The director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, told a congressional panel Wednesday that pension premiums paid into his organization had been "too low for too long" to insure the nation's pension plan, which he said was a major factor in the plans' funding crisis.
However, Thomas Reeder said the crisis was so severe that raising the premiums for multiemployer plans would not solve the problem and may even make it worse.
"I think the multiemployer program has premiums that have been too low for too long... I realize that raising them is harder but I don't think they reflect the economic reality of the obligations we have," Reeder told the House Education and the Workforce Committee Wednesday.
Multiemployer plans involve several companies and unions jointly managing a pension fund for all of the workers. The plans are favored by unions because they remain with the workers even if they switch jobs. However, they can be risky for businesses because if one employer goes bankrupt the others are legally obligated to cover its contribution.
The Trump administration has proposed adding a variable rate premium on unfunded benefits and an exit premium on companies that withdraw from the plans. It estimates that would add $16 billion to the PBGC's program over the next decade. It is still far short of what would be needed to cover the obligations, Reeder conceded, but would buy time to reach a fuller solution.
Part of the problem, Reeder said, was that many pension plans were in such poor shape that requiring higher premiums would endanger many pension plans. That would accelerate their demise, creating a vicious circle in which trying to raise more funds to prop up plans would cause more plans to fail. He said the administration would like to see higher premiums paid to the PBGC to cover the plans but would waive the fees on case-by-case basis.
"The administration's proposal has a provision that allows for the PBGC to waive up to 20 percent of the premium in total for plans that it would adversely affect. 'Cause we certainly don't want to accelerate the problem. We would exercise that authority to avoid charging plans close to insolvency a higher premium. That's just money that would go into our pocket and go right back out," Reeder said.
The programs are in dire shape, Reeder warned. He said the plans' poor financial condition was caused by a combination of demographics, the lingering effects of the recession and years of underfunding. The PBGC's multiemployer plan has liabilities of $67.3 billion but assets of just $2.3 billion to cover them. The maximum a pensioner can get from the PBGC should a plan fail is about $13,000.
"I don't want to say that the accident has occurred but we are a few hundred feet in front of a brick wall and we are moving at very high speeds," he said.
Lawmakers, especially Democrats, have been calling on the federal government to bail out failing plans. That would be extremely expensive, though. Reeder told the committee it would cost "exponentially more" to bail out all troubled multiemployer pans than what it cost to keep the PBGC solvent.
The PBGC is the federally created entity charged with monitoring and protecting the plans. It is self-funded through premiums paid by the corporations whose plans it monitors. Its multiemployer pension programs protect 10 million workers and retirees in about 1,400 plans.