Here’s a piece missing from the debate on the impact pension cuts on a consumer and credit driven economy (Coming boomer pension cuts…what impact on the economy, by Diana Jean Schemo) might have on the Great Recession.
It is long and has great links:
Over the last two decades, pension cutbacks have left relatively few private sector workers with defined benefit pensions plans. Now, with health and pension funds for state and local government employees said to be facing massive funding shortfalls, many are describing the guaranteed retirement benefits paid to teachers, police officers, street cleaners, and other public workers as overly expensive and sclerotic. These pensions, the argument goes, are unrealistic — they are throwbacks to another era that must now be curbed.
…If there is one document that can be said to have galvanized public alarm over the state of public pensions, it would be an analysis issued by the Pew Center on the States last February. The study, whose findings were reported by almost every major media outlet and echoed by countless lawmakers and pundits, threw a spotlight on public sector pensions and health benefits for retirees, estimating that these obligations were under-funded by at least $1 trillion. It urged drastic and immediate action to put existing pensions on more solid footing, and to lower future taxpayer obligations by curbing benefits. In state houses across the land, lawmakers are heeding the call.
But another major analysis of the movement in pensions, alarming from a different perspective, drew virtually no notice. The November 2009 study, by researchers at the Social Security Administration and the Urban Institute, modeled the consequences over the next 22 years of eliminating many defined benefit pensions. The report projected what would happen if, over the ensuing five years, all defined benefit plans in the private sector were frozen, and a third of all state and local government plans were also frozen. It then asked: what would that mean for the income of Boomers when they reach the age of 67, between now and 2032?
Remarkably, the report disappeared into a media and public policy-making void. Not a single newspaper covered the report’s projections and, according to Nexis, the news database, they have never come up in public hearings or testimony debating the future of defined pension benefits.
Drawing on more than 100,000 employee records, the report makes its forecast based on the premise that current participants in defined benefit plans would collect benefits based on their previous service, but would not accumulate additional benefits. Based on past practice, the model also assumes that employers would shift their contributions to 401(k) plans. (The assumption may or may not hold entirely true, given that the aim of cutting retirement guarantees is largely to save money.)
With 50 to 56 percent of Boomers not in line to receive defined benefit pensions — in part, a result of the abandonment of defined benefit pensions that has already occurred in the private sector — the report found that many Boomer retirees would be unaffected by the changes envisioned in the model. But among those who do receive such pensions, the changes would be substantial. The report broke its findings down by four waves of Boomers, from the eldest, born just after World War II, to the youngest, born in 1964. In each wave, there would be more losers than winners, with the repercussions for the youngest Boomers most severe: 26 percent of them would lose an average of $4,200 in retirement income, while 11 percent would see their incomes rise by an average of $2,800.
The result: a net decline in retirement income among Boomers, in 2010 dollars, of roughly $46.3 billion a year once all Boomers have retired.
Taking the Social Security Administration report, and then drawing on census data to calculate the aggregate net impact on each cohort of Boomers, it appears that the net loss would be $2.9 billion a year among the oldest Boomers, $10.4 billion a year among the group that will turn 67 starting in 2018, $17.1 billion a year for those retiring around 2023, and $17.8 billion for those retiring between 2028 and 2032.
Allowing for deaths as the population ages, Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution who helped develop the mathematical model used in the pension study, suggested a graduated formula for calculating the accumulated impact once all Boomers have retired. The result: a net decline in retirement income among Boomers, in 2010 dollars, of roughly $46.3 billion a year once all Boomers have retired.
That scale of loss, said Rodrigue Tremblay, an economist who has written widely of the risk of “stagflation,” would weaken the larger economy.
“Because Boomers represent some 75 million consumers, any spending cut by this group will have a profound impact on the overall economy,” Tremblay said. “This could precipitate a vicious cycle of slow growth, with fewer jobs for the young.” Boomers would not only retire with less disposable income, but — anticipating a less secure retirement — would spend less in the years leading up to retirement.
“Such a shift in pension plans represents, and will represent even more so in the future, a tremendous shift of investment risk from employers to retirees, and will negatively influence the macro economy,” Tremblay said, as retirees “spend less and save more to compensate for lower incomes and for a greater expected volatility in their income flows.”