to paint a sober picture of how age impacts gross domestic product ("GDP"), assuming that retired persons truly exit the economy and are given no opportunity to continue working in some fashion. (Keep in mind that official statistics do not fully capture actual employment.)

Country Pension Cost compared to GPD in 2007 Estimated Pension Cost compared to GPD in 2035 Estimated Change in Working Age Population by 2020
Netherlands 6.6% 10% -4.3%
Luxembourg 8.7% 17% -1.1%
Denmark 9.1% 11% -4.3%
Bulgaria 8.3% 9% -5.6%
Czech Republic 7.8% 7.6% -8.3%
Belgium 10% 14% -3.5%
Poland 12% 9.3% -5.7%
Hungary 11% 12% -5.0%
Italy 14% 15% -3.0%
Sweden 9.5% 9.4% -6.0%
Malta 7.2% 9.7% -7.1%
Greece 12% 19% -3.9%
France 13% 14% -5.5%
Finland 10% 14% -8.5%
Slovenia 9.9% 15% -6.6%


Things are not too much better in the United States with respect to financial solvency and unfunded retirement benefits. According to "The Market Value of Public-Sector Pension Deficits" by Andrew G. Biggs (Retirement Policy Outlook, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, April 2010), "public-sector pension plans have only a 16 percent probability of being able to cover accrued benefit liabilities with current assets."

The ramifications are huge in so many ways. Increased taxes, rescinded benefits or both are vote killers so you have to know that THE demographic time bomb is going to become political radiation in short order.

Until then, if you are healthy and able to continue working or are otherwise financially independent, enjoy the good life. Way to go!

Profit Privatization and Socialization of Losses

Complex problems deserve a lively debate about potential solutions. That is why I've asked both colleagues and critics to guest blog on from time to time. Interestingly, few have taken me up on the offer (though I get plenty of emails about various posts). One person who has accepted the challenge to disturb and entice is Mr. Wayne Miller. Formerly CEO of Denali Fiduciary Management and a self-described passionate fiduciary advocate, Wayne invites readers to ponder his suggestions about how to (a) manage the current banking crisis and (b) save the U.S. Social Security system. When asked why he expended time in penning his thoughts, Wayne wrote that "there must be a very clear example as to how personal responsibility will be incorporated into a market principle-based framework that could lead us out of this storm" and move our nation away from "political expediency" in order to avoid being "condemned to stir inside the box we made for ourselves."

While Wayne and I have had more than a few lively debates about the merits of free markets, he and I agree that the improvement of investment best practices redounds to everyone's benefit. 

Read Wayne's proposal. Decide for yourself. You can sign his petition by visiting

Forbes Describes Public Pension Benefits as Rich

According to Forbes Magazine journalist Stephane Fitch, public pension participants are living the life of Riley. "Gilt-Edged Pensions" (February 16, 2009) showcases individuals who have been able to retire at a relatively young age and with a comfortable nest egg, courtesy of taxpayers, at least in part. Examples include the following:

  • Retired police offer who received a pension at age 42 worth about $2 million
  • New Jersey social studies teacher who earns $80,000 per year, pays 5.3% towards a pension, can retire at age 60 with full benefits and the ability to teach part-time thereafter
  • Florida security guards who can moonlight for private companies, with time clocked on such assignments being credited toward public pension payouts

Adding insult to injury, Fitch relies on Bureau of Labor Statistics data to suggest that a pay gap exists, in favor of public workers. He writes that "State and local government workers get paid an average of $25.30 an hour, which is 33% higher than the private sector's $19."

I'm not picking on public workers but I do think it is important to understand how much taxpayers owe now and in the future for others' benefit claims. (By the way, I think that includes Social Security and Medicare unfunded liabilities too.) Many people I know are amenable to the notion of a municipal employee receiving higher benefits if they receive lower cash wages, as compared to the private sector. However, few taxpayers want to subsidize both current and future compensation, especially if they themselves are cash strapped (self-employed, lost their job, work for a company without a retirement plan, etc).

The stage is set for continued frustration on the part of public employees (many of whom no doubt work quite hard to do a great job) versus Joe and Sally Taxpayer who have less and less disposable income to finance giant IOUs.

Editor's Note: Fitch quotes me in the article by writing that "Taxpayers are on the hook," says Susan Mangiero, who maintains, a blog highlighting pension plan issues.

