Book Review: Pension Dumping

I’m an actuary, but not a Pension Actuary. I don’t understand the minutiae of pension law; I only know the basics. Where I have more punch than most pension actuaries is that I understand the investing side of pensions, whereas for most of them, they depend on others to give them assumptions for investment earnings. I’ve written on pension issues off and on for 15 years or so. I remember my first article in 1992, where I suggested that the graying of the Baby Boomers would lead to the termination of most DB plans.

I am here to recommend to you the book Pension Dumping. It is a very good summary of how we got into the mess we in today with respect to Defined Benefit [DB] pension plans. Now, much of the rest of this review will quibble with some aspects of the book, but that does not change my view that for those interested in the topic, and aren’t experts now, they will learn a lot from the book. The author, Fran Hawthorne, has crammed a lot of useful information into 210 pages.

The Balancing Act

One of the things that the book gets right is the difficulty in setting pension regulations and laws. In hindsight, it might have been a good idea to give pensioners a higher priority claim in the bankruptcy pecking order. But if that had been done, many companies might have terminated their plans then and there, because of the higher yields demanded from lenders who would have been subordinated.

She also covers the debate on the “equity premium” versus immunization well. Yes, it is less risky to immunize – i.e., buy bonds to match the payout stream. Trouble is, it costs a lot more in the short run. With equities, you can assume that you will earn a lot more.

She also notes how many companies were deliberately too generous with pension benefits, because they did not have to pay for them all at once. Instead, they could put up a little today, and try to catch up tomorrow.

Things Missed

  • · Individuals aren’t good at managing their own money. Even if a participant-directed 401(k) plan is cheaper than a DB plan in terms of plan sponsor outlay, the average person tends to panic at market bottoms and get greedy at market tops. DB plans and trustee-directed DC plans are a much better option for most people. That said, most people prize the illusion of control, and will not choose what is best for them.
  • · Technological progress was probably a bigger factor in doing in the steel industry, and other unionized industries, than foreign competition. Nucor and its imitators did more damage to the traditional steel industry than did foreign competition. With commodity products, low price wins, and Nucor lowered the costs of creating steel significantly.
  • · In the analysis of what industries could face pension problems next, she did not consider banks and other financial institutions. Most of those DB plans are very well-funded. Why? They understand the compound interest math, and the variability of the markets. But what if the current market stress led to financial firms cutting back on their plan contributions?
  • · She gets to municipal pensions at the end, and spends a little time there, but those face bigger funding gaps than most private plans. Also, she could have spent more time on Multiple Employer Trusts, where funding issues are also tough, and plan sponsor failures leave the surviving plan sponsors worse off.
  • · She also thinks that if you stretch out the period of time that companies can contribute in order to fund deficits, it will make things better. In the short run, that might be true, but in the intermediate term, companies that are given more flexibility tend to get further behind in funding DB pensions.
  • The book could have spent more time on changes in investing within DB pension plans, which are drifting away from equities slowly but surely, in favor of less liquid investments in private equity and hedge funds. How that bet will end is anyone’s guess, but pension investors at least have a long time horizon, and can afford the illiquidity. My question would be whether they can fairly evaluate the skill of the managers.

Summary

This book describes the motives of all of the parties in DB pension issues very well, and why they tend to lead to DB plan terminations. There are possible solutions recommended at the end, but in my judgment they might save some plans that are marginal, but not those that are sick. If you are interested in the topic of pensions, buy the book, and if you buy it through the links above, I get a small commission. (If you buy anything through Amazon after entering from a link on my site, I get a small commission. That’s my tip jar, and it doesn’t raise your costs at all.)