Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Coming Pension Disaster

Detroit bites the dust and the one question that no one will bring up, is; “Where is the money coming from to pay the city’s promised retirement benefits?” 10 cents on the dollar won't cut it. This bankruptcy is the biggest so far; $20 billion give or take 4 billion. About 12 billion is for retirement benefits. The city looks like a bombed out war zone. The real estate tax base is gone. Many other cities nationwide are in similar financial peril and on the verge of insolvency.

Here is what happened in Prichard Alabama in 2009 with their bankruptcy. The retirement checks stopped when the money ran out. Click on this LINK for the full story. Note that the court demanded that they start contributing 16 million to the retirement fund and they had no money to do so. Where the judge thought they would pull the money from, is beyond me.

Several issues are at play here. How do you sue a city that is broke and collect real money rather than a judgment? The state is not obligated to pay city debts. And you can’t sue the state anyway. What happens to the people who were collecting retirement and health care benefits? The Stockton bankruptcy from a year ago is still in limbo this year. California law, states that the city’s retirement funds are exempt from the Federal bankruptcy court proceedings. Notice that CalPERS has a vested interest in this ruling, they’re holding a sizable portion of city's retirement funds. The Federal bankruptcy court wants all of the city's assets on the table. Can State laws rewrite the Federal Bankruptcy Code? Federal law should override State law. It could be a moot point by the time it gets out of the courts; we’ll all be dead by then.

The Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) was created by Congress as a backup retiree plan for failed private pension plans. Unfortunately for the city of Detroit, the key word is "private," "public" won't qualify. This little unknown government entity is already on the hook for 26 billion dollars more than they have in collected premiums. The listing below displays the present top 10 of failed pension plans now on government life support.

After the American Airlines bankruptcy goes final, there could be another 10 billion added to the PBGC's unfunded obligations. And of course General Motors pension liabilities could add another 25 billion to that total. Employee retirement benefits were really what GM’s initial bankruptcy was all about—and that 25 billion hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s still there (sshh--that’s a secret).

Basically what we are coming down to is hundreds of retirement funds are underfunded by large amounts. Many of these plans were doomed to failure. Cities choose to grant increased retirement benefits instead of wage increases. It looked great on the books and didn’t show up in the city budget like a wage increase would. And this is coming back to haunt them. The laws are in place to protect the retiree. “By God, they have to give me my pension, I earned it!” The only trouble is, passing a law guaranteeing benefits, in no way creates the funds for the check to be written. No money in the city coffers makes any court award meaningless.

Surfing Google for answers, I ran across a plethora of government abstracts dealing with the PBGC. I don’t pretend to have understood half the government double talk, but it is obvious from all of the interaction, the Congress and the Department of Labor are well aware of what is going on. This is a high traffic issue with little mention in the press.

In the future, it could be very upsetting to be a retired GM employee and find out that they were now covered by PBGC. They’d think; “Well I still have my Social Security to add to my GM retirement” ---- In all likelihood, the PBGC might deduct their Social Security benefits from their proposed GM pension benefits. Government programs promise you more, by giving you less.

The interesting thing to note about the future failure of government retirement plans, there is no news coverage. They haven’t happened, so there is nothing to report. Where will the money come from, to pay these debts off? Will the Pension Benefit Guarantee Fund be expanded to include government retirees? The Fanny and Freddie bailout fiasco comes to mind. I guess what’s good for GM, is good for America. I seem to have heard that before -- somewhere.

Let the bankruptcy festival begin. Government employees were promised “Surf and Turf,” and it looks like they’ll be lucky to settle for chipped beef and gravy on toast-- better known as “SOS” in military circles. I was dumbfounded to learn that a fireman I indirectly know,  is retiring at age 50 on 100K a year. Reality is right around the corner here –somewhere—  The joke when I went to high school was, If you can't find a real job you can always work for  the government. That has changed quite a bit in the last 40 years. We'll have to wait and see how this plays out in the courts, the winner could end up being the biggest loser.