Massachusetts Taxpayers Protest New Benefits

According to Boston Globe reporter Matt Viser ("Bigger pensions drawing protests," May 28, 2008), an increase in retirement benefits for teachers and state workers will cost more than $6 billion. Meant to help individuals cope with a higher cost of living, some local officials say it will cost jobs instead. With no funding and limited budgets, the money has to come from somewhere and layoffs are inevitable. Making matters worse, taxpayers argue that closed-door hearings make it impossible to understand the likely fallout for cities and towns. Critics counter that "this has been a very open, transparent discussion." Besides the obvious impact on cash flow, State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill calls attention to the bigger picture, adding that the "Legislature's approach will put the state's credit rating in jeopardy."

According to "Promises With a Price: Public Sector Retirement Benefits," Pew Center on the States, December 2007, Massachusetts has an unfunded liability in excess of $14 billion. (In contrast, the reported unfunded liability for states such as California and Illinois topples $40 billion.) According to their color coded map, Massachusetts is a blue state, meaning that its defined benefit plan funding falls between 70 and 79 percent.

Though written nearly two years ago, our blog post entitled "Tea Party Redux: State Pensions in Turmoil" (July 27, 2006) is worth a quick read. There is absolutely no doubt that retirement issues will occupy more and more of lawmakers' time. To repeat what I said then:

<< Nothing is ever free. Someone, somewhere, somehow, pays the bill. How will politicians respond? After all, grumpy taxpayers tend to vote. >>

Public Pension Plans Owe $2.73 Trillion

According to a just released study by the Pew Center on the States, state pension plans in aggregate owe nearly $3 trillion in pension benefits, of which about $400 billion is unfunded. Unfortunately, for some state residents, the financial pain is not evenly spread throughout the nation. Consider some of the findings.

  • "Only a third of the states have consistently set aside the amount their own actuaries said was necessary to cover the cost of promised benefits over the long term.
  • Twenty states had funding levels of less than 80 percent at the end of FY 2006—below what most experts consider healthy.
  • Several states have seen particularly troubling drops in their pension funding levels. Some of the biggest drops have occurred in Hawaii, Kentucky, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington."

Hold onto your hats.

The study further reports that post-employment healthcare benefits have a price tag of about $381 billion with only 3 percent of this total liability having been funded to date. "None of the five largest states—California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois—had put aside money for non-pension benefits as of FY 2006." and 11 states, including California, New York, New Jersery and Connecticut owe more than $10 billion to plan participants.


As this blog has pointed out repeatedly, there is no free lunch. Putting off the inevitable is going to be painful for employees, retirees and taxpayers.

Now imagine you are a resident of a state with post-employment funding woes. Your taxes go up to pay for someone else to retire at the same time that you are struggling with your own situation. That's exactly what is happening for millions of people, causing great angst for all.

Read "Promises with a Price" in full text. If you missed it, the October 2007 issue of Governing (by the same authors of this new Pew report) addresses anemic pension governance standards at the state level in "The $3 Trillion Challenge." Part of that article includes a sidebar with yours truly on suggested questions to ask as part of a governance check-up for a particular plan. Read the Q&A with Susan Mangiero.

Also check out our earlier blog post entitled "Tea Party Redux: State Pensions in Turmoil." Written a year ago, the message is still the same. Ask your state legislators for their proposed solution to the retirement funding crisis.

IRS Provides Tool for 401(k) Plan Check-Up

In a special edition of employee plans news (October 2007), the Internal Revenue Service provides a link to its new web-based tool to help with 401(k) plan compliance. This 43-page document includes a chart that describes eleven "problem areas in retirement plans" as well as suggested ways to identify, correct and avoid such mistakes.

Click here to access the tool.

New IRS Form Mandates Governance Disclosures for Non Profits - What About Pensions?

Little noticed inside the pension community is a provision of the Pension Protection Act of 2006 that directly impacts reporting by tax-exempt organizations. What's interesting is that required changes mandate important governance disclosures for churches and foundations and other non-profits. According to, "Form 990-T was considered a tax return and was not open to public inspection. The Pension Protection Act of 2006, however, mandates that any IRS Form 990-T filed by a 501(c)(3) organization after August 17, 2006, is now a public document. The exception is a Form 990-T filed solely to request a refund of the telephone excise tax."

Too bad the same disclosures are out of reach for anyone interested in understanding the nature of fiduciary risk attached to pension plans. As we pointed out in "Searching for Hidden Treasure" (April 17, 2006), even seemingly "mundane" information such as who makes primary decisions about defined benefit and defined contribution plans is often out of reach. As I wrote then, other than the names of the plan sponsor and plan administrator (found on Form 5500), no one knows much about who is in charge. (Some databases provide this information for a fee and various plan sponsors voluntarily provide this information online or in writing.)

