Federal pension agency reports record deficit

In issuing its annual report on Friday, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation mixed the good news with the bad. The federal organization and its director, Josh Gotbaum, have made plenty of strides to protect DB plans at troubled companies across the U.S., particularly the embattled American Airlines.

Unfortunately, that's also resulted in a record $34 billion deficit, the biggest in the agency's 38-year history.

"PBGC continues its work to preserve pensions and to provide some of the best service out there, but continuing financial deficits will ultimately threaten its ability to pay benefits," Gotbaum noted, in a statement.

And the PBGC continues to hope that the Obama Administration will encourage Congress to allow the organization's board of directors to set premiums in the same way that other government and private insurers do, which could help offset some of the deficit; so far, that has not been the case.

In the meantime, the organization continues to focus on successes, such as Gotbaum's active role in helping some 130,000 American Airlines employees from losing their retirement benefits as the airline's parent company continues its bankruptcy proceedings.

Nearly 40,000 employees at other companies continue to have retirement benefits even after their firms emerged from bankruptcy, including businesses such as A&P grocery and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing.

In 2012, PBGC paid nearly $5.5 billion in benefits to 887,000 retirees whose plans had failed; 614,000 future retirees will receive benefits when they become eligible. In 2012, the agency assumed responsibility for the benefits of 47,000 people in newly failed plans.

PBGC administers two pension insurance programs:

Single-Employer Insurance Program The deficit in the program for single-employer pension plans widened to $29.1 billion, up from $23.3 billion in 2011. In 2012, 155 underfunded pension plans terminated, with PBGC stepping in to cover their benefit promises. The program insures the pensions of nearly 33 million workers and retirees in about 24,000 ongoing plans sponsored by private-sector employers. The single-employer program's potential exposure to future pension losses from financially weak companies increased to about $295 billion from the $227 billion reported in fiscal year 2011.

Multiemployer Insurance Program The separate insurance program for multiemployer pension plans posted a deficit of more than $5.2 billion, compared with $2.8 billion last year. PBGC does not become trustee of multiemployer plans, but instead gives financial assistance to insolvent plans. In 2012 such assistance totaled $95 million to 49 plans. Overall, the multiemployer program insures the pensions of about 10 million workers and retirees in some 1,450 plans. PBGC estimates that, as of September 30, 2012, it is reasonably possible that multiemployer plans may require future financial assistance in the amount of $27 billion.

PBGC depends not on taxpayer dollars, but on premiums paid by insured plans, investment income and assets from the recoveries of terminated plans.

Premiums have been set by Congress at levels that have been insufficient to cover the benefits PBGC must pay. Administrations of both parties had proposed that PBGC's Board, like other public and private insurers, be allowed to set its own premiums based on the circumstances of the individual plans and their sponsors.

Basing premiums on risk would encourage and reward companies who keep sound traditional pension plans. Under this approach the majority of companies that are financially sound would not have their premiums raised solely because of someone else's underfunding.

Recently, the Government Accountability Office suggested that Congress consider revising PBGC's premium structure to better reflect the agency's risk from individual plans and sponsors.


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