Jer said...

I keep telling my wife we can't afford all the promises that have been made to public sector employees who get 3-4 times what SS would pay them and that will eventually go broke. Recently our small town went out for a S&P rating and we got an upgrade. The reason why we had no long term pension obligations. Ct. pays the teachers retirement but I feel it is only a matter of time before our broke state decides that local towns will have to contribute or be responsible for people getting 80% of their base salary. I predict a major revolt at that time.

Brian said...

I become a cop by choice not by default. And what I am about to say- I make no apologies for.

I started my career at a whopping 1000 dollars a mo. in 1982. My friends everywhere were making more money, framing houses, teaching school, defending drunks. They bought fancy houses, drove big diesel trucks which pulled 20 ft RV's and ski boats. I never bought a new car in my life.

For 25 years, I paid in 20% of my salary for retirement. My share was 9%, the city's was 11%. From 1982-2007 just so happened to be the greatest bull market of all time. My fully invested money, aggregated and accrued, was worth in excess of a million.

Up until the mortgage bankers hosed the entire country. Now we are all broke.

Now people like you- are pissed that public employees get pensions. I would have gladly settled my account for the 1.4 million that it was worth (2007)before the bankers ruined our economy.

Your anger is misplaced. Had the bankers not destroyed the country- everything would be fine. We could make decent returns on our CD's, and the FED would not be injecting 85 billion a month into the most fraudulent economy of all time.

Folks, don't forget who the villains are. Retirement accounts were fully funded or about 90% so- up until the great mortgage disaster and multi trillion dollar bailouts.

Our country is bankrupt. Public employees didn't do that. Retirement accounts were managed by bankers and actuaries. So I guess I am just a little pissed every time I read a post like this. I make 2900 a mo. before taxes. That is half of what I made when I worked. If I live 30 years, I still won't recover what my investments made (1.4 million) before the bankers ruined our country.

Get pissed at bankers. I didn't screw the economy- they did.

Jim in San Marcos said...

Hi Brian

I didn't mean to come across as being upset with what these government employees retire on. A bargain is a bargain. My idea of a pension is a wage that offers a reduced standard of living in relation to what the job offered full salary.

I can see a government pension say maxing out at 40K and from there, if you earn more, you have the ability to save more towards retirement on your own.

The real villains here are the politicians in city hall that instead of increasing salaries, kicked the can down the road with higher retirement benefits. You don't get re elected raising taxes. The taxes get raised on 20 years down the road on someone Else's watch.

The whole point of this article wasn't expressing how upset or jealous I am with public employees, (envious might be a better choice of words) it was to point out that the money agreed to in these retirement contracts IS NOT THERE.

These bankrupt cities can't even come up with 10 cents on the dollar for retirees. The real ugly questions are not being asked, what the hell are these poor retirees suppose to do now? It doesn't seem like anyone in the press has put two brain cells together. The headline should read "Detroit Bankrupt, Retiree's ruined for life."

Back in 2007 I had a pilot write me who was ready to retire on 70k a year. He bought a home with a 50k a year in payments. The airline went bk and his pension got reduced to 45k-- he lost the house. He was mad, because he had done nothing wrong.

I'm hoping that any anger you see is my frustration with the government pretending everything is OK for retirees and trying to sweep this mess under the rug and pretend nothing happened.

Click on the link to Prichard Al, it's a sad story.

My basic premise is that politicians will say anything to get elected and it's the retirees that get handed the bill.

I guess the only true justice in Detroit is that the politicians won't get their pensions either.

The point to ponder, retirees don't have 20 years of time to wait for a legal settlement and the politicians are fully aware of that.

I hope that gives you a little more insight to my thoughts on this article.

Thank your comments and the best of luck to you.

Jim in San Marcos said...

Hi Jer

It can get worse see this Link
Poway school district borrowed 100 million and put off the payments for 40 years. The people that haven't even moved into Poway get to pay the bill which will come to about one billion dollars.

