Opinion

Felix Salmon

Felix Salmon smackdown watch, pensions edition

Felix Salmon
Feb 23, 2014 20:10 UTC

Many thanks to John Arnold for responding to my post about how he (and his foundation) should approach pension reform. We agree on many things, it turns out; but there’s one big area where we disagree, which is encapsulated most cleanly in the question of what exactly is going on in San Jose mayor Chuck Reed’s Pension Reform Act. I characterized Reed’s ballot initiative as “allowing governments to default on their pension obligations”, and “an attempt to renege on governments’ existing pension obligations”. Arnold says I’m entirely wrong about that:

Salmon repeatedly claims that my wife, Laura, and I and our foundation, LJAF, “support plans making it easier for governments to default on existing promises.” Nothing could be further from the truth. We strongly believe that pension reform should not aim to cut or eliminate benefits…

The initiative explicitly honors and guarantees the benefits earned for work done to date. The only question here is whether the employer and employees should be able to negotiate retirement compensation for work that is not yet performed. In other words, does an employee who was hired yesterday have the guaranteed right to earn pension benefits under the same formula for all future years of service? Under Reed’s proposal, cities in California could negotiate with employees, through the collective bargaining process, to change retirement compensation for future service just as they would do for salaries or health benefits. That change would have no effect whatsoever on benefits that have already been earned.

So, who’s right? In order to answer that question, it’s helpful to follow one of Arnold’s links, to a paper on teacher pensions which was put written by the Arnold Foundation’s Josh McGee. The paper addresses a serious problem: that “teachers accrue relatively meager benefits through much of their careers, and then abruptly become eligible for much more as they near retirement age”. For instance, here’s what happens for a teacher who enters the New York system at age 25, if you value pension wealth as the present value of your pension payments:

cr_79f2.gif

For the first decade, the teacher accrues essentially zero pension wealth, while the value of the pension rises in value by $101,667 in the two years between age 61 and age 63.

Other school systems have even more dramatic backloading. Here, for instance, are McGee’s charts for Miami and Las Vegas. Look at the darkest line, the one showing “pension wealth” over time. In Miami, that wealth can jump by some $250,000 in just one year; in Vegas, the jump is more than $300,000.

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So here’s the question. Put yourself in the position of someone who’s been teaching in Las Vegas for 29 years. The way that John Arnold sees things, over that time, you’ve managed to earn pension benefits worth roughly $200,000. If you teach for one more year, then the value of your pension benefits soars to more than $500,000: effectively, between salary and increased pension benefits, you’re being pad about $400,000 for that one year of teaching. Arnold wants school systems to “be able to negotiate retirement compensation for work that is not yet performed” — which is to say, to be able to pay you much less than $400,000 for that 30th year of teaching.

But that’s a very self-serving view of what’s going on in this pension scheme. Las Vegas teachers get their $500,000 package in return for 30 years of teaching, not in return for the 30th year of teaching. There’s a big difference. And it’s a difference that Arnold, for one, understands.

When a 25-year-old teacher joins the Las Vegas system, Arnold believes (and I agree with him) that the government should pay real money into its pension plan, in order to cover the actuarial costs that she’s going to qualify for in retirement. He doesn’t think that the government should drag its feet and wait until she’s 54 before it suddenly pays in an extra $350,000 or so: that’s not how pension plans work. Instead, they work by putting aside a certain amount of money every year, so that everybody in the system can receive, when they retire, the benefits guaranteed by the system. Indeed, when Arnold complains about pension plans being underfunded, what he means is that local governments aren’t putting enough money away to cover the sums which will be owed, in the future, to teachers who today are in their 20s or 30s. Those sums — and those funding shortfalls — are real, and substantial.

Arnold and I agree on what has been going on here: governments have promised juicy pension benefits in the future, in lieu of paying higher salaries in the present. Sometimes, they’ve failed to fully fund those benefits. But the promises are real.

Let’s make up some numbers for the sake of argument, and let’s ignore things like healthcare for the sake of simplification. Take a 25-year-old teacher on a salary of $50,000, where the government needs to make annual payments of another $9,000 per year in order to fully fund her pension. Effectively, what’s happened here is that the government and the unions have agreed on a total package worth $59,000 per year, of which $50,000 is salary and $9,000 is made up of pension promises. How much are those pension promises worth after ten years of service, in today’s dollars? The answer is about $125,000, if you assume the government’s investments grow at a real rate of 4% per year. The government has a liability to the teacher, which might be funded or might be unfunded, of roughly that amount. (In fact, the promise is worth more than $125,000, because of the effect of other teachers dropping out of the workforce before they reach ten years of service.)

If you ask Arnold, on the other hand, he’ll tell you that the teacher’s “benefits earned for work done to date” are basically zero — since if the teacher retired today, she would not be eligible for pretty much anything.

I disagree. I think that if the government has a liability — and Arnold is busy telling anybody who will listen that the government has a substantial liability, in this case — then the teacher has an equal and opposite asset. And it seems to me that the point of the Reed plan is to give the government the ability to take that liability, and — at least in the case of the teacher with ten years’ tenure — write it down to zero. Which would also have the effect of taking the teacher’s asset and writing it down to zero.

When you write down a future liability, you’re defaulting on your future obligations: that’s why I consider the Reed plan to be a means of reneging on existing promises.

Here’s another way of thinking about our hypothetical teacher: when she joins the school system, she’s granted a set of Restricted Pension Units, which vest over the course of 30 years. If she stays in the system until she’s 55, then those RPUs will be worth more than $500,000, in today’s money. But because of the way that money compounds, and because of the likelihood that she won’t stay in the system until she’s 55, the cost to the government of granting those RPUs, in year one, and also in any subsequent year, is only $9,000.

Nevertheless, those RPUs have been granted, and once granted, they belong to the teacher, not to the government. She can leave any time she likes, and leave most of her RPUs unvested. But that’s her choice, not the government’s. Unless the Reed initiative passes, in which case the government can essentially confiscate all of her unvested RPUs, and replace them with something else.

Now I agree with Arnold and McGee that there are better ways of designing pension plans, in a world where it’s not reasonable to expect teachers to stay in the same district for 30 years, and where it is reasonable to expect teachers with ten years’ service to have built up a meaningful retirement benefit, over the course of that decade, if they decide to move. I agree that if we were starting from scratch, we would design a plan which would look more like the grey upwardly-curving line in McGee’s charts, rather than the black back-loaded line.

But I disagree that if you’ve been teaching for ten years, then the pension promises that the government has made to you are, at this point, essentially worthless.

So here’s what I think should happen. First — and I agree with Arnold on this point — the government should make every effort to fully fund its existing and future obligations. Then, once those obligations are being fully funded, the government can start negotiating with the unions about ways in which to start offering choices to new teachers, and possibly even existing ones. If the government’s going to be spending $9,000 per year on your retirement benefits, where would you like that money to go? Would you like to join the existing defined-benefit plan? Or would you like to opt for something more like McGee’s smooth-accrual system?

The point is to ensure that everybody who has been promised something by the government has the right to demand that the government keep those promises. Not all governments keep all of their promises, but breaking promises is a serious thing: it’s called bankruptcy. We shouldn’t let cities and states get away with it by dint of a simple ballot initiative.

Update: John Arnold responds.

COMMENT

@BenWheeler, you have that very confused. The interest rate on munis is only relevant if the local government borrows the money to fund the pensions. If they FAIL to fund the pensions, then they are in essence borrowing from the pension fund at a rate equal to the assumed investment returns (typically 8%+). They are promising to cover a gap that is growing at that rate.

That exceptionally high implied interest rate is the reason why towns are floundering under this burden. What may originally have been a manageable obligation has doubled every 9 years (with continuing underfunding exacerbating the problem further). Carry that out over a few decades and you have a “debt” that is impossible to meet.

What they SHOULD do is float bonds to fund the pensions in full. The borrowing costs, as you observe, are much cheaper. And if the rating agencies complain about that, then perhaps they need to tighten their belt a bit? Hiding the obligations in underfunded pensions doesn’t make them any easier to afford.

Posted by TFF17 | Report as abusive

How should John Arnold approach pension reform?

Felix Salmon
Feb 16, 2014 00:23 UTC

The other shoe has dropped in the case of the $3.5 million which the Laura and John Arnold Foundation donated to a PBS series on “pensions in peril”. The recipient of the money, New York PBS affiliate WNET, has given it back. Understanding what’s really going on here, however, isn’t easy, so bear with me on this one.

If you go to the WNET website to learn more about the Arnold funding, you won’t find any announcement about the station giving the money back. There is a statement, but it’s not easy to find: it seems to have been emailed to news organizations as a PDF. Tellingly, the filename on the PDF is STATEMENTFINALFINAL2: it clearly went through a lot of revisions.

