52 Million Americans!

Location, location, location may be the real estate agents’ mantra, but it is also becoming critically important in determining the economic fate for the American worker. Regrettably, the recovery from the Great Financial Crisis has been incredibly uneven for a wide swath of our country.

The Economic Innovation Group has produced their annual county-by-county report and the analysis concludes that economic success is most often tied to location. Here are some of the highlights (lowlights):

  • New jobs are clustered in the economy’s best-off places, leaving one of every four new jobs for the bottom 60% of zip codes. (Yes, 60% are competing for only 25% of the jobs)
  • Most of today’s distressed communities saw ZERO net gains in employment and business establishments since 2000. In fact, more than half have seen net losses on both fronts.
  • Half of the adults living in distressed zip codes are attempting to find gainful employment in the modern economy armed with only a high school education, at best.

The analysis covers more than 26,000 counties representing 99.9% of the U.S. population. As the chart highlights, communities are grouped into five categories from Prosperous to Distressed. A further review of the data reveals that 52.3 million Americans live in distressed communities representing 17% of the population, but more than 50% of distressed communities are in the South, which only has roughly 37% of the total population.

The most Prosperous category is also the largest with regard to the percentage of the population. The 84.4 million Americans that live in prosperous communities account for 27% of the U.S. population. “From 2011 to 2015, the U.S. added 10.7 million jobs and 310,000 businesses and establishments, yet growth was limited to the top echelon of U.S. zip codes. According to the DCI, ’85 percent of prosperous zip codes saw rising numbers of business establishments and 88 percent registered job growth.'”

Given the significant gap between Prosperous and Distressed communities is it any wonder that many Americans are suffering? As was reported earlier this year, the U.S. has suffered consecutive drops in life expectancy for the first time since the early 1960s (1962-63). On average, Americans can expect to live for 78.6 years, which is a full 1.5 years less than the average for developed countries.

It is great that many Americans are prospering during the recovery from the GFC, but to claim that the U.S. is humming on all cylinders is a great injustice to many of our fellow citizens who have yet to benefit, and may never.

 

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Wait! Help May Just be on the Way

It is being reported that Laborers Local No. 265, Cincinnati, has applied to the US Treasury Department for benefit relief under the Multiemployer Pension Relief Act (MPRA) of 2014. If approved, plan participants will see a 40% across the board reduction in their benefits. For many, this is likely to be a crushing blow. According to CIO magazine, there are seven plans that have applied and been granted relief since MPRA while another 10 are under review at this time.

We are never in favor of benefit reductions on the plan participants given the economic hardship that will be created. We are especially concerned at this particular juncture when legislation is being debated/crafted in Washington DC through the Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans.  As regular readers of the KCS blog know, the Butch Lewis Act is one of the pieces of legislation being reviewed that would provide low-interest rate loans to Critical and Declining plans, of which Laborers 265 is one, that would likely extend the plan’s solvency long into the future (30-year loan).

“The Board of Trustees does not think it is reasonable to rely on the PBGC,” said the board in its recovery plan. We agree, which is why passage of the loan program under the BLA is incredibly necessary so as to eliminate the PBGC from this equation. As we’ve reported in previous blog posts, it is estimated that only about 1/8 of the promised benefit would be protected should the PBGC become involved.  We cannot let that happen.

 

S&P Predicts Reduction in Funds Available for the Social Safety Net

S&P is out with a recent analysis suggesting that many American cities with weak pension funded status will likely face challenges in meeting both pension obligations and other social safety net funding. According to an article by Cole Lauterbach, Illinois News Network, S&P Global Ratings is predicting that growing public retirement debt will eat up a greater share of the funds available to meet other taxpayer needs.

S&P’s annual report specifically highlights the funding for America’s largest 15 cities and their public debt. It is not surprising that S&P warns that taxes will rise and services will be cut if additional sources of revenue cannot be identified. This problem has been anticipated for a long time. What is disappointing is the fact that S&P does not focus on the management of the pension systems, but only speaks to the growing burden created by these plans. The failure of pension America to secure full-funding in the late 90’s when the war was won is a critical component not often discussed when highlighting the burgeoning deficits.

