This article was written in response to “How should John Arnold approach pension reform?” (February 16) by Felix Salmon.
The Great Debate
State and local pension plans are underfunded, in many cases dramatically. Enough so that, in the next decade, many states will have to cut benefits or services, raise taxes, or receive some form of a bailout. Matt Taibbi’s latest in Rolling Stone blames the situation on a convenient villain — Wall Street. But it’s far more complicated than that. State and local plans are underfunded because of terrible accounting standards, local governments who underfunded their plans, and plan trustees who gave away sweeteners that robbed plans of their assets. That is the inherent problem with traditional pensions, or any type of compensation that is back-loaded (payments pledged for the future). It’s too easy to over-promise today and not set enough money aside, but either retirees or taxpayers eventually have to pay up. It’s tempting to blame Wall Street, but that does not solve the problem. It enables public employees to lobby against their own long-term interests.
Social Security is not the problem – it is the solution.
Washington is filled with talk of a looming “retirement crisis.” The discussion focuses on funding Social Security and usually includes calls to cut benefits – either by changing payout formulas or raising the retirement age.
The explosion in company pension fund shortfalls in Britain nicely illustrates issues which will dominate economics and investment in coming years: the re-pricing of risk, a disillusionment with equity markets, and the boom in savings these shortfalls will help to drive.