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Personal Finance : Is Your Pension Safe?
New York: February 15, 2004
By John R. Stephenson

The stock markets have rebounded and for nervous pension managers, not a minute too soon. For managers of defined benefit plans the stock markets' plunge over the previous three years has resulted in many sleepless nights. Defined benefit pension plan managers must ensure that they can maintain the retirement funding level that has been promised to the plan participants. When the stock market is in the doldrums, the returns to the portfolio are either non-existent or negative. The problem? There won't be enough money in the pension plan to pay the hoard of people about to retire. Add to this, the fact that because of the bull market in stocks during the 1990s, most pension plans have been heavily weighted toward stocks (most pensions allocate between 70 and 80 percent of their portfolios to stock) and you can see a potential problem lurking. With the market surging in the last year, worried pension managers can breath a little easier. But are pension plans out of the woods? No.

One gauge of the pension plan problem is the sorry state of the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) the quasi-governmental agency that inures America's private, defined benefit company pension plans. The PBGC stands behind the defined benefit plans (plans which guarantee a specific level of retirement income for each worker) of some 44.3 million American workers. With the steel and airline industry in a shambles and no end in sight, the government could ultimately be responsible for bailing out the pension plans of these behemoth corporations. By the PBGC's own estimates, they believe that there is some $85 billion of pension deficits (some estimates are as high as $350 billion) lurking on the books of America's most precarious companies. The result so far? Over the last two years, the insurer has plunged into the red and congress has stepped in with funding proposals to backstop the agency.

Although no one thinks that the government will let the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp go bust, not with 44 million votes on the line, pension under-funding is a worrisome issue. Add to this the massive current account deficit and we have the makings of an ever-growing problem. The common wisdom is that the economy is improving and rising economic fortunes will mean rising stock prices and interest rates. All of this should benefit pension plans. But is this assumption valid? In the 17 years from the end of 1964 to 1981, the Dow Jones Industrial average gained exactly one-tenth of one percent. During the period from 1982 to the peak in March 2000, the Dow rose from 875 to a peak of 11,723 a gain of 1,239%. Could a weak economy be the explanation for such anemic performance in the earlier time period? No. During the 1964 to 1981 time period, the Gross Domestic Product (the broadest measure of economic activity) of the US actually grew 374% versus some 197% for the later period. Clearly there is no one to one correlation between economic activity and stock markets. The likely reason for higher stock prices? A slew of baby boomers who over the last twenty years plowed a ton of money into the stock market.

With the boomers starting to retire, governments in hock and pension funds in trouble we all need to devise our own survival plan for the coming decades. Perhaps the markets will bail us out this time, however, two hundred years of economic data suggest a return to the trend of more modest returns from stocks rather than a continuation of the outsized returns we have witnessed. Your strategy should be to build as diversified an investment portfolio as you can and to try and find ways to augment your income.

 

StephensonFiles is a division of Stephenson & Company Inc. an investment research and asset management firm which publishes research reports and commentary from time to time on securities and trends in the marketplace. The opinions and information contained herein are based upon sources which we believe to be reliable, but Stephenson & Company makes no representation as to their timeliness, accuracy or completeness. Mr. Stephenson writes a regular commentary on the markets and individual securities and the opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. This report is not an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. Nothing in this article constitutes individual investment, legal or tax advice. Investments involve risk and an investor may incur profits and losses. We, our affiliates, and any officer, director or stockholder or any member of their families may have a position in and may from time to time purchase or sell any securities discussed in our articles. At the time of writing this article, Mr. Stephenson may or may not have had an investment position in the securities mentioned in this article
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