The Case Against Funding Relief for Private Pensions

Posted by Jeffrey Brown on Aug 20, 2009

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy)

Given the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars that have been handed out to financial services companies, automakers and other companies over the past year, it should not come as a surprise that corporate sponsors of Defined Benefit (DB) pension plans are also coming to Washington looking for a handout.  Admittedly, this issue has not been at the top of the news lately, but given the increasing number of calls I am receiving from policymakers in our nation’s capitol on the issue, it is pretty clear that this issue is on the political horizon.  


The basic story goes as follows: Despite the decline of DB pensions in the U.S. over the past several decades, millions of employees are still covered by these plans.  DB pension plans are essentially promises to workers that they will receive a monthly check for life after retirement, and this promise is supposed to be “made good on” even if the firm that sponsors the plan disappears in the interim.  The way Congress decided to ensure this back in 1974 was to require that companies sponsoring DB plans fund them (that is, set aside assets in a trust fund that would be dedicated to paying future benefits), and then provide participants with a government guarantee (through the PBGC) that their benefits will be paid even if the employer goes bankrupt with an underfunded plan.


For a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here (I’ll leave that for future posts about pension accounting rules and the flaws of the PBGC – the agency that insures the benefits), most DB plan sponsors invest their pension trusts heavily in stocks.  Thus, when the stock market declined precipitously over the past year, many plans sponsors found themselves facing substantial funding shortfalls. This increases their required contributions at precisely the moment when the economy is sagging.  Earlier this year, Watson Wyatt released a study showing that in 2009, plan sponsors would be required to contribute over $100 billion to their plans, up from just $38 billion in 2008, so the numbers involved are quite large.


Thus, the call for “relief.”  Essentially, plan sponsors are asking Congress to allow them to take a pass on meeting their funding obligations (and basically kicking the can down the road to another year).  Doing so, they say, will free up much needed cash to meet other obligations.  The two other uses for the cash most frequently mentioned are to avoid layoffs and to promote investment.  It is therefore argued that funding relief will be an effective economic stimulus.  (Isn’t it interesting how everything looks like a nail when you are holding a hammer?)


On the first question, I am unaware of any empirical evidence showing a link between mandatory pension contributions and employment.  On the second point, there is a very nice paper by my friend Josh Rauh (now at Northwestern University) showing that when firms are required to make contributions to their pension funds, they reduce investment (as measured by capital expenditures).


Despite these rationale, I remain highly skeptical of the wisdom of funding relief.  My skepticism arises for 4 primary reasons.


  1. While I accept the notion that freeing up internal cash may be useful during a period in which external financial markets are frozen, it is not at all clear that funding relief is a useful way to go about it. First, there is no guarantee that Rauh’s results will hold up in a period in which “cash is king.”  Instead, firms may just sit on the cash to provide a safety cushion.  Second, DB plan sponsors strike me as precisely the *wrong* set of firms to target for relief.  Why?  Because they almost surely have lower growth opportunities than other sectors (keep in mind these plans are concentrated in “old economy” firms).  And because these are precisely the firms where assets are most tangible (and thus less susceptible to the information problems that are often used to explain the advantage of internal over external financing).  If we think firms are being prevented from taking on good investments due to problems in the credit market, I’d much rather see us take steps to provide access to credit directly, rather than directing towards an arbitrary subset of firms.
  2. Even if the firms that are granted funding relief use it to increase investment, this will not necessarily increase the aggregate level of investment.  Why?  Because the money used to fund pensions is not thrown in the ocean.  Rather, it is redistributed by financial markets to those projects with the highest present value.  It is quite possible that funding relief will do little more than redirect funds away from the highest value projects in the overall economy and towards the highest value projects within a small subset of firms.  In short, I am not sure there will really be any stimulus to this stimulus.  
  3. This will further increase the risk to taxpayers.  If an underfunded plan sponsor goes bankrupt with an underfunded plan, the benefits are guaranteed by the PBGC.  But guess what?  The PBGC is already underfunded by at least $11 billion (and possibly much higher) and is expected to grow substantially in the coming decade.  At some point, taxpayer money will be needed to fill this gap.
  4. Most importantly, this simply treats the symptom, and not the cause, of the funding problems.  What we really need is a major overhaul of the funding rules – more on this in a future post.


6 Responses to “The Case Against Funding Relief for Private Pensions”

  • Allen Taylor says:

    Nice writing. You are on my RSS reader now so I can read more from you down the road.

    Allen Taylor

  • Just wanted to say HI. I found your blog a few days ago on Technorati and have been reading it over the past few days.

  • Andrew Sacher says:

    Good piece Jeff. The pension accounting rules already allow companies to smooth their pension contributions after big declines in the market value of their assets. I would think that even lower contributions would seriously raise the risk of more failures and retirees not getting the benefits they expect.

  • Jeffrey Brown says:

    Excellent point Andrew. There is no question that both the FASB accounting rules and the PBGC funding rules are relevant here. In addition to the smoothing issue you raise, both FASB and the PBGC implicitly encourage plan sponsors to invest more heavily in equities than is probably optimal. In the case of accounting rules, it is because firms can take credit on their financial statements for the “expected” rate of return on assets (without having to account for risk). The PBGC does it by failing to risk-adjust the premiums that it charges, so it is basically giving plan sponsors a free option on the taxpayer.

  • Jeffrey Brown says:

    Thaks Allen! There will be more to come …

  • Julia Coronado says:

    Nice piece Jeff. While I agree with your logic and your conclusions, the pension system is unfortunately just one way the government hands out subsidies to politically favored industries in the form of contingent liabilities born by taxpayers. How else can you explain why GM was not forced to terminate its pension plan as a result of its bankruptcy!? This is now starting to play out more directly in the public sector for the first time. The New York governor forced the police union to choose between reducing its workforce even further this year or accepting a later normal retirement age. Part of the fallout of higher risk taking was forced back onto those who took it on in the first place. I like the blog very much.