You Want To See Something Really Scary?

You want to see something really scary?

The headline is from The Twilight Zone movie, from when I was about 10 years old. As for the rest of the movie after that first moment, I experienced it as an audio-only event. I just stared down at my feet, too freaked out to look up above the seat in front of me.

I thought of the line this morning when I read an ordinary-seeming Wall Street Journal article about a legislative move to allow companies to continue to underfund their pensions.

Corporate pension-funding, analogous to long-term retirement planning or college funding for individuals, really comes down to small choices that we make today that have extraordinary consequences thirty years in the future.

This is the kind of thing which we – and our leaders – should worry about late at night.

Instead of course we focus on strategizing about which reality TV star ought to release a sex tape to revive her career, or which NFL player’s ongoing pattern of domestic abuse will cause a ‘distraction’ to his team during Sunday’s game.

I guess I’m just saying we’re typically not spending enough time worrying about the really scary things, like under-funded pension liabilities.

The WSJ article details that Congress passed, and Obama signed, a transportation bill that happens to contain a provision to allow companies temporary relief from fully funding their pension obligations. In the fine print of the article we learn that the pension-funding obligation comes from calculations of current interest rates, which are extraordinarily low. What companies wanted, and our leaders delivered, was a pension-funding formula that took into account interest rates of the last 25 years, rather than the last 2 years. This is a key difference.

unfunded_pension_liabilitiesHere’s how I assume it works: If you observe that prevailing interest rates of, say, 10 year bonds are at 2%, then you have to make the assumption that all money invested in bonds for the next ten years will return just 2% per year. That’s reasonable. And from there you can calculate how much money you’ll have in 10 years, using compound interest. (see how I always work in a link to that idea?)

The problem is that if you assume only a 2% return on your money, then you need to invest a lot more money today in order to actually have enough to meet the future obligations of your pension plan.

If you could instead assume a bond rate of return of 6% – because that was the average interest rate over the past 25 years – then you need a lot less money to fund your pension plan. Problem magically solved. Companies are happy. CEOs are happy. Workers who depend on pensions eventually are unhappy. But hey! As Meatloaf says, 2 out 3 ain’t bad.

As I’ve written previously, the low returns of bonds are a major drawback of a low interest rate environment, when you have to have enough money for the long run. Endowments and charities and pensions that previously depended on a healthy bond portfolio to kick out 5-6% returns every year are stuck either generating less money for the long run, or they’re going far out onto the risky end of the investment spectrum (over-allocating to stocks or more exotic risks) to make the numbers work.

Or, as we saw yesterday, just pretend you can get the returns on bonds that we got over the past 25 years. Ignore our actual historically low interest rates now with magical-thinking assumptions.

By the way, what happens when companies underfund their pensions?

If a company disappears or goes bust, the federal government (and therefore you and me, via taxes) picks up the unfunded pension liability through an agency known as the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Just as the FDIC guarantees bank deposits (up to a certain size) and insurance regulators guarantee insurance payouts (when an insurance company fails), so does the PBGC pick up pension obligations when a private company with a pension goes bust. In 2010 for example, 147 companies with pension failed, and the PBGC paid our $5.6 Billion in liabilities to pensioners.

A big factor in the GM and Chrysler bankruptcy and bailouts of 2008, for example, had to do with the government pension guaranties.

For some time before 2008, GM and Chrysler had morphed from car manufacturers with large pension plans into giant pension-liability companies that also happened to make some cars (that not enough people actually buy anymore.)

I can’t claim to know the details of the agreement signed into law yesterday, but using tricks like a 25 year average on historic interest rates, rather than current interest rates, should keep us up all night, rather frightened.

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I founded Bankers Anonymous because, as a recovering banker, I believe that the gap between the financial world as I know it and the public discourse about finance is more than just a problem for a family trying to balance their checkbook, or politicians trying to score points over next year’s budget – it is a weakness of our civil society. For reals. It’s also really fun for me.

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