The one web page I can find with the statement is at the PBS ombudsman’s post on the subject, which was mostly written before the decision to return the money had been announced. As far as the WNET website is concerned, the only post is their original, defensive one — their initial high-dudgeon response to David Sirota’s original article.

At this point, it’s important to make a distinction between PBS, on the one hand, and WNET, on the other. I’ll quote the ombudsman:

This is more an issue of what the New York station, the well-known Channel Thirteen, did than what PBS or even the PBS NewsHour did. PBS does not produce television programs. It distributes programs produced by member stations, all of which are independent, or by independent filmmakers. The PBS NewsHour is produced at WETA just outside Washington, D.C. For all of its almost 40-year history, the NewsHour has been a five weekday-night program. In September of last year, it added a Saturday and Sunday night weekend edition. That program comes under the PBS NewsHour rubric but it is produced by WNET in New York and, as far as I can tell, none of the “Pension Peril” segments have been aired by the weeknight NewsHour.

In light of this distinction, the joint statement from PBS and WNET makes a bit more sense: the statement from the mothership is just that “PBS stands by WNET’s reporting in this series”, while the apologies and sword-falling are confined to the New York affiliate.

“We made a mistake, pure and simple,” said Stephen Segaller, Vice President of Programming at WNET. “The PBS NewsHour Weekend is a new production and while we thought we were following the guidelines and the correct vetting processes, we were incorrect.”

There’s a whole world of subtext in that phrase, “we thought we were following the guidelines” — a lot of which my former boss Jim Ledbetter teased out in his 1997 book Made Possible By…: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States. The big problem is that public broadcasting has become dependent on corporate financing — and has become very good at coming up with programming which represents corporate interests. The issue with the Arnold Foundation deal, in today’s PBS, was not that the content of the Pensions in Peril series was too aligned with corporate interests. Rather it was — well, let’s go back to what WNET’s Segaller told the NYT:

On Thursday, before the statement came out, he said in a telephone interview that WNET believed the funding did not violate PBS’s “perception” rule, because the foundation’s goals of encouraging public discussion were separate from Mr. and Mrs. Arnold’s desire for reform.

By telephone Friday, he said WNET officials reversed course after discussions with PBS “about both the facts and the optics. We all take very, very seriously any suggestion that there’s a perception problem about the integrity of our work or the sources of our funding, and we came to the conclusion that it’s better to err on the side of caution.”

He added that the grant had been solicited with “absolute conviction” that the foundation was an acceptable funder.

In other words, WNET still doesn’t believe that there was any actual conflict here — it just believes that there’s “a perception problem”. He’s returning the money because of “the optics” — which is to say, because Sirota’s article came out, and it made PBS look bad.

What Segaller told the NYT on Friday is surely closer to his real beliefs than the words put into his mouth in version “final final 2″ of the official PBS/WNET statement. And yet, the conflict here is, in reality, clear as day.

Firstly, The Laura and John Arnold Foundation was the only sponsor of the Pensions in Peril series. (This despite the fact that, as LJAF spokeswoman Leila Walsh told me, “the grant to WNET was made with the explicit understanding that WNET would secure multiple funders for the project”.) Secondly, the Pensions in Peril series covered a California ballot initiative on pensions being run by San Jose mayor Chuck Reed. Thirdly, the ballot initiative was directly funded by John Arnold, and Reed himself thanked “people from the Arnold Foundation” for putting him in touch with other funders. In other words, the TV program covering the initiative got all of its funding from someone with an unapologetic dog in the fight. It’s hard to come up with a clearer conflict than that.

And yet WNET and LJAF are both convinced that there was no real conflict. WNET’s Segaller draws a distinction between the Arnold Foundation, on the one hand, and “Mr. and Mrs. Arnold’s desire for reform”, on the other: it seems that taking money from the Arnolds themselves would have been a clear no-no, but that taking money from their foundation was quite different. Similarly, the foundation’s Walsh was at pains to tell me that “LJAF is not funding the California ballot initiative. We are a 501(c)(3) private foundation. As such, we do not participate in political activities, make political contributions, or advocate for the passage or defeat of legislation.”

This invisible-to-the-naked eye distinction, between John Arnold, on the one hand, and John Arnold’s foundation, on the other, was all that WNET needed to go after the foundation for funding. And it was all that the foundation needed to convince itself that there was no conflict involved and that it could happily write a $3.5 million check to WNET. No one seems to have stopped to ask whether such Clintonian niceties created, in words that pension reformers might understand, a substantial, if contingent, reputational liability. Even though similar concerns have been raised in the past.

That said, the Arnold Foundation has a do-over now: it has its $3.5 million back, and says that “we are going to keep working to educate the public” about pension reform. And after speaking to Josh McGee, the Arnold Foundation’s policy guy on the subject, I’m convinced that there’s more to the foundation’s policy stance than a cackling, plutocratic desire to impoverish the elderly. McGee’s “solution paper” on the subject lays out four goals for pension reform, all of which are laudable:

Sound pension reform meets four general criteria: (1) establish transparency with respect to the true cost of the benefits promised to public employees; (2) mandate that the pension plan sponsor pay the full cost of accrued benefits each year; (3) mandate that the pension plan sponsor pay down the unfunded accrued liability over a reasonable time horizon and (4) improve the generational equity, portability and security of benefits for public employees.

I don’t love the paper as a whole, which happily enumerates all the problems with defined-beneft pensions, without going into any detail about the equally big problems with defined-contribution pensions. The paper concentrates on state and local pensions, for instance, yet ignores the fact that those governments are still responsible for their elderly citizens’ wellbeing, even (especially) if they’re paying those retired citizens very little.

Pension reform is a bit like education reform: the facile solutions are not the correct solutions. In education, reformers tend to point to bad teachers, complain about how difficult they are to fire, and then propose that the necessary course of action is to test those teachers, evaluate them, and fire them at will if they’re not performing up to snuff. With pensions, reformers tend to point to firefighters or policemen who retired at age 50 with a fat pension after 25 years’ service, and who then happily work elsewhere for another couple of decades while simultaneously drawing a pension for much longer than they were actually working. On this view, the necessary reform is to roll back the plans which allow such behavior.

Take a step back, however, and what really needs to be done, in both cases, is a much bigger project — a project where there’s no need to take aim right now at public-sector employees. Start at the top, with the way the schools and the pension funds are structured; once you’ve fixed that, then maybe start moving down the ladder a little, if it’s still necessary — which it might not be.

In the case of pensions, McGee’s criteria are a good place to start. Insofar as there’s a pensions problem, it’s in large part a function of how labor negotiations work in the real world. Local governments, operating on a tight budget, can’t offer the kind of pay rises that the unions demand — and so the unions accept juicier pension benefits in lieu. The present value of the pension benefits is invariably larger than the amount of money the unions would accept as a simple raise — but so long as the current government doesn’t need to pay anything, both the government and the unions are happy. The unions get valuable rights for life, while the government gets to leave for its successors the question of how to pay for them.

So before we start talking about allowing governments to default on their pension obligations (which is the goal of the California ballot initiative being supported by Arnold), let’s start by shoring up the pensions system as a whole. Make sure firstly that pension plans are funded, or on a path to get that way, and secondly that any future pension promises are funded as well — that an actuarially-derived sum of cash is put into pension funds whenever a local-government employer makes a pension promise. (The federal government is a bit different, since it has a lot more latitude in terms of being able to find the money to service future pension obligations.) Finally, start working on making local-government pension plans more portable, so that people don’t feel forced to stay in the same town and the same job for decades, and so that people who work for local government for five or six years can leave their jobs with some improved retirement security.

None of this will be easy: the whole reason why pension obligations started ballooning in the first place was that local governments didn’t have the money to hand out pay raises. So the unions will push back against these ideas: they like any system which makes it easier for them to accrue valuable benefits at negligible up-front cost to the government. But if you want to guarantee vocal opposition which is almost impossible to overcome, then your best way of doing that is to combine or replace these kind of reforms with an attempt to renege on governments’ existing pension obligations.

Again, it’s easy to draw attention to outliers — the handful of municipalities which have literally gone bankrupt, and where pensioners are reduced to the status of unsecured creditors. The argument you hear from the pension reformers is that if we don’t take relatively modest action now, there will be a much more drastic reckoning — involving a spate of bankruptcies — down the road. They might be right, but this is the point at which they start to sound like Meredith Whitney.

Most municipal bonds are still trading at very low yields, and there’s no reason to consider pension obligations to be any less, well, obligatory than bond obligations. Governments have to make good on them, so let’s push hard to increase the degree to which pension plans in general are being funded. If the Arnold Foundation confined itself to that, and didn’t simultaneously support plans making it easier for governments to default on existing promises, it would still face opposition. But there would be much less of it, and the foundation’s chances of achieving real legislative success would surely rise substantially.