Furthermore, we are now 9 1/2 years into a historic equity market bull market and yet, funding hasn’t improved for many of these plans. Focusing on the return on asset (ROA) assumption has never been the right strategy, but it is particularly fraught with peril at this time. Pension systems should be managed against their promised benefits, and investment structure and asset allocation determined by the plan’s funded ratio. By adopting more of a liability focus, plans can remove much of the short-term funding volatility, while extending the investing horizon for the balance of the assets in order to capture the liquidity premium of equities, real estate, private equity, etc.

Pension obligation bonds are another means to close some of the funding gaps, but only if the proceeds are used to defease retired lives (and terminated vesteds) and not placed in a traditional asset allocation subject to all of the equity market’s volatility. It is one thing to repay the bond and interest, but an entirely different scenario to have to make up for a 20% decline in the value of the bond proceeds.  Let’s hope that America’s largest cities develop a willingness to try alternative approaches to the management of these critically important pension programs.

Nearly 6 in 10 Haven’t!

A decade after the Great Financial Crisis and we find that nearly 6 in 10 American workers have still not recovered from that horrific financial event. In a survey of workers from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, 56 percent of respondents said they have not fully recovered. 37% of those polled indicated that they had recovered somewhat, 12% said that they had yet to recover, and the remaining 7% felt that they never would recover.

This comes at a time when the country is enjoying a historic equity bull market, unemployment is at decade lows, and median family income has risen for the third consecutive year to >$61,000. What gives? Well, for one, many American workers lost more lucrative jobs during the GFC only to be forced into lower paying occupations just to survive. So, yes, they are employed, but those individuals will never be able to recover when annual incomes have been slashed to the extent that they were.

In addition, many American workers already had their “retirement” plan shifted from a traditional pension, such as a defined benefit fund to a defined contribution offering.  For many workers, the shock of seeing the markets fall by roughly 50% has steered many away from continuing to contribute. As a result, only about 50% of American workers have access to or are funding a retirement benefit. So when we discuss the terrific bull market, we are really addressing the 10% of Americans that own 84% of the outstanding stock.

Yes, median family incomes have begun to rise, but the 1.8% increase from 2016 didn’t keep pace with the growth in the CPI. Furthermore, a significant percentage of Americans are now tasked with funding health care and retirement to a greater extent than those from prior generations. Less traditional worker/employer relationships (on-call employment) means fewer benefits in general.  In addition, housing and education costs are also rising rapidly. Asking workers who have not been trained to fund, manage, and then disburse a retirement benefit is a poor policy decision.

 

 

 

More on the Butch Lewis Act

Happy to share the following graphic with you.

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As the above chart highlights, the recalculation by the CBO of the costs associated with the Butch Lewis Act makes it a clear-cut choice relative to the propping up of the PBGC. Furthermore, the absence of benefit cuts will reduce the likelihood that many of these retirees would need subsequent assistance through some kind of social safety net.

As we’ve discussed many times before, the benefits that these retirees receive are an engine to economic growth throughout the communities in which they live. Cuts to benefits impact more than just the pensioner.

More On The Proposed BLA Changes

In yesterday’s KCS Blog post, “No More Excuses”, we touched on the fact that CBO scoring for the Butch Lewis Act legislation showed only a $34 billion price tag down substantially from the original $101 billion calculated last year. Our friends at Cheiron (outstanding actuarial firm) have shared the following with us.

