The Pension Crunch

More things to consider while planning for retirement

You’ve probably heard about the problem our country faces with “Social Security, corporate pensions, state pensions, county pensions, municipal pensions…virtually all defined benefit pensions.” The following are abstracts from an industry publication.

OUR COUNTRY’S PENSION CRISIS IN A NUTSHELL – Pension plans that promise a specific benefit in the future are essentially a contract between current and future generations, and those future generations aren’t represented at the bargaining table.

PENSION PLAN PRESS – With IBM freezing its pension plan, a plethora of articles on the dim future of the defined benefit pension plan concept have hit the press. Here is a summation of what you need to know.

Brief history The corporate pension has been around since the 19th century, but really came into its own in the U.S. in the years just after World War II. The defined benefit plans assumed lifetime jobs with a company, which seemed reasonable at the time, but has long since ceased being the American norm.

Why is it happening? – Companies are trying to become more competitive and adapt to changing times. They must compete with younger companies that never made pension promises or foreign companies where the government provides retirement benefits or there are no benefits at all. IBM is paying about $270 million to make the change but will save $2.5 billion over the next 5 years.

Why now? – Pension crises at steelmakers and airlines have brought the issue to a head, but arcane accounting rules and low, long-term interest rates mean the accounting benefit for freezing a pension is higher than it would be if long-term rates rise.

Who’s most vulnerable? – Salaried employees since companies have to negotiate to cut benefits for workers covered by collective bargaining.

What about earned benefits? – Companies can’t cut pension benefits already earned, but the earned benefits in a defined benefit plan may be a lot less than expected.

Who gets hurt the most? – Workers in their 40s and 50s who have been at the company many years. Benefits build up fastest in an employee’s final years at a company…50% of a person’s pension may be earned in the last five years on the job. Even with bigger 401(k) contributions, these workers may never catch up.

Who isn’t hurt? – Current retirees, younger workers and those who switch jobs frequently.

Freezing versus terminating – Freezing locks the pension in place where it currently stands actuarially and the company is obligated to pay in the future. When employers terminate a pension, they must pay out all of the benefits immediately, either in lump sums or by buying each worker an annuity. Most terminations are due to bankruptcy.

Companies at risk – Those with a large percentage of older, longtime employees; those with employees not covered by a collective-bargaining agreement; those have already cut some retiree benefits in the past.

GOOD RIDDANCE TO DEFINED BENEFITS? – Fortune magazine sees the IBM pension plan freeze as the beginning of the end of traditional pensions in the U. S. and editorializes that “corporate pensions are an unstable, unfair and economically perverse means of paying for retirement.”

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