People tend to be a bit more conservative up your way, and thats a good thing.

Sackerson said...

1. 5 out of the top 10 on the list are airlines, perhaps that tells a story - don't airlines always go spectacularly bust, eventually?

2. If I'd known in the 70s how much American teachers and other public service sector workers got paid - and the enormous pensions they got - I'd have come over from the UK; and if I'd had a crystal ball I'd have saved every penny I could. Send us a Red Cross parcel from time to time, won't you?

Jim in San Marcos said...

Hi Sackerson

Welcome back

That industry is really cut throat. Benefits are a real drag on any organization. Government subsidies are everywhere in that industry.

I think the other 5 are part of the auto industry.

I remember back in the 70's working for a hospital, government workers as a whole were worthless, they didn't hustle. The mind set back then was get your experience in the public sector and then get a real job. Of course the mind set changed when some figured out that they wouldn't lose the good producers if they matched what private industry paid. The effects of the change crept up on us like compound interest, slowly over time.

Now it's time to pay the piper.

Not sure about a Red Cross parcel. It may take a while, our food stamp program hasn't expanded to encompass Great Britain as of yet.

dearieme said...

In the UK we have an equivalent of your PBGC. It does a decent job rescuing retirees from small firms whose pension schemes are bust. But the insolvency of one of the giant schemes would be far too big for it to cope with.

Lists show the BT (telecommunications) scheme as the largest private scheme but I understand that a court judgement means that the government is obliged to rescue it if it fails, because of an agreement struck before it was denationalised. That leaves the Universities scheme as the biggest entirely private scheme, which worries me because my wife and I rely on it for most of our income.

On the other hand the scheme might thrive - but then the government would try to find a way to confiscate its assets.

Oh dear, oh dear.

Jim in San Marcos said...

Hi dearieme

10 years ago, I would have laughed off all of what we are discussing as insignificant.

Today, you can feel the fear out there that things could deteriorate even more.

I catch a bit of the House of Commons with PM David Cameron each week, and it looks like you have the same problems we have. Everyone wants to talk and nobody's left to listen.

I guess I'll have to keep working until I can't remember my own name. I hope you'll be able to enjoy your retirement.

Take care

Anonymous said...

High pension payouts and benefits for government workers are ridiculous. Same for most corporate systems too. Where did people get the idea that they should receive so much in return, on top of their salaries and perqs while working, for working for the government or some corporation? It is foolish and it isn't viable. Do you realize that it puts a corporation or government in a position where it is not only paying the benefits and salaries for the current employee holding a specific position, but also pension and healthcare for the last two employees that occupied that same position. Paying 3 people for one job position (and only 1 of the 3 is actually working... and if it is a government job, the 1 is probably not producing at his job or giving value in relation to the salary and benefits he/she is receiving). The whole thing is a joke. Retirement is a joke. This is one of the main reasons why this system is collapsing. It's only a matter of time before most everyone stops receiving their pensions or only receive a small percentage of what they were supposed to receive.

Jim in San Marcos said...

Hi Anon 12:14

Your perspective on the 20 year retirement plan spread over three generations of workers who, live to be 80, demonstrates how far removed from reality the system can be. I didn't even see it myself.

It didn't happen over night, it happened slowly over 40 years. Reality never entered the thought process. The thought process; "My benefits will be greater than the guy I'm replacing." This validates the new paradigm. At some time in the future, our judgment will be called upon to question our assumptions.

At this point, you have hit a brick wall. "I worked for those benefits and I deserve to be paid them." The fact that the money is not there, is not an excuse.

It's a financial train wreck with no collateral damage. Only the people riding the train are injured. When you think about it, everyone knew in the back of their heads, that as the benefits got better and better, it couldn't last forever, but when it does collapse, it will be way down the road.

Sadly the thing us bystanders need to understand, no amount of reasoning is going to change any views held by retirees caught in the clutches of this dilemma. They want their money and it isn't there. How that will play out is beyond me.

