And Then There Were None!

It has been reported by the WSJ that Murray Energy’s bankruptcy filing removes from the Coal Miners Pension system the last major contributor. This action places in jeopardy the retirement benefits for roughly 90,000 former and current workers and their families, while also potentially impacting healthcare benefits for many, as well. The urgency for Congress to address the ever-growing retirement crisis within the multiemployer space is palpable.

There are many factors contributing to the demise of the Coal Miners pension, now estimated to be at only 38% funded, but the fact that at least eight coal companies have filed for bankruptcy protection since last October means that the plan is receiving contributions (roughly $30 million in 2018) that are being dwarfed by benefit payments estimated at greater than $600 million.

There is no way that this plan, or any plan with a similar asset to liability ratio, could earn enough to ever meet all of the plan’s future obligations. The only way to “save” this plan is through an injection of funds as a lifeline or through benefit cuts that would obviously be tragic for those workers and their families that were promised the benefits if they risked their lives on a daily basis.

The Coal Miners plan was forecast to run out of money in 2022, and it was one of three plans examined by the Cheiron actuarial firm that was going to need additional assistance beyond the loan proceeds from the Butch Lewis Act (H.R. 397) to meet all of its obligations. It appears now that 2022 may be wishful thinking if the last of the major contributors can no longer meet its obligation. The demise of these companies and the subsequent bankruptcy filings also means that withdrawal liability is not being paid that would have at least supported the current funded status.

Is Congress willing to see these hard-working Americans lose most of their promised benefit? There is legislation before the Senate that could help. Action is needed before this plan, and others, suffer a total collapse. The damage to many local economies will also take a toll on small businesses and employment in those communities.

SECURE what?

The House of Representatives passed the SECURE Act (Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement) earlier this year with near-unanimous support from the members (417-3).  Although we are pleased to see the bi-partisan effort, is this where their energy should be focused? The bill has 29 provisions – yes, you read that correctly, 29 distinct elements that are being addressed, but regrettably, not a single one of those provisions addresses the crisis unfolding within the defined benefit space for multiemployer pensions.

Most of the Act’s focus is on the defined contribution space. We applaud the idea that part-time workers may get coverage, that small business will get some relief in establishing plans, that participants can hold off on mandatory distributions (RMDs), and that other provisions are geared to improving coverage, which remains modest, at best.  However, we have millions of Americans in struggling DB plans that may lose a substantial percentage of their promised retirement benefit if nothing is done. The Butch Lewis Act (H.R. 397) is the only legislation focused on this crisis.

DC plans were never intended to be anyone’s primary retirement vehicle. They were established to be supplemental savings accounts. The problem with DC plans is that they are self-directed and funded (or not) by individuals with little discretionary income and/or knowledge of how to successfully manage the program and eventually the distribution of funds.

At least the House of Representatives has been trying to get something done to tackle retirement issues so that our workers can successfully create meaningful retirement accounts providing them with the means to retire with dignity. While the House has been busy, the Senate seems totally absent. We need true leadership at this time to address both the SECURE Act and the Butch Lewis Act before it gets too late. If I had my preference, I’d prefer to see the BLA passed first as the cost of this program grows with each passing day while the number of troubled plans expands.

A Drop in the Bucket – wake up!

Failure to pass important legislation to protect and preserve critical and declining multiemployer plans will lead to a national crisis that will not only impact the nearly 1.4 million Americans who were promised a pension, but the economic fall-out will take a much greater toll on the U.S. economy. The economic stimulus provided by annual benefit payments dwarfs the potential cost, yet our august Senators fail to understand this basic math. Could it be that their politics is blinding them? It certainly seems so.

In the latest display of economic ignorance, we have Senator Enzi (Republican from Wyoming) railing about the potential impact as calculated by the CBO of $49 billion over 10 years. Is he kidding? The Republican “lead” (a term that I am using quite loosely) Senate has overseen a series of annual Federal budget deficits that have been topping $1 trillion. The roughly $5 billion per year would be equivalent to <0.05% of the annual deficit.

Furthermore, he is assuming, and we know what the problem with that is, that the loans involved in the legislation H.R. 397 would not be repaid. As we’ve mentioned many times, the actuarial firm Cheiron calculated that all but three of the pension systems receiving the low-interest rate loans would be able to pay back the loan upon maturity significantly reducing that $49 billion estimated impact on the taxpayer. More important, these plans would be able to protect and preserve the promised benefits for at least the next 30 years instead of seeing these plans fail within the next 15 years.

We need true statesmen at this time who will forego their ideological politics by putting forward a bi-partisan approach to solving this crisis. The plan participants didn’t create this crisis, but they are certainly the ones that will be most harmed should our leaders once again fail us. If Senator Enzi thinks that he’s protecting the U.S. taxpayer he should realize that the lost economic stimulus will have a greater negative impact on them and our broader economy.

PBGC Guaranteed Payments Announced

The PBGC has issued new guarantee limits for single-employer plans that fail in 2020 which will increase by 3.65% over 2019 limits, due to ERISA indexing requirements. Regrettably, the guarantee limits for multiemployer plans are not indexed and therefore have not changed. The PBGC maximum guarantee for participants in single-employer plans is determined using a formula prescribed by federal law that calls for periodic increases tied to a Social Security index.

For a 65-year-old whose plan has failed in 2020, the maximum monthly guarantee will now be $5,812.50 ($5,231.25 for Joint and 50% Survivor Annuity). The guarantee for a 65-year-old in a multiemployer plan remains at $12,870 for the YEAR, which is why we need pension reform approved this year in order to preserve the more than 120 critical and declining plans before plan participants are thrust into the PBGC insurance pool that is leaking badly!

