The Great Pension Swipe Coming to a State Near You

Burglar

“Elections have consequences” and this time the results may be a disaster for public employee pensions.  The rationale underpinning this contention is simple.  Wall Street is running out of Big Pots of Money.  They’ve already run through the money which flowed in from the earnings of more women in the work force – the Wall Street Casino used up the proceeds from the increasing number of two income families by 2000, when the number of women in the work force increased from 18,389,000 in 1950 to 65,616,000 in 2000.  To add a bit of context here:  In 1950 there were 43,819,000 men in the work force, and 18,389,000 women.  By 2000 there were 75,247,000 men working and 65,616,000 women. [BLS pdf]   Some families were induced to join in the new Money Market Accounts made possible by the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982.  This new form of “savings” account allowed the banks to get and keep the deposits.

“Banks are required to discourage customers from exceeding these limits (on withdrawals), either by imposing high fees on customers who do so, or by closing their accounts. Banks are free to impose additional restrictions (for instance: some banks limit their customers to six total transactions). ATM, teller, and bank-by-mail transactions are not counted towards the total.”  [link]

And so, Wall Street had a big pot of money to play with. But enough is never enough.   Wall Street invented more money pots – using securitized assets. These were non-existent before the 1970s.  For review, a securitized asset is something done to create “debt securities, or bonds, whose payment of principal and interest derive from cash flows generated by separate pools of assets.”  [ HFS pdf 2003]  In plainer English this means that Wall Street can use securitization to immediately (and that’s a key word – immediately) make money on any “cash-producing asset” – like trade receivables, leases, auto loans, credit card lines, and, of course, mortgages.

Now the Money Mad Denizens of Wall Street have run through the addition of women’s earnings, the accumulation of funds in money market accounts created thereby, and they mis-managed their money in securitized assets such that the Housing Bubble of the early 2000’s burst and splattered all over their operations.  But enough is never enough.  One former Wall Street trader described the Wealth Addiction rampant in the firms:

“But in the end, it was actually my absurdly wealthy bosses who helped me see the limitations of unlimited wealth. I was in a meeting with one of them, and a few other traders, and they were talking about the new hedge-fund regulations. Most everyone on Wall Street thought they were a bad idea. “But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?” I asked. The room went quiet, and my boss shot me a withering look. I remember his saying, “I don’t have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects our company.” […]

“From that moment on, I started to see Wall Street with new eyes. I noticed the vitriol that traders directed at the government for limiting bonuses after the crash. I heard the fury in their voices at the mention of higher taxes. These traders despised anything or anyone that threatened their bonuses.” [NYT]

What might threaten those bonuses? Not having Big Pots of Money to play with.   There are some money pots out there – and more and more of them are being “touched” by the Wall Street bankers who see them as ways to enhance those precious bonuses.  Pension funds.

How to unlock that next Big Money Pot for the Wealth Addicts of Wall Street?  The strategy has been alarmingly simple.

First, bash public employee unions – the organizations which negotiated defined benefit plans for retiring public employees.  Union bashing has been a staple of Republican politics since time out of mind, so it makes perfect sense to incorporate it into the strategy for raiding public pension funds. Public employees are no longer to be seen as the helpful librarian, or the firefighter who saves the kittens, or the police officer who donates time to direct traffic at the high school football game.  He or she is no longer the person willing to work in frigid temperatures clearing snow from highways at 3:00 A.M. Nor is the public employee to be thought of as the bookkeeper who diligently keeps track of taxes paid, fees assessed, or paper-work properly filled out to prevent fraud.  No! These people are to be seen as “greedy teachers” who think only of job security, “lazy” bureaucrats who create paperwork, and “leagues of over-paid shovel leaners” who don’t care about the snow on the roads…. The cynicism of this is excruciating.  The result is little else than a contemptuous, divisive, misanthropic perspective which divides private sector employees earning $45,000 per year from public sector employees earning $45,000 per year.

