Pension Fund Underfunding Is a Local Problem
Make the Children Pay
The Strategic Investment Conference and Possible Recessions
One difficulty in analyzing our economic future is the sheer number of potential crises. When so much could go wrong (and really right, when the exponential technologies I foresee get here), it’s hard to isolate, let alone navigate, the real dangers. We are tempted to ignore them all. Ignoring them is usually the right response, too. We can “Muddle Through” almost anything.
But muddling through isn’t the same as smooth sailing. It’s difficult, unpleasant, and often keeps you from looking for better opportunities. Then there are times when you can’t even muddle through. Instead, you find yourself emotionally at a dead stop or even going backwards. When surviving the storm is your focus, taking those “blood in the streets” buying opportunities is hard.
Which leads to this week’s letter. Almost every day I read scores of finance and economic newsletters, websites, articles, and books. A few articles on pensions hit my inbox this week and pursuing them led me to today’s topic.
But dear gods, I can remember writing a decade ago that public pension funds were $2 trillion underfunded and getting worse. More than one person told me that couldn’t be right. They were correct: It was actually much worse. (See, I’m an optimist!)
Two years ago I wrote that Disappearing Pensions are The Crisis We Can’t Muddle Through. Nothing since then has changed my mind. In fact, failure at all levels to even begin solving the problem is making it worse. The latest estimates, as we will see, suggest that it has gotten $2 trillion or more worse in just a few years.
Note we are talking here about a specific kind of pension: defined benefit plans, usually those sponsored by state and local governments, labor unions, and a dwindling number of private businesses. Many sponsors haven’t set aside the assets needed to pay the benefits they’ve promised to current and future retirees. They can delay the inevitable for a long time but not forever. And “forever” is just around the corner.
As we will see below, the numbers are large enough to make this a problem for everyone, even those without affected pensions. The problem is “solvable”… but the solutions will be problems in themselves.