COMMENT

Something has to give, eventually. TFF make’s, IMO, a very salient point. Plan funding growth assumptions are a large part of this problem.

Rosy plan return assumptions wallpaper over outsized promised benefits. Which as you point out Felix, are often granted in lieu of current compensation.

I argue that again in this case the issue is that as a society we place very little emphasis on personal responsibility and even less on a delay of gratification. We want it all and we want it now for the most part. Don’t give it up now and you’ll pay dearly.

I’m fortunate to participate in a private pension plan (with COLA’s) that is fully funded and always has been. My previous employer drummed into the staff that retirement finances were a “three legged stool”. One leg pension, one leg social security and one leg…..are you ready? Personal savings. Wow, how radical.

Those of us who listened are doing quite well in spite of all the financial angst.

Posted by Missinginaction | Report as abusive

Pension politics

Felix Salmon
Feb 13, 2014 00:12 UTC

David Sirota has a very important scoop today: the PBS series “Pension Peril” has secretly* been funded by John Arnold, a billionaire powerbroker with an aggressively anti-pensions political agenda. This looks very bad for PBS — but it’s also bad for Arnold, who generally gets glowing press, and who would seem to have no good reason to have insisted on secrecy when writing the $3.5 million check that made the series possible.

The PBS series in question seems to fall uncritically into line with the beliefs of Arnold and other Very Serious People — that pension liabilities are a huge problem, and that the only way to fix them is to reduce the amount that pensioners get paid. But of course it’s not nearly as simple as that.

The John Arnolds of this world tend to assume that three things are always true:

  • Defined-contribution pensions are better than defined-benefit pensions;
  • Funded pensions are better than unfunded pensions;
  • Individual pensions are better than group pensions.

It’s easy to see why people think this way. If there’s no money, then what assurance do you have — really — that you’ll be paid? If you have to share your pension with others, how can you be sure that they won’t end up with more than their fair share? Isn’t it better to just keep all your money for yourself, and make sure to save enough that you can live well in retirement?

This is a pretty libertarian, every-man-for-himself view of retirement: it makes few concessions to the idea that there’s a societal obligation to the elderly, or that groups can achieve more together than they can individually. At heart, it’s a view which benefits people like John Arnold, who pay a lot of taxes, at the expense of the poorest members of society, who might take out more than they put in. And, of course, it’s a view which benefits successful investors, like John Arnold, over schmucks who have no idea how to best invest their paltry 401(k) funds.

In reality, big pooled pension funds are much more efficient — and generate much higher returns — than anything an individual is likely to be able to manage. And in the specific realm of public finance, the case for group-funded defined-benefit schemes is even stronger. That’s because public servants — police officers, elementary school teachers, you name it — tend to have much longer tenure at their jobs than, say, hot-shot fund managers. They are also willing to work for relatively low salaries precisely because they know that their pension benefits are good: that they don’t need to worry about how they’re going to make ends meet in retirement. That peace of mind is hugely valuable, and rarely factors in to the calculations of the pension opponents, who seem to think that worrying about your individual retirement investments is a good thing.

Around the world, indeed, in places like Hungary and Poland, the roll-your-own pension plan model is being, reversed, and governments are reverting to the “trust us” model. The mechanism has been particularly drastic in Poland, where the government recently confiscated some 150bn zlotys (€36bn) of Polish government bonds and government-backed securities, seizing them from private pension-fund managers. The Poles then cancelled those bonds entirely, which had the effect of reducing Poland’s national debt overnight, by a substantial 8 percentage points. Given debt-ceiling rules, that gives the Polish government a lot more room to run deficits than it had before. In return, the Poles who were counting on the retirement income which was going to be generated by those bonds are just going to have to make do with a standard pay-as-you-go system, where they’ll receive a state pension which is paid for out of general tax revenues.

This is not as dreadful as it necessarily looks at first blush. Governments can always find a way to reduce pensioners’ incomes, through taxes or any other means. And now, at least, those incomes will be less tied to the vagaries of market returns. Indeed, Poland isn’t all that far from the United States: although we do put a lot of government bonds into the Social Security trust fund, it’s entirely up to the government how much money pensioners take out of that fund. It can be less than the fund is earning, or more: the decision is political, and doesn’t bear much relation to the income being generated, or even whether the trust fund has any money in it at all.

Still, the Polish move is a pretty bad one. The pension funds still exist, but now they’ve lost most of their fixed-income component, so they’ve become a lot more volatile. The playing around with the national-debt figures is a silly, and dangerous, trick. And without strong domestic pension funds, Poland has now lost an important source of investment flows — the kind of money that helps to keep an economy innovative and productive.

So pension funds are, generally, a good thing. And when you have a pension fund, it’s a good idea to fund it well. But they’re not a panacea, and in general the answer to the problem of underfunded pensions is just to fund them better, rather than to start cutting benefits.

The John Arnolds of this world should remember one thing: it’s just as easy to tax retirement funds as it is to cut defined pension benefits. If America really needs to start taking money from future retirees, then maybe the politicians will start looking at a much juicier target — the massive tax expenditures being spent on things like IRAs and 401(k) plans. Those tax breaks are not fair — they benefit the rich much more than the poor. Maybe the sensible thing to do is to take those tax expenditures, and use them instead to shore up distressed public pension plans. If indeed those plans are in as much peril as John Arnold says they are.

*Update: Leila Walsh, the director of communications at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (which also responded to Sirota’s article), emails:

You stated that the “PBS series ‘Pension Peril’ has secretly been funded by John Arnold.” This statement is entirely inaccurate. Information about the grant is available on the LJAF website. We have nothing to hide and have publicly disclosed the amount, term, and purpose of the grant.

WNET also issued a statement this afternoon that says, “The Arnold Foundation is a supporter of this initiative, which has been clearly disclosed on the three PBS NewsHour Weekend broadcasts (produced by WNET) that have included segments funded through this project.”
COMMENT

“poorest members of society, who might take out more than they put in”

It is dishonest to use a word like “might” in a sentence like this. You “might” be hit by lightening; or you “might” win $100 million in the lottery; or John Arnolds “might” go and sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor (Matthew 19:21) – ie highly unlikely possibilities compared to the almost certainty that the poorest members of society will take out more than they put in. And then there is this: “the United States: although we do put a lot of government bonds into the Social Security trust fund”.
Here is what Social Security says about the SS trust funds that receive SS taxes:

http://www.ssa.gov/oact/progdata/fundFAQ .html

“How are the trust funds invested?”

“By law, income to the trust funds must be invested, on a daily basis, in securities guaranteed as to both principal and interest by the Federal government. All securities held by the trust funds are “special issues” of the United States Treasury. Such securities are available only to the trust funds.”

“What happens to the taxes that go into the trust funds?”

“Tax income is deposited on a daily basis and is invested in “special-issue” securities. The cash exchanged for the securities goes into the general fund of the Treasury and is indistinguishable from other cash in the general fund.”

In other words, SS Trust money is treated just like ordinary tax revenue except that the government promises to repay these monies plus interest to the SS as needed. These trust funds are government debt obligations and can only be repaid by raising taxes (unlikely) or increasing overall government deficits.

http://www.salon.com/life/life_stories/i ndex.html?story=/mwt/feature/2011/04/02/ late_in_life_excerpt

“the first recipient of Social Security, a bookkeeper named Ida May Fuller, started to collect her checks in 1940. She proceeded to live another thirty-five years, long enough to witness the ascent and disbanding of the Beatles and the landing of the man on the moon. For her total $24.75 contribution, she received $22,888.92 in benefits”

Posted by walstir | Report as abusive

The systemic plight of labor

Felix Salmon
May 1, 2013 19:32 UTC

blodget.png

It’s May Day, and Henry Blodget is celebrating — if that’s the right word — with three charts, of which the most germane is the one above. It shows total US wages as a proportion of total US GDP — a number which continues to hit all-time lows. Blodget also puts up the converse chart — corporate profits as a percentage of GDP. That line, you won’t be surprised to hear, is hitting new all-time highs. He’s clear about how destructive these trends are:

Low employee wages are one reason the economy is so weak: Those “wages” are represent spending power for consumers. And consumer spending is “revenue” for other companies. So the short-term corporate profit obsession is actually starving the rest of the economy of revenue growth.

In other words, we’re in a vicious cycle, where low incomes create low demand which in turn means that there’s no appetite to hire workers, who in turn become discouraged and drop out of the labor force. Blodget’s third chart is one we’re all familiar with: the employment-to-population ratio, which fell off a cliff during the Great Recession and which will probably never recover. The current “recovery” is not actually a recovery for the bottom 99%, for real people who need to live on paychecks. And today is exactly the right day to point that out.

