Now, you all know that I’ve frequently written and spoken on the much-larger-than-the-bank-failure risk in our nation’s pension programs for quite some time and you’ll note that no public official has stepped up to the plate to address this issue head on. In fact, the Obama Administration spent another $30 billion in attempt to bury the reckoning that will be triggered when AIG finally is forced to disclose the fact that it’s managed annuities are no more. But we shouldn’t worry. The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation has put the best minds on positioning their obligations for success in the hands of companies with an impeccable reputation for getting the market right. It has contracted management to BlackRock, Goldman Sachs, and J.P. Morgan who manage “very significant real estate and private equity allocations and supplement staff with a full range of services…at a fixed price”.
A little piece of data that would be helpful to realize is that the PBGC actuarial report (the “stress test” if you will for insurance companies) reported that, on September 30, 2008, their single-employer program exposure included $57.32 billion for the 3,850 plans that have terminated and $12.61 billion for the 27 probable terminations. This number was calculated prior to September 30, 2008. There is no evidence that it included things like the Bernard Madoff-triggered pension collapse of East River (taken over by PBGC on March 10, 2009. The anticipation of pension assumptions of Propex (3,300 pensioners on March 23, 2009) and Intermet (4,500 pensioners on March 13, 2009) are also rounding errors in the face of the massive automotive and supply chain challenges that lie ahead in the coming days and weeks.
PBGC seeks to reassure the American public that it’s in good shape (and is obviously well managed with BlackRock, Goldman, and J.P. Morgan) but there are some details that should be considered that may suggest another story. Let’s look past the fiscal year end deficit of $11.5 billion and the current $69 billion in known liabilities. Let’s also look past the recently reported 6.5% drop in returns on professionally managed assets. Rather, let’s look at the fundamentals that drive the actuarial data which is supposed to tell us that all’s in hand.
You’re welcome to review the fine print yourself (I would encourage that by the way) but it’s important to note that over the past nearly two decades, SPARR or the Small Plan Average Recovery Ratio, has dropped from 12.01% in 1991 to 4.26% in 2008. The SPARR is the percentage of assets recovered by the PBGC from plans that they have taken over in the year of termination compared to the outstanding liability assumed. So a dropping SPARR is a BAD thing. And, a dropping SPARR together with a negative asset return on managed funds is a really bad thing.
In short, if you still are scratching your head wondering why you keep hearing about things being “too big to fail”, realize that they are all being propped up to avoid the musical chairs conundrum that will soon be sitting at every dinner table. The real problem, unlike those economists who want to blame 1930’s economic theory for velocity and money problems, is the one no one has the courage or accountability to face. That is that we made a number of promises that are now in default. And, we will all have to understand that we all must find our way, together, out of this mess. It will begin by extending the table to those who are about to find out that what they were planning to live on isn’t going to be there.