Wouldn't it be grand to know more about who is making critical decisions regarding the $10 trillion pension industry? After all, how can we reward "good players" and hold "bad" or "careless" fiduciaries accountable if they operate in the shadows?

At a time when the SEC is asking for additional information (executive compensation decisions, audit committees, etc) and FASB wants to know more (having just announced plans to promote pension investment risk disclosure) where is the upset about pension fiduciaries - who they are, how they are selected and whether they are qualified for the tasks put upon them?

Editor's Note:

Part III questions of the newly revised form 990 are shown below. The IRS website provides detailed instructions and commentary.

  • Enter the number of members of the governing body
  • Did the organization make any significant changes to its organizing or governing documents?
  • Does the organization have a written conflict of interest policy?
  • Does the organization have a written whistleblower policy?
  • Does the organization contemporaneously document the meetings of the governing body and related committees through the preparation of minutes or other similar documentation?
  • Enter the number of independent members of the governing body
  • If “Yes,” how many transactions did the organization review under this policy and related
    procedures during the year?
  • Does the organization have a written document retention and destruction policy?
  • Does the organization have local chapters, branches or affiliates?
  • If yes, does the organization have written policies and procedures governing the activities of such chapters, affiliates and branches to ensure their operations are consistent with the organization’s?
  • Does an officer, director, trustee, employee or volunteer prepare the organization’s financial statements?
  • Does the organization have an audit committee?
  • How do you make the following available to the public?

New Fiction Book Advocates Radical Solution to Pension Crisis

If you read Thank You For Smoking (and/or saw the video), you understand Christopher Buckley 's ability to put things in perspective with humor. With his new book Boomsday, he seems to have done it again. The plot takes generational warfare to new heights. According to the book description on, escalating Social Security expenses compel "Cassandra Devine, a charismatic 29-year-old blogger and member of Generation Whatever" to suggest that "Baby Boomers be given government incentives to kill themselves by age 75." As you can imagine, the book is creating controversy. Click here to read more.

We've written extensively about the looming financial crisis due to increased lifespans. Click on the Demographics folder to access previously published posts (on the left hand side of the home page of this blog.)

Living longer if you are healthy, and have economics means, sounds like fun. Who wouldn't want to take a course in the classics or travel the high seas with family and friends? Unfortunately, for the younger folks who will be forced to foot the bill through higher taxes, things are not quite so grand. This is not to put blame on senior citizens. (Let's face it. We're all heading in that direction.) Unfunded benefits have never been a good idea.

If you don't mind some dismal reality with your coffee, check out The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know about America's Economic Future by Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns or Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It  by Peter G. Peterson.

The questions remain. Who has the power to solve what many believe is an imminent retirement system meltdown (including Social Security and Medicare)? What precludes them from doing something now? What is the consequence of playing ostrich, ignoring red flags and staying with the status quo? Take our 2 minute "Pension Crisis" survey and tell us what you think. Click here to start.

This post is written the day after April 1 by design. This is no April Fool's Day gag. Crushing "pay as you go" programs are here to stay until courageous leaders step up to the plate and take action or economies around the world implode.

Tax Man Cometh Again: This Time for Executive Pensions

No more cream for fat cats if Congress gets its way. According to Financial Times journalists, Francesco Guerrera and Eoin Callan, the U.S. Senate votes this Tuesday to curb tax breaks tied to executive retirements. (See "Retirement tax will hit US executives - January 29, 2007). They write: "Under the new regime, executives would be allowed to defer up to $1m a year or the average of the previous five years' taxable salary, whichever is lower. Any sum above that would incur taxes and a 20 per cent penalty."

I could not find any details posted yet to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee website but I'll scour C-SPAN tomorrow for the exciting showdown.

The real shame is that, once again, we have a "one size fits all solution" that does not differentiate between "excessive" compensation arrangements and what's required to attract and retain leadership talent. Ben & Jerry's earlier use of a salary cap made it difficult to lure a CEO to Vermont, despite the promise of an unlimited supply of Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia (the low-fat version being my personal favorite). Ditto for other companies that did not heed the supply-demand dynamics of a competitive marketplace. (Click here to read "Putting a Ceiling on Pay: No Whole Foods executive can earn cash pay of more than 14 times what its average worker makes. Will other companies follow?" by Andrew Blackman, Wall Street Journal - April 12, 2004).

