How Safe are Pension Funds

In the good old days nobody had to worry that her pension would disappear at some point in her retirement. Today the newspapers are full of stories about under-funded pensions, pension-funds looted by greedy executives and bankrupt companies and governments that are unable to meet obligations to retirees.

Unfortunately there is a lot of truth to the pension scare stories. The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (the federal agency that insures private pension plans) ran a $26 billion deficit in 2011 this was up from $23 billion in 2010. The agency is strapped for funds because of all the money lost in the 2007-2008 Economic Meltdown. The PBGC was coping with such problems as the bankruptcy of American Airlines.

Private Pension Funds

Private pension funds are usually managed directly by a company. The drawback here is that corporate management can raid the fund and use the money for other purposes. Wall Street Journal reporter and author Ellen Schultz has alleged that changes to the law have made it easier for management to get away with such plundering.

In her book Retirement Heist Schultz exposed how a number of companies including IBM, Verizon, GM and GE managed to divert private pension funds for other purposes. She demonstrated that a number of companies were able to effectively reduce pension payments to retired workers.

The good news for those with private pensions is that the PBGC will pay a portion of the pension if the fund runs out of money. Unfortunately the PBGC will only pay part of the money. To make matters worse there is little action the agency can take if a private pension is reduced.

Government Pension Funds

Pension funds for government workers could be in much worse shape than those in the private sector. Pension funds for state and local government workers in the United States were under funded by $2.5 trillion in 2011 according to Orin Kramer the former head of the New Jersey state pension fund. Kramer’s estimate was based on an examination of the top 25 public pension funds in the US.
This means that state and local government funds could reach a point where they would not be able to cover pension checks. Since these funds are not insured by the PBGC the pensioners would have to ask the states or local governments for the funds. The state of Illinois reportedly had plans to sell $3.5 billion worth bonds to pay for its pension obligations in 2011.

It is hard to believe that politicians would raise taxes or cut government services to cover such obligations. Even if they took such actions the officials would probably be voted out and replaced by somebody who would reverse course. Therefore significant cuts to government pensions on all levels in the US are likely in the near future.

How to Protect Yourself

If you are planning to rely on a pension when you retire you have two courses of action. You can hope that politicians and corporate executives will live up to their promises. Or you can take action to insure your own financial future. There are ways to compensate for lost pension income.
Betty and Wilma are both state government employees with good pensions. Betty trusted the politicians’ promises about the state retirement fund so she spent her extra money on a larger house, clothes and a cabin at the lake. Wilma didn’t believe what the politicians said so she used part of her salary to purchase a deferred annuity. When she retired Betty and her husband bought a new motor home. When Wilma retired she used her savings to buy an immediate annuity.

A few years later Betty saw a news story about the crisis at the state pension fund and noticed her pension payment getting smaller. Then a year or so later the pension check stopped coming and Betty and her husband had nothing but Social Security to live on. Betty and her husband ended up having to sell everything and move in with their son and daughter in law.

Wilma meanwhile was receiving her Social Security and monthly checks from two different insurance companies. She had plenty of money and was able to enjoy her retirement with her husband in her home. Wilma even had enough money to travel and buy a new car.

The moral of this little story is obvious: you must take action to protect yourself and ensure your own retirement income. Guaranteed pension incomes have gone the way of the Dodo Bird and the Eight Track Tape they are extinct.

Steven Hart is a freelance writer and a Financial Advisor from Cary, IL. He writes about Annuity topics like Ordinary Annuity, Retirement Annuity, and Income Annuity.


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