Who Will Pay For the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation's Huge Losses?

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The government's pension insurance company, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), is broke. Because its creditors can't demand their money immediately, it won't have spent

‚Äčits last dollar for "a significant number of years" yet (maybe ten) -- but its liabilities of $164 billion are nearly twice its assets of $88 billion: there is no way it can honor all its obligations.

The PBGC has two programs, one insures single employer pensions and the other multiemployer, union-sponsored pensions. Both are insolvent, but the multiemployer program is in far worse shape: it is well and truly broke. Its liabilities of $54 billion are 27 times its assets of $2 billion. There are on top of that "reasonably possible" losses of another $20 billion.

The PBGC was supposed to be, according to its charter act, financially self-supporting: obviously it isn't. Also according to the act, its liabilities are not obligations of the United States government: but it couldn't continue to exist even for a minute except as part of the government. Will the taxpayers end up paying for its losses-or if not, who?

A month ago (June 17, 2016), Labor SecretaryThomas Perez, who chairs the PBGC board, wrote disingenuously to the Congress, that the board wants to work with Congress "to ensure the continued solvency of the multiemployer program." A forthright statement would have been: "to address the disastrous insolvency of the multiemployer program."

In the background of the PBGC's huge net worth deficit are a large number of deeply underfunded multiemployer pension funds. "Overall," Perez's letter admitted, "plan assets in the multiemployer pension system are now less than half of earned benefits." You could call that underfunding with a vengeance.

An instructive example is the Central States plan (formally, the Teamsters union's Central States, Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Fund). The financial stress of this large and utterly insolvent multiemployer plan brings the inescapable problems into sharp focus. As an officially "critical and declining" multiemployer pension plan, Central States was able under the Kline-Miller Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014, to submit a plan, which ran to 8,000 pages, to reduce its pension obligations to a level more in line with its assets and income. The reduced pensions under this proposal, consistent with the 2014 act, would still have been higher than if the fund went into the PBGC.

The U.S. Treasury Department rejected the proposed plan, pointing out various technical shortcomings and the hard fact that even with the pension reductions, the proposal did not fix Central States' long-term insolvency-which is indeed a requirement included in the 2014 act (put in, apparently, at the insistence of the Democratic legislators). This has the ironic result, as the Washington Post editorialized, that "if Central States collapses and the PBGC takes over, retirees would, by law, get even less than they would under the just-rejected proposal." And that is assuming that the PBGC itself can pay its obligations over time, which it can't.

Some observers have suggested that the Treasury's motivation was political rather than technical. In other words, that the incumbent administration could not afford to approve any reduction, even if a better deal than the PBGC would provide, in the pension benefits of a union-sponsored pension plan, no matter how broke that plan is.

Of course, the Treasury's action leaves Central States just as broke as it was before, the multiemployer pension system just as hopelessly underfunded as it was before, the PBGC's multiemployer program just as broke as it was before, and the overall PBGC the same.

Let's consider the fundamental truths. The money needed to pay the pension obligations of Central States was simply not put into the pension fund, so it's not there to pay them. The money needed to pay the pension obligations of the multiemployer pension system as a whole was simply not put into the funds, so it's not there to pay them. The insurance premiums needed to make the PBGC able to honor its insurance obligations were not set at the necessary levels and were therefore not collected, so it is not there to pay them.

The resulting deficits are huge and real. Someone is consequently going to suffer the losses which are unavoidable because they have already happened. Who is that someone?

There are multiple candidates for taking or sharing in the losses:

1. The pension beneficiaries who have claims on insolvent pension plans. Their pensions could be reduced, as in the Detroit bankruptcy, or if they are still working, their own contributions to the pension plans significantly increased, or both. Also, they might start paying individual insurance premiums to the PBGC, just as government-insured mortgage borrowers pay individual premiums to the Federal Housing Administration.

2. The employers who unwisely committed to pension plans whose benefits have proved unpayable. They could make much bigger contributions to funding the plans, or pay vastly higher insurance premiums to the PBGC, or both.

3. The union sponsors of the multiemployer plans. They could be removed from any control of insolvent multiemployer plans, in effect putting such plans into PBGC receivership, as in a normal insolvency proceeding and as with failed single employer pension plans. There is no reason for multiemployer plans to be different. But as it is now, the PBGC merely pays the tab for failed multiemployer plans.

4. The creditors of employers. The deficit of a pension plan is an unsecured creditor's claim on the employer. That could be made a senior claim, just as deposits were made senior claims on banks after the financial crisis of the 1980s. This would force some of the burden on to other creditors of failed employers.

5. Taxpayers. It is inevitable that a taxpayer bailout will be proposed, despite the pious statutory assurance that PBGC's debts are not government obligations. Against this proposal, it will be fairly asked why people with no pensions themselves or who don't have defined benefit pensions should pay for those who do have them-a good question. On the other side, the hardship of existing pensioners of insolvent pension funds will be sincerely urged.

6. Some combination of the above.

Needless to say, whoever ultimately has to take the unavoidable losses will not like it.

Consider this striking historical parallel to the probable fate of the PBGC's multiemployer program: the decade-long descent into humiliating failure of the government's deposit insurer, the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC). This government insurer, along with the savings and loan industry whose obligations it guaranteed, sank into a sea of insolvency in the 1980s. When this finally had to be publicly confessed, FSLIC became notorious. It certainly seems that the PBGC is the new FSLIC.


Alex J. Pollock is a distinguished senior fellow at the R Street Institute in Washington, D.C. He was President and CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago from 1991-2004.  

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