November 30, 2010 / 6:03 AM / 9 years ago

COLUMN-Pension savers get the boot: James Saft

(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

By Jim Saft

HUNTSVILLE, Ala, November 30 (Reuters) - From Dublin to Paris to Budapest to inside those brown UPS trucks delivering holiday packages, it has been a tough few weeks for savers and retirees.

Moves by the Irish, French and Hungarian governments, and by the famous delivery company, showed that in the post-crisis world retirees, present and future, will be paying much of the price and taking on more of the risk.

This goes beyond merely cutting back on pension benefits, rising to actual appropriation of supposedly long-term retirement assets to help fund short term emergencies.

Let’s start with Ireland, which is kicking in 10 billion euros from its National Pensions Reserve Fund into an 85 billion euro package of support for its banks.

Trust me, this does not reduce the risk profile of the NPRF, which was set up as a sovereign wealth fund to help pay for state retirement benefits.

Putting aside jokes about sovereignty and wealth, of which there is appreciably less in Ireland than formerly, this is effectively a transfer of wealth from the Irish people to its banks. Or rather, to the institutions, mostly European banks, which hold Irish bank debt, none of whom as senior creditors will share in the pain.

In many jurisdictions if Ireland were a corporation and the NPRF part of the corporation’s pension fund, then making such a move would be illegal, and quite rightly so.

Of course this is not the first time that the NPRF has been used in this way. It has already “invested” 7 billion euros into Irish banks and has pledged another 3.7 billion to struggling Allied Irish Banks.

Also under consideration is a regulatory move that would effectively compel some private Irish pension funds to hold more Irish government debt, thereby providing the state with a captive investor base but hugely raising the risks for savers.

On to Hungary, which is seeking to cut its very high level of public debt as it prepares for entry to a euro single currency which may well self-destruct before it ever gets the chance to join. Hungary’s government last week finalized new rules designed to force members of private pension plans to opt back into a state controlled pay-as-you go option.

The idea, such as it is, is that participants in the private plans will fork over their $14 billion or so in savings, equal to about 10 percent of Hungary’s GDP, to the government in exchange for a pledge of a pension from the state. Hungary plans to use the funds to make pension payments to current retirees this year and next as well as to pay down government debt.

It is, in short, an outrage.

PACKAGES SOMETIMES GET LOST

Earlier this month France launched a move similar to Ireland’s as part of legislation that raised the age of retirement.

France is transferring more than 20 billion euros of assets belonging to its Fonds de Reserve pour les Retraites (FRR), a funded portion of its retirement system, to Cades, a fund designed to be run down to pay for social benefits.

The transfer will take place over a number of years and the mix of assets held by the FRR in the meantime will shift radically, implying a large shift to government debt. Very convenient for the French Treasury but perhaps not so good for future retirees.

Finally, let’s turn to UPS, which earlier this month became one of the most notable of a string of U.S. companies to sell bonds in order to fund its obligations to its underfunded pension fund. UPS sold $2 billion of bonds due in 2021 and 2040, with the longer dated portion yielding about 5.0 percent.

A decade of paltry equity market returns and current low bond yields, which are used to calculate future liabilities to retirees, have left many firms, including UPS, with funding deficits.

Debt financing pension obligations is in essence a plan to try and make a spread between the cost of financing and the returns the company is able to make on its pension assets.

Borrowing to speculate in financial markets to make up for a lack of previous saving; what could possibly go wrong?

To be fair, UPS, which is one of many large U.S. corporations making similar moves, can’t be equated with Ireland or Hungary. UPS has the same legal obligation to its pension fund no matter how it chooses to fund it, so the bond issue from that perspective does not raise the risk for retirees.

That said, a participant in a company pension plan is dependent on the ability of the company to meet its obligations. The more debt the company takes on, the higher that risk is.

Savers of all types are being asked to shoulder risks they did not sign on for, the costs of which they will inevitably bear.

At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund. For previous columns by James Saft, click on [SAFT/]

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