Congress Moves to Put Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation On Taxpayer Dole

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The Ways and Means Committee of the House just approved a bill for a big taxpayer bailout of private multi-employer/union-sponsored pension plans.  Many of these plans are hopelessly insolvent.  In other words, they have committed to pay employee pensions far greater than they have any hope of actually paying. In the aggregate, the assets of multi-employer plans are hundreds of billions of dollars less than what they have solemnly promised to pay.

There is an inescapable deficit resulting from past failures to fund the obligations of these plans. This means somebody is going to lose; somebody is going to pay the price of the deficit.  Who?  Those who created the deficits? Or instead: How about the taxpayers? The latter is the view of the Democratic majority which passed the bill out of committee in a 25-17 straight partyline vote on July 10.

“Wait a minute!” every taxpayer should demand, “aren’t all these pension plans already guaranteed by an arm of the U.S. government?”  Yes, they are--by the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). But there is a slight problem:  the PBGC’s multi-employer guarantee program is itself broke.  It is financially unable to make good on its own guarantees. The proposed taxpayer bailout is also a bailout ofthis deeply insolvent government program.

This was not supposed to be able to happen.  In creating the PBGC, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) required, and has continued to require up to now, that the PBGC be self-financing.  But it isn’t--not by a long shot. Its multi-employer program shows a deficit net worth of $54 billion.  The PBGC was not supposed ever to need any funds from the U.S. Treasury.  But it is now proposed to give it tens of billions of dollars from the Treasury, and the bill does not have any limiting number.

“ERISA provides that the U.S. government is not liable for any obligation or liability incurred by the PBGC,” says the PBGC’s annual report every year.  But here we have another of the notorious “implicit guarantees,” which pretend they are not guarantees until it turns out that they really are.  Consider that if the PBGC’s multi-employer program were a private company, any insurance commissioner would have closed it down long ago.  No rational customer would pay any premiums to an insurer which is demonstrably unable to pay its committed benefits in return.  Only the guarantee of the Treasury, “implicit” but real, keeps the game going. 

Bailing out guarantees which were claimed not to put the taxpayers on the hook, but in fact did, is the familiar pattern of “implicit” guarantees.  They are originally done to keep the liability for the guarantees off the government’s books, an egregious accounting pretense, because everybody knows that when pushing comes to shoving, the taxpayers will be on the hook, after all.

In such “self-financing,” off-balance sheet entities, the government generally does not charge the fees which their risk economically requires. This is true even if their chartering acts theoretically require it.  Undercharging for the risk, politically supported by the constituencies who benefit from the cheap guarantees, allows the risk to keep increasing.  So in time, the day of the taxpayer bailout comes.

Notable examples of this are the bailouts of the Farm Credit System, the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC), Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac.  However, the bailout of Farm Credit included serious reforms to the System, and the bailout of FSLIC, serious reforms to the savings and loan industry.  The bailouts of Fannie and Freddie were combined with putting them in conservatorship under the complete control of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, where they remain today.  

Now for the PBGC, when we read all the way to the very last paragraph on the last page of the bill, page 40, we find that the PBGC’s multi-employer program, which was supposed never to need any appropriated funds, is to get generous taxpayer funds forever.  “There is appropriated to the Director of the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation,” says this paragraph, “such sums as may be necessary for each fiscal year.”  The multi-employer pensions would thus become an entitlement, on the taxpayer dole.  There is no limiting number or time.  Nor in the previous 39 pages is there any reform of the governance, operations, or ability of these pension plans to finance themselves on a sustainable basis.

In short, the bill passed by the Ways and Means Committee is a bailout with no reform.  But the governing principle for all financial bailouts should be instead: If no reform, then no bailout. 

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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