Conversely, today is exactly the wrong day to declare that these broad and inexorable trends are not really big top-down trends at all, and in fact merely reflect the inability of individual workers to “access learning, retrain, engage in commerce, seek or advertise a job, invent, invest and crowd source”. And yet that’s Tom Friedman’s column this May Day:

If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone. But if you’re not self-motivated, this world will be a challenge because the walls, ceilings and floors that protected people are also disappearing. That is what I mean when I say “it is a 401(k) world.”

This manages to be both incomprehensible and incredibly offensive at the same time. I have no idea what Friedman thinks he’s talking about when he blathers on about disappearing protective floors; I can only hope that he isn’t making a super-tasteless reference to the recent disaster in Bangladesh. But it’s simply wrong that today’s world is “tailored” for anybody who happens to be “self-motivated”. Both the self and the motivation are components of labor, not capital, and as such they’re on the losing side of the global economy, not the winning side.

Friedman is a billionaire* (by marriage) who — like all billionaires these days — is convinced that he achieved his current prominent position by merit alone, rather than through luck and through the diligent application of cultural and financial capital. His paean to self-motivation recalls nothing so much as Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” quote: “parenting, teaching or leadership that ‘inspires’ individuals to act on their own will be the most valued of all,” he writes, bizarrely choosing to wrap his scare quotes around the word “inspires” rather than around the word “leadership”, where they belong.

True leadership, in a society where the workers are failing to be paid even half the fruits of their labor, would involve attempting to turn the red line in Blodget’s chart around, and to spread the nation’s prosperity among all its citizens. Rather than telling everybody that they’re “on their own” and that if they’re not a success then hey, they’re probably just not “self-motivated” enough.

The ultimate Friedman kick in the balls, however, doesn’t come from his lazily meritocratic priors. Rather, it comes from his overarching metaphor: the idea that if you have a 401(k) plan, then you’re somehow in charge of your own destiny. Friedman might be right that we’re living in a 401(k) world, but if he is then he’s right for the wrong reason. In Friedman’s mind, a 401(k) plan is an icon of self-determination: you get out what you put in. “Your specific contribution,” he writes, italics and all, “will define your specific benefits.”

In reality, however, a 401(k) plan is an icon of futility and the way in which the owners of capital extract rents from the owners of labor. Yves Smith is good on this, as is Matt Yglesias, although the real expert is Helaine Olen: the 401(k) is a way for both your government and your employer to disown you, and to leave your life savings to be raided by the financial-services industry and its plethora of hidden and invidious fees. The well-kept secret about old-fashioned pension funds is that, for the most part, they’re actually very good at generating decent returns for their beneficiaries. They tend to have extremely long time horizons, and are run by professionals who know what they’re doing and who have a fair amount of negotiating leverage when they deal with Wall Street. Savers are always strengthened by being united: disaggregating them and forcing them to take matters into their own hands is tantamount to feeding them directly to the Wall Street sharks.

Yglesias says that in a 401(k) world, “you’ve got to save a lot of money for retirement. More than you think.” This is true for five big reasons. Firstly, because wages are shrinking, any given level of savings will constitute a steadily-increasing proportion of any given worker’s GDP-adjusted paycheck. Secondly, because the employment-to-population ratio is shrinking, all workers need to save to support not only themselves in retirement, but also a number of dependents which is also growing over time. Thirdly, because 401(k) plans have lower returns than traditional pension plans, you need to save more in order to make up the difference. Fourthly, life happens: while the money in your 401(k) is nominally there for your retirement, in practice there’s a good chance that you’re going to tap it, at some point, to pay some kind of large and unexpected bill, whether that comes from unemployment or divorce or ill health. And finally, 401(k) plans don’t have the clever cross-subsidy that traditional pension plans have, where people who die early cross-subsidize people who live for a long time. With a pension plan, you get income when you need it — when you’re alive — and you don’t get money when you’re dead, and don’t need it any more. With a 401(k), by contrast, you have to save more than you really need, because there’s always a chance that you’re going to live to 102.

Add them all together, and to a first approximation you arrive at our current world, where pretty much no one relying on their 401(k) is actually saving enough for retirement. If you’re rich today, you’ll probably be fine when you retire. But if you’re someone who (in contrast to Tom Friedman) actually lives on your paycheck, then there’s almost no chance that your retirement savings will be enough, when the time comes. That’s not your fault: the reasons are deeply systemic. And as a result, the solutions cannot possibly be the kind of bottom-up schemes that Friedman is extolling. They have to come from the top: from real leaders, rather than jumped-up “thought leaders“.

*Or was, anyway. Maybe he isn’t any more.

COMMENT

What vjvalk wrote above is spot-on, and the comment above it gets to what a 401(k) society is really all about: INCREASING vulnerability and risk for those not in a great position to handle it (most of the working class in this country is a single missed paycheck away from financial disaster), and then allowing the overclass to blame the victims for a plight forced upon them by marketplace conditions created by said overclass.

Posted by Strych09 | Report as abusive

California’s clever opt-out retirement idea

Felix Salmon
Aug 31, 2012 19:13 UTC

Last year, I said that states should not adopt defined-contribution pension schemes: they should stick instead to the defined-benefit plans they’ve had until now. I still believe that — but I’m also a big fan of SB 1234, a bill making its way through the California legislature. The bill would create the Golden State Retirement Savings Trust — a kind of pooled defined-contribution pension plan for the millions of Californians who lack access to a workplace retirement plan.

The point here is that the state of California itself is a good employer, providing retirement benefits to its employees. But not all Californian employers do likewise, and many Californians, especially those on low wages, have no retirement savings at all.

SB 1234 would change that, by asking employers to place 3% of their employees’ paychecks into the Golden State Retirement Savings Trust. This would be an opt-out scheme: if you didn’t want to take part, you wouldn’t have to, but the default would be that you would. The money would be invested conservatively; one detailed paper reckons that the mix might be 47% Treasuries, split equally between bills, notes, and bonds; 43% in the S&P 500; 7% in small-cap stocks; and 3% in corporate bonds.

There are two big distractions here, and it’s all too easy to get caught up in things which don’t matter, and miss the big thing which does matter. The first distraction is the question of investment guarantees. Because these workers can’t afford to lose this money, it would have to be guaranteed, either by the public sector or the private sector. If you’re investing over a long time horizon, and guaranteeing only very modest returns of between 0% and 2%, such guarantees are cheap — but that doesn’t stop alarmists from talking about “another potential pension disaster” in terms of guarantor losses.

The second distraction is the question of investment returns: will the money be invested well, or does California have “a poor record of managing its existing public pensions” which should somehow disqualify it from looking after even more retirement funds? Frankly, this doesn’t matter much at all. Big pension funds nearly always have higher internal rates of return than individuals get on their 401(k) plans and similar, and that’s really all that matters.

The main thing to focus on here is the same thing I told savers with 401(k) accounts: the best way to save money is to save money. If you take 3% of your paycheck and you put it somewhere which is very difficult to get ahold of, then over time that sum will grow to a nice little nest egg — even if the internal rate of return is zero. And if you want to get millions of largely low-wage Californians to save money, the mere existence of savings accounts and IRAs at banks and credit unions isn’t enough. Those involve effort, while the genius of SB 1234 is that it’s effortless. All you need to do is nothing, and you automatically start saving money.

Anybody who would rather use their own IRA is more than welcome to do so, of course. And anybody who is happy going without retirement savings at all can simply opt out of the scheme and receive their paycheck in full. But most of us want some kind of retirement security beyond Social Security; the problem is that we procrastinate, and we have bigger priorities, and there are short-term expenditures we need to make, and there’s never any spare money in the account, and, well you get the picture.

The financial-services industry is lobbying hard against this bill, for obvious reasons: it provides a simpler, cheaper, better alternative to their own savings products. As a result, this idea will probably never happen. But it makes sense for California, and it makes sense for the rest of the country as well.

As for the details, they can be ironed out relatively easily. But the final scheme could be a bit of a mix between defined-contribution and defined-benefit. Like DC plans, the amount you got out would entirely be a function of the amount you put in. But like DB plans, more would go into calculating your final payout than simply the investment returns on your money. Instead, there would be some kind of a collar: in return for giving up infinite upside, you would be protected on the downside. For instance, the returns might have a floor at 2%, and a ceiling at 8%. The scheme could simply pay excess returns over 8% into a reserve fund which would be used to protect the downside for savers seeing returns of less than 2%.

Similar products exist elsewhere in the world: Denmark, for instance, has a nationwide mandatory defined-contribution pension plan with a minimum return guarantee. This is America, so a mandatory program wouldn’t fly. But a voluntary, opt-out program could. Let’s give it a try.

COMMENT

Wow. I can tell you’re not kidding, although I could easily imagine reading this in ‘The Onion’ or seeing a skit on YouTube. California has turned a putatively golden state into the one with the worst credit rating in the country. With a Dem supermajority, and pols who actually tried to ban an entire genre of music last year, you are out of your gourd if you think they can be trusted with even MORE money. What freakin’ planet are you people on? How many more lies, broken promises, and outright authoritarian police-state maneuvers do you need to convince you it’s all crap? Good grief… No wonder we fell, since 9/11, into about 20TH PLACE on the various ‘freedom’ listings, and not just the libertarian ones, either. California is doomed, period. There is no saving the status quo — to which I say, Yippee!

