Is the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation headed for a federal bailout?
It certainly could be, although former PBGC Executive Director Bradley Belt says a rescue could be avoided provided three changes are put in place:
An overhaul to the agency’s "irrational" approach to setting premiums, a change in its governance, and so long as it’s given greater latitude to pursue what it believes are the best solutions to its problems.
As reported earlier this summer, the PBGC is in serious trouble. According to its most recent annual report, the condition of its single-employer insurance program has improved, but its multiemployer program has deteriorated substantially.
Also read: PBGC warns of swelling deficit in multiemployer plans
That’s not good news for anybody, either people with or hoping to receive pensions or taxpayers in general, since, according to Belt, it means that PBGC will be lining up for a bailout within the next 10 years if things don’t change.
That will mean low or no incomes for pensioners and would-be pensioners and high bills for taxpayers, many of whom have neither a pension nor any hope of one in today’s DC, not DB, world.
Belt, in an opinion piece that ran on Pensions and Investments’ website, noted that “the PBGC estimates that under current law the deficit will widen to almost $50 billion by 2023 from less than $9 billion in 2013. Both it and the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office project the multiemployer fund will run out of money by 2021.”
The report itself, as previously reported, is even bleaker, pointing out that “plan insolvencies — possibly affecting more than a million of the 10 million people in multiemployer plans — are now both more likely and more imminent than in our last report.”
The PGBC on Friday posted a link on its website to Belt’s piece. In doing so, the agency noted Belt’s column “does not reflect the official views of PBGC or any of its executive leaders and managers.” That said, some of what Belt proposes – in particular his point about premiums – reflects positions taken by the agency under outgoing PBGC Director Joshua Gotbaum, who announced his pending resignation in July.
According to Belt, one of the problems is that “(t)he PBGC lacks authority to set premium levels to cover losses or adjust them for more risky corporate sponsors.”
Because it is unable to “adjust premiums to cover actual and expected insurance losses,” the PBGC cannot boost premiums to cope with changing circumstances without congressional approval.
Another problem, Belt says, is that “Congress ... use(s) the pension insurance program as a convenient ATM to fund other government spending.”
Finally, he says, the PBGC’s hands are often tied so that it can’t pursue solutions without the OK of a number of government departments.
Belt does offer a solution, however, in three steps.
The second is to take the PBGC board out of the hands of the secretaries of Labor, Treasury and Commerce and instead install “financial market and pension experts drawn from both parties and business and labor,” so that fiduciary conflicts are eliminated and policies don’t change with every election.
The third solution is to provide “broader authority to work with both distressed corporate sponsors of single-employer plans and contributing employers and trustees of multiemployer plans to craft financial solutions to address specific problems and challenges.”
While Belt acknowledges that even the implementation of all three of these steps would still not solve all the agency’s problems, it “might be enough to avoid making the PBGC the next bailout.”
Belt, the Washington-based vice chairman of Orchard Global Asset Management, an alternative asset management firm, served as executive director of the PBGC from April 2004 to May 2006.
Also read: PBGC enforcement tactics draw fire