The last time that they marched on Washington for similar reasons, Eisenhower and MacArthur ran over them with the Calvary.

Let's see what happens this time.

Anonymous said...

I have no sympathy for the people who will lose their pensions, or have them cut significantly. It is a complete imbalance and the exchange is unfair (the heavy imbalance is on the employees side and it heavily handicaps the corp or government due to those obligations). I don't agree that a government or a corporation is responsible for the retirement and needed healthcare once an employee stops working. It should be up to individuals to earn, save and invest and prepare themselves for their later years.

I also disagree with retirement. People should be industrious and productive and earn an income until they can no longer function due to health reasons. To improve our economy domestically and internationally there should be as many people as possible contributing to society through working, servicing, inventing, etc. Most peoples' health and longevity would increase if they stayed busy and active instead of retiring anyway.

I also disagree with Social Security. It is not the government's responsibility to suppport people in old age. This is Marxism and it damages and inhibits the natural character of man: self-sufficiency, responsibility, incentive, etc.

Americans don't see that we are on a soft slide via Socialism into Communism, Fascism or maybe a better term is Collectivism.

Turn over all responsibility to the government (which only wants full control, power and all your assets) and you lose all your liberties and freedoms, become totally dependent and you atrophy into a zombie.

Wake up America. We need strong powerful people who can have pride and can take care of themselves and don't look to anyone for help. Not effete weaklings who want a government to take care of every aspect of their lives. That is the end of the empire and civilization.

AIM said...

This is a big article but it is worth the read. I think it fits well into the subject matter of this blog. The facts are the facts, the numbers are the numbers, and the transgressors are the transgressors, and the enablers are the enablers.

Trying To Stay Sane In An Insane World - Part 1 Submitted by Jim Quinn via The Burning Platform

Jim in San Marcos said...

Hi Anon 1:17

How about if we force a double bourbon down you and wait for it to take effect.

A lot of people have contributed religiously to retirement plans in anticipation of their retirement.

No matter what your beliefs, there has to be some form of justice to enforce contracts made.

the question does arise, are the retirement benefits beyond what most people consider realistic? We can say yes they are, but do we trash everyone in the system?

We are at a point where government has promised the moon and can't deliver. Reality contradicts promised benefits, from here, we have conflict and I don't see a winner or a real solution

Jim in San Marcos said...


Thank you for the link.

Not to fault the writer, but with my daytime job, I don't have the time to put something like that together. There was a lot of work involved in that post.

It's a very good read, thank you for sharing it with us.

AIM said...

What happens in Detroit with pensions should be a telling indicator of what will be in store for pensions throughout the rest of this country.

AIM said...

The creation of the debt bubble and deregulation is what has set us up for the fall. ERISA was the beginning of the end for pensions.

Those of us in our 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s will probably get through the remainder of our lives without great hardship (we'll have tough times, inconveniences, a lower standard of living, etc. but not... great hardship). We're at the inception point of a slow decline and decay of an empire.

It is the next generation coming up (and the next) that are going to suffer great hardship: growing up without much opportunity, hard to marry and raise a family without a stable career, graduating from university with lots of debt and no high income employment, etc. etc. etc.

Pensions will be the least that people will be worried about.

Jim in San Marcos said...


I tend to agree with you.

The legal system is so slow that the money can run out before the responsible parties can be found to pay the bills. That's what happened in Alabama.

I tend to think that the retirement conditions in Detroit will get a lot worse.

For this to get sorted out in the courts, could take 10 years. I think that we will see a lot more cities file for bankruptcy, just to drop their retirement obligations. They promised what they couldn't deliver, and that problem is not going away. City and state governments can't print dollars, so the problem is coming to the surface sooner. The Federal government has the same problem, just a different approach to it.

Heavenly Prepper said...

This article is an excellent, albeit potentially controversial, summation of the "bigger picture" surrounding the true genesis of the Detroit collapse: