Funds worth trillions of dollars start to plummet in value. Political pressure to be “socially responsible” distorts the market decisions of government-related enterprises, leading to risky investments. Investors who once considered their retirements safely protectedwake up to a sinking feeling of uncertainty and gloom.
Sound like the great mortgage-fueled financial crisis of 2008? Sure. But it also describes a calamity likely to hit as soon as 2009. State, local, and private pension plans covering millions of government employees and union workers with “defined benefit” accounts are teetering on the brink of implosion, victims of both a sinking stock market and investment strategies influenced by political considerations.
From January to October 2008, defined benefit funds—those promising a predetermined amount of retirement money to the payee—averaged losses of 26 percent, according to Northern Trust Investment Risk and Analytical Services, making it the worst year on record for corporate and public pension funds. The largest public pension fund in the United States, the California Public Employees Retirement Security System (CalPERS), lost a staggering 20 percent of its value in just three months last year. In May 2008, Vallejo, California, became the largest city in the state ever to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, thanks largely to unmanageable pension obligations. The situation in San Diego looks worryingly similar. And corporations with defined benefit plans are seeking relief in Washington as part of a bailout season that shows no sign of slowing down.
If the stock market remains in a funk for even a few more months, corporations that oversee union pension funds and state and municipal leaders responsible for public retirement pools may be faced with difficult choices. First on the docket might be postponing cost-of-living increases and reducing health care coverage for retirees. Over the longer term, benefits for new employees will have to be shaved and everyone is likely to see an increase in personal payroll contributions. Corporations will have to resort to more cost cutting and layoffs of their own just to guarantee the solvency of their pension funds. And things could go from bad to terrible if the managers of those funds do not quickly revise their investment practices.
During melting markets, all pension funds come under siege. If you’re covered by a “defined contribution” plan, contributions are invested, usually by your employer and usually in the stock market, and the returns are credited to the employee’s account. Your retirement savings grow if the market rises or, as is the case now, bleed when it crashes. You carry the risk on your shoulders.
The risk shifts to the employer under “defined benefit” plans, in which future outlays are guaranteed. That seemed like a great idea for business as recently as 2007, when the market was rising and the pension funds of America’s 500 largest companies held a surplus of $60 billion. Now they’re at a deficit of $200 billion, with fund assets dropping like a lodestone.
The Pension Protection Act of 2006 requires that companies keep the accounts fully funded over time, meaning that they have to have enough money to pay all of their retirees should they decide to withdraw their funds. Yet more than 200 of the 500 big-company plans are nowhere close to meeting that standard, and those dire numbers are increasing.
Companies with defined-benefit pensions may soon find themselves choosing between making payroll or pumping money into their pension plans. If companies are forced to make up the shortfall out of their assets, which seems likely, that would send profits tumbling even more, further destabilizing the stock market. And even with a cash infusion, many businesses might still have to freeze or even cut benefits.
Both the corporations and the pensioners are victims of a market meltdown whose depth and duration almost no one predicted. Yet the investment performances of their corporate pension funds, while dismal, are holding up better than the returns of many public and union defined benefit plans. Those funds are facing their own reckoning, but in this case a lot of the pain is self-created and exacerbated by politics.
Social Investing Shenanigans
There is about $3.5 trillion sloshing through the U.S. retirement system, scattered across more than 2,600 public pension funds and federal retirement accounts. Another $1 trillion or so covers union workers at corporate jobs in which the union has key management control of the fund. These public and union-based defined benefit plans cover 27 million people and represent more than 30 percent of the $15 trillion dollars held in U.S. retirement accounts.
Traditionally, public investments and union-based corporate pension funds were managed according to strict fiduciary principles designed to protect workers and taxpayers. For the most part they invested in safe government securities, such as bonds or U.S. Treasury bills. Professional managers oversaw the funds with little political interference.
But during the last 30 years, state pension funds began playing the market, putting their money into riskier and riskier securities—first stocks, corporate bonds, and foreign investments, then real estate, private equity firms, and hedge funds. Concurrently, baby boomers whose politics were forged in the 1960s and ’70s began using those pension funds to advance their social visions. Investments designed for the long-term welfare of retirees began to evolve into a political hammer. Some good occasionally came from the effort, as when companies were pushed to become more accountable in their practices. But advocacy groups often used their clout to direct money into pet social projects with dubious fiduciary prospects. Sometimes the money went to the very companies and financial instruments that, in the wake of the market meltdown, are now widely derided.
Many union funds and larger state pension plans screen stocks and investment opportunities based on what are known as “socially responsible investing,” or SRI, principles. Instead of focusing solely on maximizing value, fund managers have used the economic clout of concentrated stock holdings to make a statement by divesting from companies that don’t make it through certain “sin screens.” These included companies involved with weapons, nuclear energy, tobacco, alcohol, natural resources, and genetic modifications on agriculture, many of which did well over the past decade. Stocks of public companies deemed to have poor records on labor, environmental issues, women’s rights, and gay rights are also frequently screened out, as are corporations that do business with regimes that activists consider unsavory. In some cases, investments have been withheld altogether from some of the markets expected to best weather the current financial storm, including China and India, because of perceived transgressions.
Socially responsible investing now claims a market of more than $2 trillion, according to the Social Investment Forum, the trade group for social investors. There are dozens of mutual funds and investment advisory companies that incorporate ideological screens. Most of them are liberal, although there are now a few conservative funds and some based on religious principles, such as Islamic law. Activist treasurers and pension fund managers in numerous states and municipalities, most notably in California, New York, and Connecticut, have incorporated social screens into their investment strategies.