Monday, May 4, 2009

Global Pension Tension?

All around the world, pension tension is growing. You're only beginning to see what I've been predicting for a long time. It's one huge mess. Here is a small sampling of global pension tension:
  • Garth Whyte, the executive vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which represents the interests of small and medium-sized business and lobbies on behalf of its 105,000 members at the federal, provincial and municipal levels writes that Canadian taxpayers shouldn't bailout GM pension plan.
  • Insolvent AbitibiBowater Inc. had no right to unilaterally rescind pension benefit improvements that had been negotiated in a collective agreement prior to the newsprint giant entering bankruptcy protection, a judge ruled today.
  • Air Canada said on Monday it was seeking support from its unions for 'a moratorium and other conditions on funding' its pension deficit, which is more than C$3 billion ($2.5 billion).
  • Connecticut Treasurer Denise Nappier said on Monday the state is terminating its investment agreement with Dallas-based private equity firm Aldus Capital LLC, after it was caught up in the criminal and civil probe of the New York State pension fund.
  • Teacher pension tsunami is expected across Pennsylvania. A bubble in the number of teachers expected to retire in the next decade and a 30 percent drop in the total value of the Pennsylvania Public School Employees' Retirement System's (PSERS) assets last year in the souring economy means districts contribute more to the teachers' retirement fund.
  • Minnesota teachers are asking state lawmakers for a $223 million bailout for their pension fund. The Education Minnesota teachers' union, their retirement association and other groups are asking the state Legislature for between $207 million and $223 million over four years to put their pension fund on sound footing.
  • The protracted economic downturn has chewed up nearly a quarter of the value of Ohio's five public pension plans, forcing their leaders to more seriously consider unpopular options such as dialing back cost-of-living increases and even raising retirement ages.
  • Many Rhode Island cities and towns are struggling with the increasing burden of pension costs. A new study by the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council reports that the amount of money communities spend on pensions has increased nearly 50 percent in the past five years, to $149 million in the fiscal year that ends June 30.

  • Detroit's public pension trustees approved trips last year to more than 100 conferences around the globe, even as the city's two pension funds were losing billions.
  • New York City is proposing a Tier 5 pension plan for city employees that would result in an immediate savings of $200 million for the city in the coming year. By 2030, the Tier 5 pension plan would save the city an estimated $7 billion. This pension tier would need to be created through state law.
  • More than 100 retired government employees who worked for surrounding cities and Solano County -- nearly half of them from Vallejo -- are receiving annual pensions of $100,000 or greater.
  • Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said yesterday that he wants the state to rescind the special pensions given to 10 former legislators because it appeared that those pensions were improperly awarded.
  • In Australia, the rich will have their superannuation tax breaks slashed in half to fund the pension increase, with next Tuesday's Budget expected to boast the largest deficit in Australian history.
  • The report on intergenerational solidarity shows that over 80 per cent of both EU and Maltese citizens surveyed agree that government needs to make much more money available for pensions and care for the elderly. Moreover, 58 per cent of those surveyed believe that government will not be able to make these payments in the coming decades, although the rate is just 46 per cent in Malta. Respondents aged between 25 and 54 were those most concerned about the affordability of pensions.
  • The deficit in the U.K.’s largest company pension plans almost doubled to 61 billion ($91 billion) in the first quarter as falling stock markets cut the value of their assets, according to Mercer Investment Consulting.
  • Longer life expectancy means U.K. taxpayers will have to find billions of pounds more to fund public sector pensions, consultants have warned.
  • The Hungarian parliament Monday voted to cut pension benefits and gradually raise the compulsory retirement age from 62 to 65.
That last points should give many who work in the public service some cause for concern. I know many people in the public sector who think their defined-benefit plans are "iron-clad" and that their benefits will never be cut and that they can retire at the age of 60.

They are in for a rude awakening. I can guarantee you that as the pension pandemic continues to wreak havoc on public finances, some very hard choices will be taken, including cutting pension benefits and raising the retirement age. This is why I think people need to start taking matters in their own hands and at the very least educate themselves about their investment choices.

Finally, a telling sign that global pension tension has reached a boiling point. According to Emily Brandon of U.S. News & World Report, a survey of Americans want pensions back as they are planning to retire:

Americans with shrunken nest eggs are feeling nostalgic for pensions. About half of those without a pension (55 percent), say the old-fashioned retirement plan would ease their money worries, according to a National Institute on Retirement Security survey. However, not all workers with pensions are sleeping soundly. Only about 65 percent of Americans with a pension are confident that the payout will be there at retirement.

Since traditional pensions aren’t likely to make a comeback in the near future, the survey also asked what workers are looking for in a retirement plan. The most desired features are portability (88 percent), followed by an employer contribution (84 percent), continuation of payments for a spouse after death (79 percent), and a regular check that cannot be outlived (79 percent), the telephone survey of 801 Americans age 25 or older by Mathew Greenwald & Associates and the National Institute on Retirement Security found. Respondents were less interested in managing investments (50 percent) and having an employer foot the entire bill (48 percent).

The number of workers with traditional pensions has been declining steadily for 2 decades. About 28 percent of workers consider a pension that pays out benefits for life to be a major source of retirement income, down from 46 percent in 1998 and 57 percent in 1988, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. More people are expected to rely on their 401(k) (42 percent) and Social Security (32 percent).

Tell us, what are you looking for in a retirement plan?

What am I looking for in a retirement plan? Let's start with a pension system that is based on full transparency and accountability. I would love to see pension funds consistently deliver risk-adjusted returns but that will only happen once they get the governance right and clean up benchmark abuses and systemic fraud.

On the issue of fraud, I almost gagged today as I read a Bloomberg article where Michael Travaglini, Massachusetts system executive director said that the move by some U.S. public pension funds to ban middlemen who market the services of private equity and hedge fund investments is misguided.

Misguided? What planet does Mr. Travaglini live in? Is he totally oblivious to how the web of middlemen "catering" to public pension funds has corrupted the U.S. pension system?

As global pension tension builds there will be more fallout. We are only beginning to see the first wave of the great pension tsunami.

When the full fury of the pension storm strikes, many will be surprised and shocked to find out how weak their retirement plans really are.

Does anyone else think it is high time for a global summit on the pension crisis?

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