Ben Bernanke's Latest Casualty: The Pension Plan

Tyler Durden's picture

With every passing day, the destructive consequences of Ben Bernanke's ruinous monetary policy on the broader economy become more and more apparent.

Nowhere is this more evident than the observation of a record high stock market - benefiting just a tiny portion of the population - correlating directly with the record number of Americans on food stamps - the wealth effect "trickle down", or lack thereof, for everyone else (not to mention an economic growth rate four years after the "end of the recession" that is the worst recovery in recorded history).

Less hyperbolically, this can be seen empirically in the anti-correlation between the US economy and corporate profits. Through his "central" scheming, Bernanke has turned the discounting paradigm on its face, leading to a world in which the market no longer "discounts" or anticipates any information or fundamentals, but merely cares about how big the next latest and greatest liquidity hit will be, and in which there is an inverse correlation between profitability and general economic well-being.

And so on, and so on: which is to be expected from a world gone upside down as a result of the biggest doomed economic experiment ever conducted on a global scale to preserve a system which can only survive following debt liquidation, and yet one which we are told day in and day out needs just a little bit more debt... to fix a problem resulting from record debt.

For the the latest "unintended casualty" of Bernanke and his ZIRP policy, we look at corporate pension funds, which as WaPo reports, are finally starting to crack under the weight of pervasive central planning, brought to the brink by none other than the Chairman's "good intentions."

On the surface this makes no sense: after all pension funds invest in assets - the same assets that Bernanke's policy of serial cheap credit funded bubble creation are supposed to inflate. And they do. The only problem is that pension funds also have offsetting matching liabilities: or the amount of money a company has to inject in order to cover future retiree obligations. And in a period of low discount rates brought by a record low interest rate environment, these liabilities painfully and relentlessly increase when discounting future cash needs.

Quote WaPo:

Assets held by pension plans of the firms that make up the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index increased by $113.4 billion in 2012, according to a report by Wilshire Associates, a consulting firm. But largely because of low rates, company liabilities increased even more: by $173.6 billion. That left the median corporation’s pension plan 76.9 percent funded, with just over $3 of assets for every $4 of liabilities.

 

Low interest rates hurt firms that provide pensions in two ways: They are required to set aside more money to pay for future pensions even as the liabilities appearing on their balance sheets grow larger.

And therein lies the rub: because while the NPV of future benefits in a bubbly environment results in higher asset values, it is the plunging rate used in the DCF that is dooming companies to a slow, painful cash bleeding death as they scramble to prefunded already underfunded (and ever more so) liabilities.

Visually, this is as follows:

In brief: the longer ZIRP drags on, the uglier the monetary reality that private (for now) workers will have to face when they finally choose to retire.

“Low interest rates are certainly a significant issue for employers,” said Judy A. Miller, director of retirement policy for the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries. “The lower the interest rates, the higher the value of the benefits you have to provide and the higher the required contributions.”

Fear not though: in a world in which the recovery is so strong, Mark-to-Market accounting for banks still has to come back four years after it was killed at the altar of central planning, corporations are the next to realize that out of sight means out of mind, and what better way to ignore the pension issue than to just move it "off the books."

[F]irms are moving pension liabilities off their books. Last year, Verizon Communications transferred $7.5 billion in pension obligations — about a quarter of its total — to Prudential Insurance, to limit its liabilities and bolster its financial profile. The move came after General Motors paid Prudential to assume $25 billion of its pension risks.

Congress is in on it too now:

Congress moved last year to provide relief from the pension damage being caused by low rates by allowing firms to temporarily use a 25-year interest rate average when calculating how much money they had to funnel into funds.

 

“It phases out over the next five or six years,” said Joshua D. Rauh, a Stanford University professor who studies pension plans.

 

But the relief does not change how pension liabilities appear on a firm’s balance sheet. In addition, firms could find that under the new law, their pension-related liabilities could quickly rise after 2013 unless interest rates return to more normal levels. This has dampened the appeal of the change for many companies.

Nothing like legislating 'magic' accounting into law, allowing companies to reap the benefit of low interest rates and soaring asset values, while pricing in the future benefits of inflation that will magically come (but not impair the asset values of course) and sweep all their underfunded liability concerns away.

Of course, since everyone is in on the scheme - most certainly the workers who stands to receive less and less the longer the lies are perpetuated - it has no chance of working. Instead, what companies are doing is simply cutting off the "welfare" illusion tentacle at the core, and finally starting to freeze pension funds.

That has left many firms to conclude that it is best to freeze their pension plans, cutting off contributions for current workers and making new employees ineligible for the benefit.

 

At ILM, which sells commercial insurance to building-supply manufacturers and retailers, the pension plan had been a source of pride in a benevolent company culture developed over 117 years.

 

“Personally, I think a pension is a tremendous benefit,” said Don W. Blackwell, ILM’s chief financial officer and treasurer. “This is a very valuable benefit to our employees. We did not want to take it away.”

 

But with the pension plan causing the firm to report a $8 million liability at the end of last year and with no end in sight for low interest rates, “we waved the white flag,” Blackwell said. “It was a waiting game and we blinked. We had no idea that interest rates would remain this low.”

There is still the hope and the illusion that as companies switch from traditional pensions to that most direct bubble beneficiary, the 401(k), that everyone will live happily ever after? Well no: here is the side by side comparison:

Once it froze its pension plan, ILM started to contribute 3 percent of each worker’s salary to a 401(k) plan. It’s something, but nowhere near enough to provide the same level of retirement security that the company’s pension did.

 

Blackwell said an employee with a $40,000 annual salary who received a 3 percent raise each year, set aside 7 percent of his pay for retirement and received a 3 percent company contribution would wind up with roughly a third less money in his retirement fund after 25 years than he would have with the pension plan.

In the private sector, surprisingly, some still prefer realism over lies:

Still, ILM employees are taking the pension fund’s demise in stride. “To be honest, I am surprised that the plan was not frozen a while back,” said Traci Barber, 42, a service center manager who has been with ILM nearly 13 years. “I was surprised when I took this job that it even offered a pension plan.”

 

Knotts, the firm’s vice president for human resources, said that many employees do not seem to understand the security that a pension’s guaranteed monthly payments offer in retirement. “When people get hired here,” she said, “they are not thinking about that. All of the questions are about salary and paid time off.”

 

She was among the executives who fretted over cutting the pension plan, deciding to back the decision even though she knew it is bad for employees. Keeping it, she said, would be even worse for the company.

 

David J. Riese, who retired as vice president of claims in 1997 after 16 years at ILM, said he values the security provided by his company pension. Current employees, he added, will not have it as good.

At least someone dares to admit defeat in the face of ubiquitous central planning. And as always, the private sector is the first to realize that in the New Normal, all workers will be worse off.

The question we have is how long until the same logic and methodology, which is absolutely universal, is transferred from the private to the public sector, and how long until the tens of millions of state and federal servants, most of whom do their tedious and menial tasks with a matched enthusiasm, only so they can reap the benefits of a luxurious lifetime pension upon early retirement, still based on a discounting math from the Old Normal?

Because the start of the unwind of the welfare myth, if only in the private sector for now, made worse by Ben Bernanke's endless tinkering in what was formerly a free market, should be making the guardians of the status quo very, very nervous... and certainly has the disciples of the Bismarckian welfare state delusion on their toes, because they can see very well what is coming down the road.