Secondly, once the bashing begins the misanthropes add in a measure of jealousy.   Publish the retirement incomes of Everyone, because surely someone is making more money in retirement income than the targeted population of disaffected voters.  Cover this in the banner of Right to Know. “You,” meaning the disenchanted audience, have a “right” to know what “each and every public employee is making” because, “you know” they have been “feeding at the public trough.”  The argument is predicated on the jealousy factor – who else would care what a firefighter, police officer, highway department employee, teacher, librarian, public health nurse, etc. would receive in a year?

That the release of this information would allow personal identity thieves to thrive is of little consequence to the advocates of total transparency – so much transparency that the former public employees have no right to any financial privacy whatsoever.

Third, flat out lie about the sustainability of defined benefits pension plans.  There are three major advantages of a defined benefit plan.  It provides security.  The person who has paid into the plan knows exactly want the financial benefits will be and can do some financial planning accordingly. The person also know exactly how long he or she has to work to be eligible for the benefits.  And, finally, the person knows that the pension is covered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

We know that some public employee pension plans are better administered than others, but the opponents of defined benefit plans are eager, enthusiastic even, about publicizing the problems of some as the characteristics of all.  This is evident in the ALEC assault on public pension funds, all 45 pages of it which blatantly calls for defined benefit plans to be morphed  into “properly defined alternatives, such as defined contribution, cash balance, and hybrid plans.”  Read: The Next Big Money Pot for Wall Street.

Creeping Financialism

The ALEC advocates and associates are only too pleased to discuss the delights of the defined contribution plans.  Most often they are couched in friendly wording such as “you can manage your own plan,” which sounds like “freedom.”  It also sounds like a 401(k).   What they aren’t anxious to publicize is that 401(k) plans have been a bust.

“The 401(k) plan was never meant to be a mainstream pension plan and is a poor substitute for one. It’s a voluntary program that was intended to supplement retirement savings –  one of those quirky little options in the byzantine tax code that employers seized upon as a way to save money while pretending that they were doing the right thing by their employees.” [Forbes]

That’s putting it about as bluntly as possible.  Oops! The 401(k) was never intended to be the main source of retirement funds, and it’s a poor substitute for a defined benefit plan.

“Authors like Helaine Olen have been right on the mark in saying that the financial services industry and employers are all too eager to tell us how little we’re saving, yet don’t serve as honest brokers in maximizing our retirement savings. That would require cutting fees, eliminating middlemen, increasing employer contributions and getting rid of the fee structure that is based on assets under management. And above all, the most dangerous part of this equation: Educating employees on how to invest cost- and risk effectively.”  [Forbes]

And for all this – while the fund administrators collect the fees, hire middlemen, and thrive under the fee structure – the public employee is asked to give up any and all financial privacy, learn to be a financial manager, and forget about the security a defined benefits plan offers. All this so that Wall Street will secure the next Big Money Pot.  And it’s already started.

Creepy Financialists

The unease felt by public employees about their future financial security isn’t merely the result of escalating fiscal paranoia; it’s very real. The Rhode Island Case describes what happens when crony capitalism merges with Wall Street wealth addiction when state treasurer Gina Raimondo issued forth :

“Nor did anyone know that part of Raimondo’s strategy for saving money involved handing more than $1 billion – 14 percent of the state fund – to hedge funds, including a trio of well-known New York-based funds: Dan Loeb’s Third Point Capital was given $66 million, Ken Garschina’s Mason Capital got $64 million and $70 million went to Paul Singer’s Elliott Management. The funds now stood collectively to be paid tens of millions in fees every single year by the already overburdened taxpayers of her ostensibly flat-broke state. Felicitously, Loeb, Garschina and Singer serve on the board of the Manhattan Institute, a prominent conservative think tank with a history of supporting benefit-slashing reforms. The institute named Raimondo its 2011 “Urban Innovator” of the year.

The state’s workers, in other words, were being forced to subsidize their own political disenfranchisement, coughing up at least $200 million to members of a group that had supported anti-labor laws.” [Rolling Stone]

Worse still, the states that were supposed to be making defined contributions didn’t seem to be taking the process very seriously.

