Government-backed insurance programs to protect the savings and assets of individual Americans have fallen upon hard times - and it is the taxpayer who gets stuck with the huge bill.
The savings and loan fiasco is the biggest and most well-known of such disasters, but the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. - the plan that covers savings accounts in banks - is in trouble because of large numbers of bank failures in recent years.Congress is being asked to provide a $10 billion "loan" to get the fund over difficult times while legislation to reform the banking system and the fund is being considered.
Now, a third insuring agency is having trouble. It is the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., or PBGC, which insures $1 trillion in employer-provided pension benefits for more than 40 million workers, including nearly all pension plans of any size.
When a company fails or goes out of business and leaves its pension plan underfunded, the agency often must pick up the difference in what is owed under retirement plans and what is actually there.
Like the FDIC, the pension insurance is provided through fees paid by companies that have pension plans in the PBGC. And like those other agencies, fees have not covered losses.
In 1990, the PBGC had losses of $930 million for the year, up from $160 million in 1969. Too many companies failed, leaving pensions plans for workers without enough money to cover benefits.
The PBGC has a total deficit of $1.8 billion and is facing another $8 billion in potential losses as the result of failure of some major companies.
If the fund cannot cover the need, the obvious answer to many is to have the federal government bail out the plan. That is what is happening in the S&L crisis. But soaking the taxpayer is not the right answer.
There are things that can be done and the Bush administration is pursuing some of them.
- Premiums paid by participating companies to the PBGC need to be raised to a more realistic level. However, there are some drawbacks to making the fees too high. That might cause some firms to retreat from defined-benefit plans where pension benefits are clearly spelled out. Such a trend already has been noticed among new pension programs.
- Require pension plans to be funded at a higher minimum level. Most pension troubles arise when companies pay a minimum to pension plans with the idea that the program will be covered over a long period of time and will be better funded when business improves.
If private firms are forced to fund pension plans at a more realistic level over a shorter period of time, there would be fewer losses in case of a business failure.
The problems with the PBGC should not be taken as a signal that all pension plans are in trouble. More than 80 percent are properly funded or even over-funded. But protection for the others needs to be improved before the problem becomes one where the PBGC turns to the taxpayers for help.