Angst in America, Part 4: Disappearing Pensions

“Companies are doing everything they can to get rid of pension plans, and they will succeed.”

– Ben Stein

“Lady Madonna, children at your feet
Wonder how you manage to make ends meet
Who finds the money when you pay the rent?
Did you think that money was heaven sent?”

– “Lady Madonna,” The Beatles

There was once a time when many American workers had a simple formula for retirement: You stayed with a large business for many years, possibly your whole career. Then at a predetermined age you gratefully accepted a gold watch and a monthly check for the rest of your life. Off you went into the sunset.

That happy outcome was probably never as available as we think. Maybe it was relatively common for the first few decades after World War II. Many of my Baby Boomer peers think a secure retirement should be normal because it’s what we saw in our formative years. In the early 1980s, about 60% of companies had defined-benefit plans. Today it’s about 4% (source: money.CNN). But today defined-benefit plans have ceased to be normal in the larger scheme of things. We witnessed an aberration, a historical anomaly that grew out of particularly favorable circumstances.

Circumstances change. Such pensions are all but gone from US private-sector employers. They’re still common in government, particularly state and local governments; and they are increasingly problematic. They are another source of angst for retirees, government workers who want to retire someday, and the taxpayers and bond investors who finance those pensions. Today, in what will be the first of at least two and possibly more letters focusing on pensions, we’ll begin to examine that angst in more detail. The mounting problems of US and European pension systems are massive on a scale that is nearly incomprehensible.

I came across a chart that clearly points to the growing concern of those who are either approaching retirement or already retired. This is from the October 2016 Gloom, Boom & Doom Report from my friend and 2017 SIC speaker Marc Faber. The gap in confidence between younger and older Americans is at an all-time high, after being minimal for many years. A survey by the Insured Retirement Institute last year noted that only 24% of Baby Boomer respondents were confident they would have enough money to last through their lifetimes, down from 37% in 2011. This is the case even after a most remarkable bull market run in the ensuing years.

Even though the equity market has more than recovered, the compounding effect that everyone expected for their pension funds and retirement plans didn’t happen as expected. If the money isn’t there, it can’t compound. If your plan lost 40% in the Great Recession, getting back to even in the ensuing years did not make up for the lost money that was theoretically supposed to come from that 40% compounding at 8% a year. And, as I highlighted in last week’s letter, the prospects for compounding at 8% or even 5% in the next 10 years are not very good. Thus the chart above.

And speaking of Marc Faber’s joining us at the conference; let me again invite you to come to Orlando for my Strategic Investment Conference, May 22–25. I have assembled an all-star lineup of financial and geopolitical analysts who will help us look at what is likely coming our way in the next few years. Then we’ll spend the final part of the conference examining various pathways for the next 10 years and what we have to do to navigate them successfully. There is truly no other conference like this anywhere. I’m continually told by people who attend the Strategic Investment Conference that it’s the best investment conference they’ve ever been to. You can find out how to register here.

Defined What?