Posted by erikjay | Report as abusive

Annals of dubious research, 401(k) loan-default edition

Felix Salmon
Aug 13, 2012 05:13 UTC

Bob Litan, formerly of the Kauffman Foundation and the Brookings Institution, has recently taken up a new job as director of research for Bloomberg Government, where he’s going to have to be transparent and impartial. But one of his last gigs before moving to Bloomberg — a paper on the subject of people borrowing money from their 401(k) accounts — was neither of those things.

To understand what’s going on here, first check out Jessica Toonkel’s article from Friday about Tod Ruble and his company, Custodia.

Tod Ruble is trying to sell retirement plan insurance that employers say they do not want and their employees may not need.

But the Dallas-based veteran commercial real estate investor is not letting that stop him. Since late 2010, he has started up a company, Custodia Financial, and spent more than $1 million pushing for legislation that would allow companies to automatically enroll employees who borrow from their 401(k) plans in insurance that could cost hundreds of dollars a year.

Once you’ve read that, go back and check out a spate of stories that hit a series of major news outlets in July. Alan Farnham of ABC News, for instance, ran a story under the headline “401(k) Loan Defaults Skyrocket”:

A new study estimates that such defaults might total $37 billion a year, a sharp increase from 2007, when defaults totaled only $665 million.

Similarly, check out Walter Hamilton, in the Chicago Tribune (and LA Times): the headline there is “Defaults on 401(k) loans reach $37 billion a year”. At Time, Dan Kadlec also ran with the $37 billion number, saying that “the default rate on these loans has skyrocketed since the recession”. Similar stories came from Blake Ellis at CNN Money (“Loan defaults drain $37 billion from 401(k)s each year”), Mitch Tuchman at MarketRiders (“401k Loan Default Time Bomb Is Ticking”), and many others.

The only hint of skepticism came from Barbara Whelehan at BankRate. She noted that the study cited Kevin Smart, CFO of Custodia Financial, as a source — and she also noted that “it would be a boon for the insurance industry to get the rules changed, and it is working behind the scenes to do just that. In April, Custodia Financial submitted a statement to the House & Ways Committee arguing for automatic enrollment into insurance coverage for 401(k) loans.”

Whelehan also smelled something fishy in the way the paper was paid for:

This paper by Navigant Economics, which made a big splash in the press, was financially supported by Americans for Retirement Protection. That organization has a website, ProtectMyRetirementBenefits.com, but no “about us” link. It does give you the opportunity to sign a petition demanding protection of retirement funds through insurance. Take a look at it, and see if you think the website was created by average Americans or by the insurance industry.

Whelehan was actually breaking news here: there’s no public linkage between Americans for Retirement Protection, the organization which paid for the paper, and the astroturf website. In fact, Americans for Retirement Protection seems to have no public existence at all, beyond a footnote in the paper, which was co-authored by Bob Litan and Hal Singer.

Enter Toonkel, writing her story about Custodia. In the course of her reporting, she discovered — and Custodia confirmed — that Americans for Retirement Protection, and ProtectMyRetirementBenefits.com, are basically alter egos of Custodia itself. Custodia would welcome other organizations joining in, but that’s unlikely to happen, because Custodia owns the patents on the big idea that the paper and the website are pushing — the idea that 401(k) loans should come bundled with opt-out insurance policies.

Once you’re armed with this information, it’s impossible not to look at the Litan-Singer paper in a very different way. Its abstract concludes: “We demonstrate that the social benefits of steering (but not compelling) plan participants towards insurance when they borrow are likely positive and economically significant.” And yet nowhere in the paper is there any indication that it was bought and paid for by the very company which has a patent on doing exactly that.

And what about that $37 billion number? Are defaults on 401(k) loans really as big a problem as the paper says that they are? After all, the smaller the problem, the less important it is to introduce an expensive fix for it.

The simple answer is no: 401(k) loan defaults are not $37 billion per year. But the fact is that nobody knows for sure exactly where they are, which makes it much easier to come up with exaggerated estimates. As the paper itself admits, “the sum total of 401(k) defaults ought to be an easily accessible statistic, but it is not”. And the $37 billion, far from being a good-faith estimate, in fact looks very much like an attempt to get the largest and scariest number possible.

So how did Litan and Singer arrive at their $37 billion figure? Let’s start with the only concrete numbers we have — the ones from the Department of Labor, whose most recent Private Pension Plan Bulletin gives a wealth of information about all private pension plans in the country. Every pension plan has to file something called a Form 5500, and the bulletin aggregates all the numbers from all the 5500s which are filed; the most recent bulletin gives data from 2009.

This bulletin has two datapoints which are germane to this discussion. First of all, there’s Table A3, on page 7 of the bulletin (page 11 of the PDF). That shows that loans from defined-contribution pension plans to their own participants totaled $51.7 billion in 2009. Secondly, there’s Table C9, the aggregated income statement for the year. If you look at page 32 of the bulletin (page 35 of the PDF), you’ll see a line item called “deemed distribution of participant loans”, which came to $670 million for the year. If you borrow money from your 401(k) and you don’t pay it back, then that money is deemed to have been distributed to you, and counts as a default. So we know that the official size of 401(k) defaults in 2009 was $670 million — a far cry from Litan and Singer’s $37 billion.

Now the $670 million figure does not account for all 401(k) defaults. Most importantly, in some situations, if you default on a 401(k) loan after having been fired from your job, then the money is counted as an “actual distribution” rather than as a “deemed distribution”.

The Litan-Singer paper goes into some detail about this. “According to a recent study by Smart (2012),” they write, “although Form 5500 reflects actual distributions, there is no way to determine the amount of actual defaults.” They then look in detail at Smart’s figures, footnoting him five consecutive times, and treating him as an undisputed authority on such matters. Their citation is merely “Kevin Smart, The Hidden Problem of Defined Contribution Loan Defaults, May 2012.”

Where might someone find this paper? Here, since you ask: it’s helpfully hosted at CustodiaFinancial.com. And on the front page of the paper, Kevin Smart is identified as the “Chief Financial Officer, Custodia Financial”.

There’s no indication whatsoever in the Litan-Singer paper that the “Smart” they cite so often is the CFO of Custodia Financial, the company which has the most to gain should their recommendation be accepted. And there’s certainly no indication that he’s essentially their employer: that Custodia paid them to write this paper. In fact, the name Custodia appears nowhere in the Litan-Singer paper at all.

It’s instructive to look at the Smart paper’s attempt to estimate the magnitude of the 401(k) default problem. I’ll simplify a little here, but to a first approximation, Smart assumes that 12% of people with 401(k) loans lose their jobs. He also assumes that if you lose your job when you have a 401(k) loan, there’s an 80% chance you’ll default on that loan. As a result, he comes up with a 9.6% default rate on 401(k) loans. He then multiplies that 9.6% default rate by total 401(k) loans of $51.7 billion, adds in some extra defaults due to death and disability, and comes up with a grand total of $6.2 billion in loan defaults per year, excluding the “deemed distributions” of $670 million. Call it $7 billion in total, of which $6 billion could be protected by insuring loans against unemployment, death, and disability.

Now remember that this is a paper written by the CFO of Custodia Financial — someone who clearly has a dog in this race. It’s in Smart’s interest to make the loan-default total look as big as possible, since the bigger the problem, the more likely it is that Congress will agree to implement Custodia’s preferred solution.

But when Litan and Singer looked at Smart’s paper, they weren’t happy going with his $6 billion figure. Indeed, as we’ve seen, their paper comes up with a number six times larger. So if even the CFO of Custodia only managed to estimate defaults at $6 billion, how on earth do Litan and Singer get to $37 billion?

It’s not easy. First, they double the total amount of 401(k) loans outstanding, from $52 billion to $104 billion. Then, they massively hike the default rate on those loans, from 9.6% to 17.9%. And finally, they add in another $12 billion or so to account for the taxes and penalties that borrowers have to pay when they default on their loans.

It’s possible to quibble with each of those changes — and I’ll do just that, in a minute. But it’s impossible to see Litan and Singer compounding all of them, in this manner, without coming to the conclusion that they were systematically trying to come up with the biggest and scariest number they could possibly find. It’s true that whenever they mention their $37 billion figure, it’s generally qualified with a “could be as high as” or similar. But they knew what they were doing, and they did it very well.