Chris Tobe, a former trustee of the Kentucky Retirement Systems who blew the whistle to the SEC on public-fund improprieties in his state and wrote a book called Kentucky Fried Pensions, did a careful study of states and their ARCs. While some states pay 100 percent (or even more) of their required bills, Tobe concluded that in just the past decade, at least 14 states have regularly failed to make their Annual Required Contributions. In 2011, an industry website called 24/7 Wall St. compiled a list of the 10 brokest, most busted public pensions in America. “Eight of those 10 were on my list,” says Tobe.

Among the worst of these offenders are Massachusetts (made just 27 percent of its payments), New Jersey (33 percent, with the teachers’ pension getting just 10 percent of required payments) and Illinois (68 percent). In Kentucky, the state pension fund, the Kentucky Employee Retirement System (KERS), has paid less than 50 percent of its ARCs over the past 10 years, and is now basically butt-broke – the fund is 27 percent funded, which makes bankrupt Detroit, whose city pension is 77 percent full, look like the sultanate of Brunei by comparison.” [Rolling Stone]

However, nothing stops the administrators of the Annual Required Contribution plans from drawing their salaries. Nothing stops the hedge fund managers and wealth managers from earning their money, and nothing stops the hedge funds, wealth funds, and bankers from getting nice bonuses from playing with these new Big Money Pots.

2013 also brought the disclosure of other pension swindles.  A report on North Carolina’s pension plan yielded the most opaque atmosphere surrounding a supposedly transparent pension system, with the Wall Street characters benefiting from the opacity:

“Today, TSERS assets are directly invested in approximately 300 funds and indirectly in hundreds more underlying funds, the names, investment practices, portfolio holdings, investment performances, fees, expenses, regulation, trading and custodian banking arrangements of which are largely unknown to stakeholders, the State Auditor and, indeed, to even the (State) Treasurer and her staff,” he reports. “As a result of the lack of transparency and accountability at TSERS, it is virtually impossible for stakeholders to know the answers to questions as fundamental as who is managing the money, what is it invested in and where is it?” [Salon]

How are the investors in the system (the state, the locality, the employees) supposed to act as “free” administrators of their own pension plans when they can’t discover who is managing the money, what investments have been made, and where the money is?  Much less ask what fees are being paid to the money managers of the new Big Pot?  In the initial example above, Rhode Island, state treasurer Raimondo couldn’t answer the question about the amount paid in fees.

President George W. Bush famously tread on the third rail of American politics, privatizing Social Security in 2005, and just as famously backed away from the precipice.  It seems that Americans have not forgotten what is supposed to be a “mainstream pension plan.”   If continued symbolic acts continue to be promoted by the Cato Institute and if there continue to be the likes of Iowa senator-elect Ernst who call for a hybrid plan in which younger workers are allowed to put a portion of their Social Security into a Retirement Savings Account (read: Wall Street Money Pot) we can’t declare the nation free of schemes to privatize Social Security.  If a state treasurer in Rhode Island who promoted the defined contribution plan in her jurisdiction can’t find out how much is being raked in by money managers, then how do we expect our average “younger worker” to effectively track his or her retirement account.

Thus we can look forward to more proposals for Hybrid Plans – which augment the Big Money Pot, and Defined Contribution Plans – which can’t be tracked and make a mockery of the entire concept of transparency, and more assaults on public employees who might be victims of the latest Great Burglary of their pension systems.  Elections do have consequences, and the last mid term election put more than $100 billion in public pension funds in the hands of financialists turned politicians.

1 Comment

Filed under Economy, financial regulation, Politics, public employees, Republicans

One response to “The Great Pension Swipe Coming to a State Near You

  1. Addendum: There’s an interesting facet of the transparency issue concerning Transparency. Evidently, it’s ok to ask that pension benefits be fair game for publication, but in Rhode Island at least when people asked about management fees, THAT information was considered proprietary, and made almost inaccessible. For more information on public pensions see the NPPC here: http://www.truthaboutpensions.org/