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How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers

What really happened to the retirement benefits of millions of Americans at thousands of companies.

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The roots of this crisis took hold two decades ago, when corporate pension plans, by and large, were well funded, thanks in large part to rules enacted in the 1970s that required employers to fund the plans adequately and laws adopted in the 1980s that made it tougher for companies to raid the plans or use the assets for their own benefit. Thanks to these rules, and to the long-running bull market that pumped up assets, by the end of the 1990s pension plans at many large companies had such massive surpluses that the companies could have fully paid their current and future retirees’ pensions, even if all of them lived to be 99 and the companies never contributed another dime.

But despite the rules protecting pension funds, U.S. companies siphoned billions of dollars in assets from their pension plans. Many, like Verizon, used the assets to finance downsizings, offering departing employees additional pension payouts in lieu of cash severance. Others, like GE, sold pension surpluses in restructuring deals, indirectly converting pension assets into cash.

To replenish the surplus assets in their pension piggy banks, companies cut benefits. Initially, employees didn’t question why companies with multi-billion-dollar pension surpluses were cutting pensions that weren’t costing them anything, because no one noticed their pensions were being cut. Employers used actuarial sleight of hand to disguise the cuts, typically by changing the traditional pensions to seemingly simple account-style plans.

Cutting benefits provided a secondary windfall: It boosted earnings, thanks to new accounting rules that required employers to put their pension obligations on their books. Cutting pensions reduced the obligations, which generated gains that are added to income. These accounting rules are the Rosetta Stone that explains why companies with massively overfunded pension plans went on a pension-cutting spree and began slashing retiree health benefits even when their costs were falling. By giving companies an incentive to reduce the liability on their books, the accounting rules turned retiree benefits plans into cookie jars of potential earnings enhancements and provided employers with the means to convert the trillion dollars in pensions and retiree benefits into an immediate, dollar-for-dollar benefit for the company.

With perfectly legal loopholes that enabled companies to tap pension plans like piggy banks, and accounting rules that rewarded employers for cutting benefits, retiree benefits plans soon morphed into profit centers, and populations of retirees essentially became portfolios of assets and debts, which passed from company to company in swirls of mergers, spin-offs and acquisitions. And with each of these restructuring deals, the subsequent owner aimed to squeeze a profit from the portfolio, always at the expense of the retirees.

The flexibility in the accounting rules, which gave employers enormous latitude to raise or lower their obligations by billions of dollars, also turned retiree plans into handy earnings-management tools.

Unfortunately for employees and retirees, these newfound tricks coincided with the trend of tying executive pay to performance. Thus, deliberately or not, the executives who green-lighted massive retiree cuts were indirectly boosting their own pay.

As their pay grew, managers and officers began diverting growing amounts into deferred-compensation plans, which are unfunded and therefore create a liability. Meanwhile, their supplemental executive pensions, which are based on pay, ballooned along with their compensation. Today, it’s common for a large company to owe its executives several billion dollars in pensions and deferred compensation.

These growing “executive legacy liabilities” are included in the pension obligations employers report to shareholders, and account for many of the “growing pension costs” companies are complaining about. Analysts, shareholders, and others don’t understand that executive obligations are no different from pension obligations for rank-and-file workers and retirees—they are governed by the same accounting rules, and they represent IOUs that a company has on its books. In some ways, executive liabilities are like public pensions: large, growing, and underfunded (or, as in the case of the executives, unfunded).

 
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