When the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times say in their headlines that 401(k) loan defaults have reached $37 billion a year, they’re printing exactly what Custodia and Litan and Singer wanted them to print. The Litan-Singer paper doesn’t exactly say that defaults have reached that figure. But if you put out a press release saying that “the leakage of funds in 401(k) plans due to involuntary loan defaults may be as high as $37 billion per year”, and you don’t explain anywhere in the press release that “leakage of funds” means something significantly different to — and significantly higher than — the total amount defaulted on, then it’s entirely predictable that journalists will misunderstand what you’re saying and apply the $37 billion number to total defaults, even though they shouldn’t.

But let’s backtrack a bit here. First of all, how on earth did Litan and Singer decide that the total amount of 401(k) loans outstanding was $104 billion, when the Department of Labor’s own statistics show the total to be just half that figure? Here’s how.

First, they decide that they need the total number of active participants in defined-contribution pension plans. They could get that number — 72 million — from the Labor Department bulletin: it’s right there in the very first table, A1. But the bulletin isn’t helpful to them, as we’ve seen, so instead they find the same number in a different document from the same source.

That’s as much Labor Department data as Litan and Singer want to use. Next, they go to the Investment Company Institute, which has its own survey, covering some 23 million of those 72 million 401(k) participants. According to that survey, in 2011, 18.5% of active participants had taken out a loan; Litan and Singer extrapolate that figure across the 401(k) universe as a whole.

Finally, Litan and Singer move on to Leakage of Participants’ DC Assets: How Loans, Withdrawals, and Cashouts Are Eroding Retirement Income, a 2011 report from Aon Hewitt which is based on less than 2 million accounts, of the 72 million total. According to the Aon Hewitt report, which doesn’t go into any detail about methodology, when participants took out loans, “the average balance of the outstanding amount was $7,860″. Needless to say, that number was never designed to be multiplied by 72 million, as Litan and Singer do, to generate an estimate for the total number of loans outstanding.

If you want an indication of just how unreliable and unrepresentative the $7,860 number is, you just need to stay on the very same page of the Aon Hewitt report, which says that 27.6% of participants have a loan. If Litan and Singer think that the $7,860 figure is reliable, why not use the 27.6% number as well? If they did that, then the total number of 401(k) loans outstanding would be $7,860 per loan, times 72 million participants, times 27.6% of participants with a loan. Which comes to $156 billion.

But of course we know that there were just $51.7 billion of loans outstanding in 2009; evidently Litan and Singer reckoned that it just wouldn’t pass the smell test if they tried to get away with saying that number might have trebled in a single year. So they confined themselves to merely doubling the number, instead.

Litan and Singer give no reason to mistrust the official $51.7 billion number, except to say that it’s “outdated”. But if it’s outdated, it’s only outdated by one year: it’s based on 2009 data, while the much narrower surveys that Litan and Singer cite are generally based on 2010 data. At one point, they cite the ICI survey to declare that there is “an estimated $4.5 trillion in defined contribution plans”, despite the fact that the much more reliable Labor Department report shows that there was just $3.3 trillion in those plans as of 2009. This, I think, quite neatly puts the lie to the Litan-Singer implication that the problem with the Labor Department numbers is merely that they are out of date, and that when we get numbers for 2010 or 2011, they might well turn out to be in line with the Litan-Singer estimates. There’s simply no way that total DC assets rose from $3.3 trillion to $4.5 trillion in the space of a year or two.

In other words, whatever advantage the ICI and Aon Hewitt surveys have in terms of timeliness, they more than lose in terms of simply being based on a vastly smaller sample base. Litan and Singer adduce no reason whatsoever to believe that the ICI and Aon-Hewitt surveys are in any way representative or particularly accurate, despite the fact that the discrepancies between their figures and the Labor Department figures are prima facie evidence that they’re not representative or particularly accurate. If the ICI and Aon Hewitt surveys were all we had to go on, then I could understand Litan-Singer’s decision to use them. But given that the Labor Department already has the number they’re looking for, it just doesn’t make any sense that they would laboriously try to recreate it using less-reliable figures.

It’s true that the Labor Department’s figures do undercount in one respect: they cover only plans with 100 or more participants — and therefore cover “only” 61 million of the 72 million active participants in DC plans. If Litan and Singer had taken the Labor Department’s numbers and multiplied them by 72/61, or 1.18, that I could understand. But disappearing into a rabbit-warren of private-sector surveys of dubious accuracy, and emerging up with a number which is double the size of the official one? That’s hard to justify. So hard to justify, indeed, that Litan and Singer don’t even attempt to do so.

That, indeed, is the strongest indication that the Litan-Singer paper can’t really be taken seriously. For all their concave borrower utility functions and other such economic legerdemain, they simply assert, rather than argue, that they “believe” it is “more appropriate” to use private-sector surveys rather than hard public-sector data. Such decisions cannot be based on blind faith: there have to be reasons for them. And Litan-Singer never explain what those reasons might be.

Now the move from public-sector to private-sector data merely doubles the total size of the purported problem, while Litan-Singer are much more ambitious than that. So their next move is to bump up the default rate on loans substantially.

There’s no official data on default rates at all, so Litan and Singer, following Smart’s lead, decide to base their sums on a Wharton paper from 2010. Once again, they have to extrapolate from a very small sample: the Wharton researchers had at their disposal a dataset covering 1.5 million plan participants (just 2% of the total). Looking at what happened over a period of three years, from July 2005 to June 2008, the researchers found that the number of terminations, and the number of defaults, remained pretty steady:

defaults.tiff

These are the numbers that Smart used in his paper: roughly 12% of loan holders being terminated each year, and roughly 80% of those defaulting on their loans.

But these are not the numbers that Litan-Singer use. Instead, they notice that the overall default rate, as a percentage of overall loans outstanding, was roughly double the national unemployment rate at the time. And so since the unemployment rate doubled after June 2008, they conclude that the default rate on outstanding 401(k) loans probably doubled as well.

Do they have any evidence that the default rate on 401(k) loans might have doubled after 2008? No. Well, they have a tiny bit of evidence: they look at the small variations in default rates in each of the three years covered in the Wharton study, and see that those variations move roughly in line with the national unemployment rate. Never mind that the default rate fell, from 9.9% to 9.7%, between 2006 and 2008, even as the unemployment rate rose, from 4.8% to 5.0%. They’ve still somehow managed to convince themselves that it’s reasonable to assume that the default rate today is nowhere near the 9.6% seen in the Wharton survey, and in fact is probably closer to — get this — 17.9%.

This doesn’t pass the smell test. The primary determinant of the default rate, in the Wharton study, was the percentage of loan holders who wound up having their employment terminated, for whatever reason. And so what Litan-Singer should be looking at is the increase in the probability that any given employee will end up being terminated in any given year.

Remember that in any given month, or year, the number of people fired is roughly equally to the number of people hired. When the former is a bit larger than the latter for an extended period, then the unemployment rate tends to go up; when it’s smaller, the rate goes down. But the churning in the employment economy is a constant, even when the unemployment rate is very low.

When the unemployment rate rose after 2008, that was a function of the fact that the number of people being fired was a bit higher than normal, while the number of people being hired was a bit lower than normal. But looked at from a distance, neither of them changed that much. In terms of the Wharton study, what we saw happening to the unemployment rate is entirely consistent with the percentage of loan-holders being terminated, per year, staying pretty close to 12%. Of course it’s possible that number rose sharply, but it’s really not possible that number rose as sharply as the unemployment rate did. And so I find it literally incredible that Litan and Singer should decide to use the national unemployment rate as a proxy for the number of people whose employment is terminated each year.

Well, maybe not literally incredible — the fact is there’s one very good reason why they might do that. Which is that they were being paid by Custodia to use any means possible to exaggerate the number of annual 401(k) loan defaults.

Litan and Singer do actually provide a mini smell test of their own: they say that their hypothesized rise in 401(k) loan defaults is more or less in line with the rise in, say, student-loan defaults or in mortgage defaults over the same period. But those statistics aren’t comparable at all, because Litan and Singer are already assuming that the default rate on 401(k) loans, among people who lose their job, was a whopping 80% before the financial crisis. There’s a 100% upper bound here: you can’t have a default rate of more than 100%. Remember that the whole point of this paper is to provide the case that people taking out 401(k) loans should insure themselves against unemployment: any rise in the default rate from people who don’t lose their job (or die, or become disabled) is more or less irrelevant here. And when your starting point is a default rate of 80%, there really is a limit to how much that default rate can rise; it’s certainly going to be difficult to see it rise by more than 85%, even if you allow a simultaneous increase in the number of people being terminated.

All of this massive exaggeration has an impressive effect: if you take $104 billion in loans, and apply a 17.9% default rate, then that comes to a whopping $18.6 billion in 401(k) loan defaults every year. A big number — but still, evidently, not big enough for Litan and Singer. After all, their number is $37 billion: double what we’ve managed to come up with so far. We’ve already doubled the size of the loan base, and almost-doubled the size of the default rate, so how on earth are we going to manage to double the total again?