By extension, if deferred compensation at a certain level facilitates the hiring of a skilled CEO, why should it be discouraged? Shareholders may save money in the short-run but lose in the long-run. This could include 401(k) and defined benefit plan participants whose fortunes rise or fall with the price of company stock.

This story has legs, especially now that many experts predict a return to populism and a move against "mean, greedy executives."

Editor's Notes:

1. The topic of optimal executive compensation is broad and complex. However, there is real merit in letting companies self-police AS LONG AS shareholder stewards do what they are supposed to do. Be vigilant. Ask questions. Exercise proper fiduciary oversight.

2. Click here if you want to read last week's blog post about the proposed taxation of health care benefits.

The Tax Man Cometh to Health Care

According to "Bush Bids to Increase Focus on Health Care with Plan on Tax-Based Aid for Consumers" (Wall Street Journal, January 22, 2007), the White House intends to curb skyrocketing health care costs by seeking tax relief for some. Journalists John D. McKinnon and John Harwood write that independent buyers of health insurance would get a tax deduction, arguably a boon for the millions of persons who are self-employed or work for companies that do not provide insurance. In contrast, employer-provided health insurance benefits would constitute taxable income. Likely winners include an estimated 80% of employees for whom the average premium (for a family policy) is a reported $11,500. Executives, professionals and some "rank-and-file" union workers may not be so lucky.

In a related article, "UAW May Run Some Retiree Benefits" (Wall Street Journal, January 23, 2007), reporter Jeffrey McCracken describes a "potentially revolutionary plan" whereby the United Auto Workers could assume responsibility for a ten billion dollar plus liability. A critical question is whether big U.S. auto manufacturers can find the money to finance "a handover of future retiree health-care obligations to a union-managed fund." Beyond costs, McCracken posits that union leaders face a real dilemma. Accustomed to negotiating hard on behalf of their members, can or will they want to police members' health care activity as a way to control costs?

As stated here and elsewhere, health care has the potential to dwarf the pension issue in a serious way. (Click here to read our most recent post about health care economics.)

If employers decide they can't afford to offer insurance coverage in its current form, pensions may be curtailed even further as part of a serious look at employee benefits overall. This is not necessarily a good thing if companies and municipalities then find it difficult to attract and retain productive workers.

Add the questionable state of Medicare to the mix and the current situation looks bad. With the 2008 election frenzy already underway, we're sure to hear more about health care solutions. Generating a meaningful dialogue (no sound bites please) is good. Without radical surgery soon, we're in for a long recovery.

Pensions for Congressional Criminals

Ever read about an issue that strikes you as obvious and yet, here you are, reading about its existence? In a November 30, 2006 press release, the National Taxpayers Union describes its recent communique to House Speaker-Elect Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader-Elect Harry Reid to "end the slimy practice of allowing convicted lawmakers to draw taxpayer-subsidized retirement benefits." Other groups in agreement include Citizens for Responsibility, Family Research Council and the Congressional Accountability Project.

For further information, read "Nearly Two Dozen Citizen Groups Tell Pelosi and Reid: No Tax-Funded Pensions for Congressional Criminals."

What else is there to say? This one seems like a no-brainer.

Tea Party Redux: State Pensions in Turmoil


Is a modern Boston Tea Party soon to come? Will taxpayers say "enough" to what they perceive as generous municipal pensions while they struggle to save?

The Associated Press reports on July 21, 2006 that "Oregon's state pension board plans to ask about 1,900 retired government employees to repay an average of nearly $28,000 each. They are among 125,000 workers and retirees whose benefits will be cut as a result of a successful lawsuit filed by local governments who argued that the pension board put too much money in benefit accounts in 1999." Apparently, state employees will bear the brunt if retirees are loath to return the funds (though taxpayers ultimately finance salaries and benefits of existing and retired workers).

Moving east, a July 20, 2006 announcement from Albany has New York Governor George Pataki vetoing a bill "that would have allowed teachers and other government workers with 25 years of experience to retire at 55 with the benefits now available at 62", costing taxpayers more than $195 million over the next seventeen years.

Whether municipal benefits are excessive is hard to say. To be fair, many government workers accept lower than market salaries in exchange for better benefits. That being said, times are tough and it will become increasingly difficult for state, county and city employees to get much sympathy from individuals who have their own retirement crisis to solve.

Instigator of the now famous tea toss, Samuel Adams offered: "It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds." On the opposing side, British Admiral Montague countered: "You have got to pay the fiddler yet!"

Nothing is ever free. Someone, somewhere, somehow, pays the bill. How will politicians respond? After all, grumpy taxpayers tend to vote.