The CBO scoring came in at $34 billion, and reflects the following changes:

  1. Eligibility: the pension plan must be in critical and declining (C&D) status as of implementation date, or be critical as of the same date, but have a funded ratio of under 40% and the ratio of actives to in-actives is under 40%.
  2. PBGC financial assistance will not kick in until the plan is within 5 years of insolvency. This reduced the scoring significantly.
  3. The loan amount will be for Retirees and Term Vesteds (this is new).
  4. To incentivize the plans to pay back the loan, they will be offered two loan repayment options at the front end; either accept the 30-year interest with a balloon payment at the end, or 20 years of interest, with the loan then being amortized over the last ten years. Plans choosing the latter payback option will enjoy a 50 bps reduction in the loan repayment interest rate throughout the term of the loan.
  5. The maximum interest rate on any loan will be 20 bp above the prevailing 30 year Treasury bond rate.
  6. The PBGC will be able to recommend merger that they see fit, plans that do not want to merge will need to show why remaining independent would be in the best interests of plan participants.

The most significant changes, as we see, are the PBGC’s support being withheld until a plan is within 5 years of insolvency, the opportunity to repay the loan earlier and at a reduced interest rate, and the fact that the PBGC could recommend merging two or more plans.

We touched on the repayment options yesterday, but the possibility of receiving a loan with a 50 basis point discount is meaningful. It is too soon to know how many of the critical and declining plans would seek this option, but I would hope that a majority would be in a position to elect the accelerated payment schedule.

Cheiron mentioned that the CBO scoring was impacted significantly by the fact that the PBGC will withhold funds until a plan is within 5 years of insolvency under this new proposal. I have not seen the math behind this aspect of the revised bill to be able to comment on this provision. However, I am concerned that not having the assets in the fund from day one and growing at the projected ROA of 6.5% seems potentially harmful to the ultimate success of the loan program. But, then again, placing the PBGC assets into a traditional asset allocation more than 9 1/2 years into an equity bull market may be worse.  We’ll see if we can get a better handle on this revised language.

Lastly, the PBGC’s ability to recommend merging pension plans together is interesting. We, at KCS, are not sure at this time what the criteria are to make such a suggestion, but once the recommendation is made the onus falls on the plan sponsor to say why it doesn’t make sense for their plan. We often highlight the fact that municipal and state pension systems would benefit from greater economies of scale by combining pension systems.  Is this any different?

 

No Excuses Now!

The CBO has revised estimates for the costs associated with the loan program under the proposed Butch Lewis Act (BLA) legislation. This revised estimate is well below the CBO’s initial $101 billion projected cost and makes the BLA the most affordable option currently being considered by the Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans.  According to Senator Brown’s spokesperson, Jenny Donahue, the difference in the CBO’s calculation is the result of  “smart changes to the legislation that make it a better bill and the cheapest option for taxpayers”. 

Most importantly, it solves the multiemployer pension crisis without benefit cuts to the plan participants, who are facing the prospect of severe cuts to their benefits should Congress fail to act. As we’ve discussed previously, one option being considered is to allow these plans to fail thus placing responsibility for the management of the pension systems on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). The cost of doing “nothing” would be roughly $78 billion according to the PBGC’s Director Thomas Reeder. 

These proposed changes are not radical by any stretch of the imagination. What is being considered at this time is a cap of 0.2% on the interest rate charged to these plans relative to the 30-year U.S. Treasury Bond.  In addition, pension plans can save additional money by beginning to repay the loan in year 20, as opposed to year 30. If a plan chooses to prepay the loan beginning in year 20 a 0.5% lower interest rate will be made available and the pension plan would be required to make 10 annual installment payments until the loan is paid back.  Finally, only the neediest plans are eligible (those categorized as Critical and Declining plans that face insolvency within 15 years) to receive a loan, but I was under the impression that this grouping was the only cohort eligible in the first place.

Given the significant reduction in the CBO’s cost estimate, the potential paying back of the loan beginning 10 years earlier, and the fact that benefits can still be protected without burdening the PBGC, it seems that passing this legislation should be a no-brainer. There really are no more excuses for not passing this critically important legislation.  The financial fate for millions of American retirees is in the hands of the members of the JSC.  It is long past time for positive action.