The answer is that LItan and Singer, at this point, stop measuring defaults altogether, and turn their attention to a much more vaguely-defined term called “leakage”. Once again, they decide to outsource all their methodology to Custodia’s CFO, Kevin Smart. The upshot is that if you borrowed $1,000 from your 401(k) and then defaulted on that loan, the amount of “leakage” from your 401(k) is deemed to be much greater than $1,000. Litan and Singer first add on the 10% early-withdrawal penalty that you get charged for taking money out of your plan before you retire. They also add on the income tax you have to pay on that $1,000, at a total rate of 30%. (They reckon you’ll pay 25% in federal taxes, and another 5% in state taxes.) So now your $1,000 default has become a $1,400 default.

How does that extra $400 count as leakage from the 401(k), rather than just something that gets added to your annual tax bill? Smart explains:

Most participants borrow from their retirement savings because they are illiquid and do not have access to other sources of credit. This clearly demonstrates that participants who default on a participant loan do not have the financial means to pay the taxes and penalty. Unfortunately, their only source of capital is their retirement savings plan so many take the remaining account balance as an additional early distribution to pay the taxes and penalty, further increasing the amount of taxes and penalties due. These taxes and penalties become an additional source of leakage from retirement assets.

Smart’s 16-page paper has no fewer than 24 footnotes, but he fails to provide any source at all for his assertion that “many” people raid their 401(k) plans in order to pay the taxes on the money they’ve already borrowed. In any event, Smart (as well as Litan and Singer, following his lead) makes the utterly unjustifiable assumption that not only many but all 401(k) defaulters end up withdrawing the totality of their penalties and extra taxes from their retirement plan. And then, just for good measure, because that withdrawal also comes with a penalty and taxes, they apply a “gross-up” to that.

By the time all’s said and done, the $1,000 that you lent yourself from your 401(k) plan, and failed to pay back in a timely manner, has become $1,520 in “leakage”. Add in some extra “leakage” for people who default due to death or disability (apparently even dead people raid their 401(k) plans to pay income tax on the money they withdrew), and somehow Litan and Singer contrive to come up with a total of $37 billion.

It’s an unjustifiable piling of the impossible onto the improbable, and the press just lapped it up — not least because it came with the imprimatur of Litan, a genuinely respected economist and researcher. Custodia hired him for precisely that reason: they knew that if his name was on the front page of a report, that would give it automatic credibility. But for exactly the same reason, Litan had a responsibility to be intellectually honest when writing this thing.

Instead, he never even questioned any of the assumptions made by Custodia’s CFO. For instance: if you’re terminated, and you default on your 401(k) loan, what are the chances that the money you received will end up being counted as an “actual distribution” rather than as a “deemed distribution”? Smart and Litan and Singer all implicitly assume that the answer is 100%, but they never spell out their reasoning; my gut feeling is that it’s not nearly as clear-cut as that, and that it all depends on things like when you lost your job, when you defaulted, and who your pension-plan administrator is.

Custodia’s business, and the Litan-Singer paper, are based on the idea that if people who borrowed money from their 401(k) plans had insurance against being terminated from their jobs, then that would have significant societal benefit. In order for the societal benefit to be large, the quantity of annual 401(k) loan defaults due to termination also has to be large. But right now, there’s not a huge amount of evidence that it actually is: in fact, we really have no idea how big it is.

I can say, however, that Custodia has already won this battle where it matters — in the press. “Protecting 401(k) savings from job loss makes a lot of sense,” said Time’s Kadlec in his post — and so long as Custodia can present lawmakers with lots of headlines touting the $37 billion number and supporting their plan, Litan and Singer will have done their job. The truth doesn’t matter: all that matters is the headlines, and the public perception of what the truth is.

Come to think, maybe this makes Litan the absolutely perfect person to run the research department at Bloomberg Government. On the theory that it takes a thief to catch a thief, Bloomberg has hired someone who clearly knows all the tricks when it comes to writing papers which come to a predetermined conclusion. And he also has a deep understanding of the real purpose of most of the white papers floating around DC: it’s not to get closer to the truth, but rather to stamp a superficially plausible institutional imprimatur onto a policy that some lobbyist or pressure group desperately wants enacted. I can only hope that in the wake of using his talents in order to serve Custodia Financial, Litan will now turn around and use them in order to serve rather greater masters. Like, for instance, truth, and transparency, and intellectual honesty.

COMMENT

Wow.

It must have taken a helluva long time to research all that. Either you are paid by the minute and receive bonuses per the written word or you are trying to serve greater masters.+

Litan clearly has contrived data to serve his own goals.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive

Obfuscation of the day, John Hancock edition

Felix Salmon
Apr 4, 2011 19:23 UTC

Matt Yglesias wonders whether he should invest some of his 401(k) in John Hancock’s International Value Fund. Naturally, one of the key pieces of information about the fund that he wants to know is its expense ratio: what kind of fees does it charge?

Yglesias eventually found the relevant bit of the John Hancock website; it runs to 421 more or less incomprehensible words. (Exempli gratia: “For internally-managed Funds advised and sub-advised exclusively by John Hancock’s affiliates, the total fees John Hancock and its affiliates receive from these Funds may be higher than those advised or sub-advised exclusively by unaffiliated mutual fund companies. These fees can come from the Fund or trust’s Rule 12b-1, sub-transfer agency, management, AMC or other fees, and may vary from Fund to Fund.”)

The upshot of all the prose? If you want to find out the fund’s expense ratio, you have to phone up John Hancock and ask them to send you its most recent “Returns and Fees” document — which of course isn’t simply available online, and which is subject to change in unpredictable ways in future.

This kind of thing seems tailor-made for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to crack down on. Arthur Levitt, for one, would surely approve:

For years, I have pressed for “plain English” in financial documents that go to the investing public, but with only mixed success. The problem, it appears, is that such efforts get tugged into the ditch by the irresistible pull of legal jargon. The language of lawyers is not spoken by Aunt Edna, who rightly senses that if something sounds complicated, it is. The advice of Will Rogers comes to mind: “I love words but I don’t like strange ones. You don’t understand them, and they don’t understand you. Old words is like old friends—you know ‘em the minute you see ‘em.”

You wouldn’t buy an investment from a stranger, so why buy one wrapped in strange language?

It’s not just the mutual fund companies who deserve the blame here — it’s also the 401(k) administrators at places like Yglesias’s employer, who ignore the degree to which the options they’re choosing are readily comprehensible to their employees.

There are three main reasons why investments in 401(k) plans significantly underperform investments in defined-benefit plans. The first is that 401(k) investors have to rotate into relatively low-risk fixed-income instruments as retirement approaches and their risk appetite declines; defined-benefit plans never need to do that. The second is that defined-benefit plans have the ability to diversify into many more asset classes than 401(k) plans can. And the third is that there are multiple points at which 401(k) performance can be scuppered: at the fund-manager level, at the corporate-benefits level, and of course at the individual level. Bad choices at any one of those levels are enough to result in severe underperformance; and it’s entirely possible that you can have bad choices at all three points.

Will the CFPB have the power or the inclination to clean up the mess that is the 401(k) system? I doubt it. But if it doesn’t, no one will. And the likes of John Hancock will continue to obfuscate their customers for no good reason.

Update: Stephen Lubben points out that under Dodd-Frank, the CFPB has no oversight of investments: there’s no way they can be of use here.

COMMENT

A company which offeres a 401k plan to it’s employees owes those employees a fidicuary standard of care in the selection of investment options and the disclosure of the costs born by participants. This became a huge issue when the supreem court allowed participants to sue providers in class action law suits.

http://www.usatoday.com/money/perfi/reti rement/2008-02-20-401k-scotus_N.htm

The very shady industry standard TFF described is in my massively biased opnion still standard practice for annuity sales… here’s 20+ pages of fine print… sign here… yes I just made an 8% comission… BARF!

Like always there are probably some very honest and ethical agents out there… but in the world of annuities the ratio of bad apples to good apples has been unacceptablely high in my expeiernce.

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive

Why states shouldn’t adopt defined-contribution pensions

Felix Salmon
Mar 1, 2011 16:58 UTC

Steven Greenhouse has a long article in today’s NYT about an attempt by the states to deal with their “strained” pension funds by moving to defined-contribution pension plans. Here’s the lede:

Lawmakers and governors in many states, faced with huge shortfalls in employee pension funds, are turning to a strategy that a lot of private companies adopted years ago: moving workers away from guaranteed pension plans and toward 401(k)-type retirement savings plans.

What’s a “huge shortfall”? Amazingly, nowhere in the 1,500-word article does Greenhouse actually say. Instead, we get incomprehensible tales like this:

Utah decided to adopt a 401(k)-type plan after the stock market plunge in 2008 caused the shortfall in the state’s pension plan to balloon to $6.5 billion…

Under the new plan, [state senator Dan] Liljenquist said, the state’s retirement contributions for new workers will be roughly half that for current employees, potentially saving $5 million a year for every 1,000 new workers hired.

