Things looked bleak last year for plan funding when a U.S. District Court in Massachusetts said private equity firms didn't operate as trades or businesses, but passive investors in the companies they own. If the ruling was left intact, it would have created a major loophole in this kind of liability for private equity funds connected to pension plans.
At the time, the court considered whether two funds managed by private equity firm Sun Capital were responsible for $4.5 million in withdrawal liability after their company, Scott Brass, a Rhode Island-based metal fabricator, left the New England Teamsters multiemployer plan.
Such distinctions are important because entities engaged in a trade or businesses may be responsible for pension shortfalls in single employer plans and for withdrawal liability in multiemployer plans.
Earlier this year, the Teamsters asked the First Circuit Court of Appeals to revisit the issue and PBGC filed a friend of the court brief supporting their cause.
With recent news of the Detroit bankruptcy, more people are asking about PBGC's role in public pensions. However, by law, PBGC doesn't insure state, county, or city plans.
While we insure most private-sector (non-governmental) pension plans, Congress has also defined exceptions that PBGC does not insure. But for more information about public pensions, please contact the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems.
When retirees and workers wish to contact PBGC, they first turn to the Customer Contact Center, which does its best to answer every call.
The center is nestled in Kingstowne, Va., outside of the hustle and bustle of Washington. Its representatives are the agency's first responders, making sure no call goes unanswered.
The team of 70 comprised of two federal managers, 13 contact center leadership team members, and 55 customer service representatives, regularly communicate with the Corporation's Field Benefit Administrators (FBA), transferring participants' calls to the FBAs to ensure questions on benefit entitlement are answered. The center also transfers calls to the Corporation's lawyers when participants have inquiries regarding legal matters.
The number of calls received fluctuates each month. From 2010 to 2012, the center received an average of 521,000 calls yearly or about 2,000 every business day.
The Wall Street Journal CFO Network Annual Meeting 2013 wrapped up last month. PBGC Director Josh Gotbaum participated in an interview session titled "The Great American Pension Crisis: Funding Past Promises and Future Retirement."
In his interview with Gabriella Stern, Deputy Managing Editor, WSJ Digital Network, Director Gotbaum focused on how U.S. companies will tackle mounting pension obligations in the coming years.
Dallas Salisbury, President and CEO, Employee Benefit Research Institute, also offered perspectives.
Take a look at the Dow Jones video recording of the interview. NOTE: The video may take a minute or two to fully load.
PBGC insures traditional pensions. So for years, we told people that we had nothing to do with defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s.
But we're also interested in the retirement security of all Americans. That's why we're considering a program that would deal with the benefits of missing participants in terminated defined contribution plans.
We're looking for feedback from participants, employers, and retirement experts on the value of developing such a program. We need input on the scope of the problem of missing participants and the need for PBGC to take in the benefits and look for people.
Also, we want to understand the value of a database where people can search for their benefits, and the impact that a PBGC program might have on private companies that perform similar services.
According to the Department of Labor, in 2010, the most recent year available, there were more than 650,000 defined contribution plans with 88 million people. That same year, about 29,000 defined contribution plans, covering some 1.2 million people, terminated.
This effort would expand our finding an unclaimed pension search on the agency's website, where visitors can see if they're owed a traditional pension benefit from one of the failed plans PBGC assumed.
To make good decisions, and before we act, we're inviting the public to weigh in. You can submit your comments through firstname.lastname@example.org.
How PBGC is changing the narrative on Retirement Security
From J. Jioni Palmer, Director, Communications and Public Affairs:
J. Jioni Palmer
Director of Communications & Public Affairs
I've always been fascinated by storytelling: The Harry Potter series, This American Life, Grimm, The Twilight Zone, The New Yorker and just about anything by Walter Mosely. Books, movies, radio, print or online periodicals, fact or fiction, it doesn't matter. Interesting characters and a compelling narrative rivet me.
I also particularly like watching commercials and I'm constantly amazed by the brilliance of ad writers who can develop the scene, introduce relatable characters and tell a complete story in 30 or 60 seconds. Beyond hawking products or pushing ideas, I find commercials offer interesting insights on the zeitgeist of a particular demographic, culture or society.
Today, in almost any hour of evening television, sandwiched between myriad commercials for insurance companies and the latest solution to make housecleaning a breeze, you'll see spots about encouraging the viewer to plan for retirement.
One really resonates with me because it echoes a true story we at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation tell a lot lately: people are living longer but retirement security isn't keeping pace. In the commercial, the narrator asks people to place a blue sticker along a timeline next to the age of the oldest person they've ever known. Not surprisingly, there are many dots ranging between 80 and 110. The spot closes with, "How do you make sure you have enough money to enjoy all of these years?"
Disclaimer: Neither the author nor PBGC endorses the products or services of the sponsor.
Since its inception in 1974, PBGC has been at the forefront of protecting the retirement security of the American people in defined-benefit pension plans offered by private companies. Now, most people probably don't know the agency exists, let alone think about us until the business they work for goes belly-up and they hear talk that the pension they've been looking forward to is about to evaporate.
Fortunately, PBGC does exist, and the safety net it provides allows most workers and retirees to keep the full promised benefit they've earned over many years.