But, Did They Really?

Milliman is reporting that the aggregate funded ratio for the U.S. Multiemployer pension system improved to 82% from 74% during the first six months, as they estimated that the average plan’s investment gain was 13.4%. It has been a great start to the year for investments, but this metric masks what has truly happened to Pension America in general and multiemployer plans specifically.

As we reported in our October 8, 2019 blog post “How Have DB Plans Faired in 2019”, our fairly conservative asset mix is up 15.7% through September 30th. Regrettably, multiemployer plans (as well as public funds) continue to discount plan liabilities at the ROA (roughly 7.25%). Of course, a dramatic outperformance by the asset side of the equation looks great versus a static discount rate, but the reality is much different. We know that U.S. interest rates have plummeted this year. According to Ryan ALM, valuing liabilities using the U.S. Treasury STRIPS curve has liability growth at 17.6% YTD (9/19).  With this view, we see that pension system asset allocations have actually failed to keep pace with the liability side of the equation. In this case, there is no way that the funded ratios have improved, let alone dramatically.

Why is this important? First, asset allocation decisions should reflect the funded status of a plan, and as plans get better funded they should take risk off the table. Doing this based on incorrect information compounds the problem.  Second, plans often review benefit decisions (enhancements) when a plan’s funded status sits at certain levels. Thinking that your plan is better funded than it actually is would likely lead to inappropriate decisions. I first witnessed this when I was a consultant to a large state plan in the late 1980s – this issue continues today.

Milliman is also reporting that those plans currently identified as critical and declining did not show the same relative improvement. This is not surprising given their significant call on capital each and every year. As we’ve argued for many years, these plans need a significant infusion of capital in order to survive. They can’t grow their way to success with a significantly declining asset base let alone discounting liabilities at a true rate.

The fact that we still operate under multiple accounting rules for discounting liabilities is just wrong. There may be pain initially with a true accounting for the value of the promises, but once that data is known we can begin to solve the true problem. Pretending that liabilities are X when they are in fact some factor greater than X needs to stop. It is time to wake up and face the truth.

 

You Bet That It Is Important!

As regular readers of our blog know, we spend most of our effort focusing on pension-related issues generally and the importance of knowing one’s liabilities more specifically.  However, we do depart from our mission periodically to bring to our readers interesting and hopefully timely topics. One such topic is currency management. As U.S. institutional clients have gotten more comfortable investing overseas in a variety of strategies, the management of currencies has taken on greater importance. The fact that the U.S. $ has continued to strengthen versus most foreign currencies creates a bit of urgency for the U.S. investor.

For years, I’ve been under the impression (incorrectly, I now realize) that currencies wash out over time and as a result, they shouldn’t be a primary concern. Well, like most relationships in our investment world, cycles can be rather lengthy providing the investor with ample opportunity to capture potential alpha from these currency cycles.  I’ve recently uncovered a terrific paper from 2016 by Mark Astley, CEO, Millennium Global Investments on the subject of currency management, and I thought that it should be shared. Please don’t reach out to me with any questions as you would be barking up the wrong tree, but I suspect that they would be more than happy to respond. I hope that you find this article as useful as I did.

World Math Day

There is a day designated for almost everything that we can imagine, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to read that today is World Math Day.  Let’s celebrate! Another fact that I didn’t know is that those living in NJ hate Math??? According to the folks at Brainly, a math tutoring company, NJ ranks just behind Tennessee as the state whose residents hate Math the most.  Rounding out the top five states with the most Math haters would be Virginia, Arizona, and Maryland.

Now, we have often railed about the demise of DB plans in favor of DC plans because we are asking a lot of our citizens when it comes to funding, managing, and then disbursing a retirement benefit. We’ve commented that it is a difficult math problem for even those that like Math at places such as MIT. Trying to figure out how much to put aside, if there is anything to put aside from one’s paycheck after all the necessities have been covered, so that an appropriate nest egg may be accumulated is very difficult. In years past, workers were generally confident that they had some control over their careers, but as we have found out, one’s employer may have a very different expectation as you enter the later stages of your working life.

Couple the funding challenge with myriad options for investing your hard-earned contributions and you have a second difficult challenge. Yes, I understand that target-date-funds (TDFs) have made it somewhat easier for the average individual, but these vehicles come in all shapes and sizes, and they aren’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination. I still have a problem understanding how an individual’s allocation has gotten more conservative later in life when most of the assets are plowed into fixed income when the 10-year U.S. Treasury Note has a yield of only 1.74% (as of 10/15) and bonds have enjoyed a 30+ year bull market, but that is what seems to be the general course of action.

Finally, we have the mind-numbing issue of how to spend down your accumulated retirement benefit. Many people are leery of spending it too quickly. But for many others there is the fear of the unknown. How long am I going to live? What will my medical expenses be as I age? Will I (or my spouse) need a residential facility later in life? We know how ridiculously expensive long-term care can be. The traditional DB pension plan protected those fortunate to have one by providing a monthly check that eliminated the need to address many of the uncertainties as we age.

I like Math, but more importantly, I’ve spent 38 years in the investment management industry so the daunting task of managing a DC plan is less stressful for someone like me. Unfortunately, it isn’t for the average worker. Our citizens have enough to worry about. They shouldn’t have to wonder if a proper retirement will ever be in the cards.