So, the state of Utah has been putting insufficient money into its pension plan, and now there isn’t enough money there to meet upcoming liabilities. And the solution here is for the state, in future, to contribute “roughly half” of what it’s been spending up until now in pension contributions.

Needless to say, this makes no sense on either front. The liability to existing workers doesn’t go away if a different plan is adopted for new workers, so the problems at the pension plan aren’t being addressed. On top of that, it’s hard to see how contributing much less to new workers’ retirement is going to help them at all, either. From a pensions perspective, there’s no winner at all: the only entity better off is the state, from a cashflow perspective.

On top of that, Greenhouse makes no attempt to put numbers like $6.5 billion or $5 million in any kind of context. Are they big? Who knows.

The only way I could make any sense at all of Greenhouse’s article was to read it in parallel with Dean Baker’s paper on the origins and severity of the public pension crisis. The table he includes, which includes all state public pension funds, is invaluable; here, for instance, is Utah.

utah.jpg

What this shows is that the Utah pension fund, at the end of 2009, was about $2.8 billion in the hole. If it rose by 15% in 2010, which is a pretty reasonable assumption given the performance of the stock market, the gap is likely to have been all but eliminated. But even the gap at the end of 2009 was less than one tenth of one percent of Utah’s state income.

All of these numbers are fuzzy, of course. Valuing assets is hard enough; coming up with a present value of future liabilities is much harder, and depends crucially on which discount rate you use. But Baker’s numbers are pretty reasonable, and show that there really isn’t anything to panic about here.

More generally, as Teresa Ghilarducci notes elsewhere on the NYT website (but not in the paper), the idea that moving from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans is going to help anybody at all is highly problematic.

401(k) plans are bad deal for taxpayers. Dollar for dollar, a traditional pension plan yields more pension benefits than do 401(k) plans because 401(k) management and investment fees are three times higher. And professionals who manage money in pooled pension funds usually get higher returns than workers who manage their own 401(k) accounts. The only clear winners when pensions switch over to the 401(k) plans are brokers and bankers…

The unintended effect of widespread 401(k) plans is more volatility. In contrast to traditional pensions and Social Security, 401(k) plans fuel bubbles and make recessions worse. When the economy is booming, 401(k) plan asset values soar, making people spend more and work less. Not what you want in an expansion.

Worse, when the economy plummets and takes 401(k) assets with it, people do the opposite; they cling to the labor market and rein in spending – again, two things you don’t want in a recession.

On top of that, defined-benefit plans have a mutual-insurance component to them: shorter-lived workers subsidize longer-lived workers, helping to increase everybody’s standard of living.

The fact is that the states’ move to defined-contribution plans is a blatantly political one, born of Republican ideology conflating such plans with individual freedom and choice. For rich professionals who jump from job to job every few years, 401(k) plans do make a certain amount of sense. For public servants spending a lifetime in the police force or in elementary schools, by contrast, they emphatically don’t. As for the state pension plans, the only way that the state governments can help them make up their actuarial liabilities is if they pour more money into them. Not less.

COMMENT

Yes, that kind of buyout can be a win-win for everybody involved. The schools save enough on ONE year of salary for the veteran to pay for the buyout. And typically the buyouts I’ve seen are structured in a way that they credit towards the “final three years salary” calculation for the pension. The teacher accepting the buyout typically settles for less than an 80% pension, but if you are 60 years old and your health is failing, a 50% pension sounds a whole lot better than dying on the job (as a 65 year old Fitchburg teacher did after breaking up a fight).

I’ve worked with teachers who accepted a buyout. A new teacher always struggles a bit the first year on the job, but their students are STILL better off than with an embittered veteran who is simply hanging on for the pension (and calling in sick a dozen times a year). And by the second or third year, a good young teacher will be doing pretty well.

There is value to having some veterans around the department (we hired a couple for balance when all of the originals were retiring en masse), but teaching effectiveness doesn’t substantially improve beyond the fifth year on the job. After that point it is simply a question of how much energy the teacher has to give her students.

I have mixed feelings about public education these days. It isn’t nearly as bad as people seem to believe, at least not in the suburbs, but without public support it struggles to survive. Unions can negotiate salaries and benefits — but they can’t negotiate other critical factors such as staffing levels or supply budgets (ever try feeding newsprint through a copier because the school ran out of white paper in the middle of May?). It would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Mandating annuities in retirement

Felix Salmon
Sep 29, 2010 15:23 UTC

Dan Ariely had an interesting column in the latest issue of HBR, talking about how Chile forces its citizens to save money and annuitize their pensions:

When employees reach retirement, their savings are converted into annuities. The government auctions off the rights to annuitize retirees in groups of 250,000…

Institutionally, Chile has cracked an age-old problem with annuities. It’s risky business to predict how long people will live, so insurance companies charge a high premium to cover that risk, which makes for an inefficient market. Annuities also suffer from an adverse selection problem… By pooling the risk, the Chilean government makes annuities an attractive business with more competition and better prices. And since everyone is forced to annuitize, the adverse selection problem simply disappears.

This is rather clever, if it’s true. But a Chilean technocrat, Axel Christensen, responded on the HBR website, saying that Ariely misunderstood what he’d been told. The groups of 250,000 are allocated to fund managers, he said, not annuity providers.

At retirement, Chileans may choose between a fixed inflation-adjusted annuity offered by an insurance company or a variable annuity from by the same company that managed their retirement account. It is an individual decision, with no pooling as you stated. The insurance companies have to bid for the contributor´s savings that increases competition, but the system does has its flaws, like the adverse selection you identified.

This doesn’t clear things up a lot: it seems to me that if you have to pick an annuity, then adverse-selection problems are minimized even if there’s no pooling at all. After all, the problem with adverse selection is that people who buy annuities will live longer than people who don’t buy annuities. If everybody buys an annuity, there isn’t a problem.

And when Ariely republished the column on his blog after Christensen had made his comment, the column was unchanged. I don’t know what to make of that: maybe Ariely didn’t see the comment, or he thinks that for some reason it’s unimportant.

Ariely says that schemes like Chile’s wouldn’t go down well in the U.S., where Americans would consider it “heavy-handed and limiting”. I daresay he’s right. But it would be great if there were some way of allowing people to voluntarily commit to annuitizing their pension fund upon retirement. One of the problems with pension funds is that nobody actually needs some big multi-million-dollar nest egg at age 65. What they need, instead, is a healthy income in retirement. But converting a nest egg into an income is non-trivial. You want to maximize your income by spending principal as well as interest, but you also want to make sure you don’t run out of money if you live a long time.

Annuities solve that problem, but they do suffer from adverse selection: people who buy them live longer than people who don’t, and so insurance companies have to make allowances for that. If everybody in a big pool was committed to annuitizing, then the insurance company could ensure that people who died at a younger age would help to subsidize those who live a very long time — as should happen in any good pension system.

This, indeed, is one of the central problems with defined-contribution pensions rather than defined-benefit pensions. When we “save up for retirement”, we’re conflating two things: the savings, on the one hand, and our retirement income, on the other. If we die before we retire, then our retirement income is zero, but the savings are still there, and the only retiree they’re likely to benefit is our spouse, if we have one.

Are there any numbers on the amount of money which is paid in to Social Security against which no benefits are ever drawn? I’d include people working in the U.S. on temporary work visas, here, as well as people who die before retirement while unmarried. On top of that, of course, people who die early in retirement end up taking out of the system much less than they put in. And the benefits of that cross-subsidy accrue to the long-lived, who need money to live on in their 90s and beyond. It’s a humane and sensible system: the living need money more than the dead do.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a way of replicating anything like this on a voluntary basis. I could invest my retirement savings in a fund which automatically annuitizes with everybody else in the fund when I turn 65, for instance. But if I get cancer when I’m 64, I’ll surely move those savings into cash instead of meekly accepting a short-lived income.

So the Chilean system of mandating annuitization for certain types of retirement assets makes sense to me, if indeed there is a mandate there. Maybe people could have a choice: they can invest pre-tax dollars in retirement funds which are forced to annuitize, but if they want to retain control over whether or not they annuitize, they have to invest only post-tax dollars.

And then, of course, we’d have to look to see whether the insurance companies actually improved their annuity rates significantly in response to the new mandate. Is there any data from Chile on that? All of this government interference might make sense in theory, but the real world is nearly always much messier.

COMMENT

As an aside, most of the annuities sold seem to be fixed — not adjusted for inflation. You get a much higher initial payout on a fixed annuity, but the longevity risk attached to such a product is very scary. I don’t want to be 10 years into retirement and living on half the purchasing power that I bargained for.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive
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