Private-Sector Pension Meltdown

WE'RE broke. Putting it more precisely, our retirement is busted, tapped out, barely breathing on government life support. We know this from the jaw-dropping $3.6 billion shortfall last year in the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.'s insurance program for single-employer pension plans. Brace yourself, because the numbers posted by our nation's private pension backstop look uncomfortably like the meltdown of AOL Time Warner Inc.

PBGC's annual report said its insurance program "swung from a $7.73 billion surplus at the end of fiscal year 2001 to a $3.64 billion deficit at the end of fiscal year 2002." This $11.37 billion net loss was the largest in the agency's 28-year history.

"The PBGC has sufficient assets to pay benefits to workers and retirees for a number of years," Executive Director Steven A. Kandarian said in a news release. "But given the amount of underfunding in pension plans sponsored by financially troubled employers, we must examine every available option to strengthen the pension insurance program for the long term."

PBGC was created in 1974 to guarantee that workers in defined benefit pension plans receive their basic benefits. About 44 million workers and retirees are covered by pensions it now controls. (There are about 135 million employed Americans, so the PBGC pensioners are equal to 25 percent of the entire U.S. civilian workforce.) The agency is funded by insurance premiums from companies that sponsor pension plans and by its own investment returns. Now PBCG's investments have been pummeled, and it has been forced to take over several steelmakers' big, underfunded pension plans. Airline pensions could be next. If so, those insurance premiums may hit the roof.

Troubled by the numbers, the U.S. House of Representatives Education & the Workforce Committee's chairman, John Boehner of Ohio, and Employer-Employee Relations Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson of Texas immediately announced a hearing to examine PBCG's financial health. "The goal of this process will be to ensure both the financial integrity of America's defined benefit plans and the PBGC itself," Johnson said.

PBGC's multi-employer program covers only 9.5 million participants, but it posted a 2002 surplus of $158 million. Despite record losses and what PBCG acknowledged is "continued exposure to a number of highly underfunded pension plans," the single-employer insurance program had $25.43 billion of assets at year-end.

This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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