Bad Times Getting Worse for Older Americans

Olivia S. Mitchell, of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, told ABC News that “roughly $2 trillion has been lost in 401(k)s and pension plans during the recession.” (According to The Economist, worldwide private pension funds lost $5.4 trillion last year. I wonder if/when the media will start calling it a depression?)

As stock values go down, the value of the company pension plan investments fall with it. In good times, companies can put cash into the plans to make up the short fall. But with all the financial turmoil around us now, companies don’t have the cash and are unable to borrow it. Some companies are capping payouts and some are offering lump-sum payouts instead of, or in combination with, monthly payments. Other companies are abandoning traditional pensions – where the payouts are defined in advance of retirement – for 401(k) plans – where the contributions are defined instead and the payouts are left uncertain. That puts the risk of bad investments and market collapses on the backs of the workers instead of the companies.

For employees who are in traditional pension plans, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) was created in 1974 to insure pensions. If your employer goes bankrupt, your pension could still be OK if the plan pays insurance premiums to PBGC. However, the coverage is limited to $54,000 a year for workers who retire at age 65, less if you retire early. The PBGC’s investment assets went down 12 percent between September 2007 to September 2008 (latest financial statements available). That’s on top of a large (albeit falling) deficit of $11 billion (their liabilities are greater than their assets). This is the company that is supposed to protect your pension if your company goes into bankruptcy. Technically, they can’t meet today’s obligations…

If your employer is in financial trouble and you are expecting to earn more than the pension insurance will cover you may need to think about working during retirement to make up the difference. According to an article published by Wharton in 2007, the Senior Citizens Freedom to Work Act “repealed the Social Security earnings limit, allowing workers 65 through 69 to earn income without losing Social Security benefits.” Good thing, too. Looks like they’ll need to keep working to make it through the depression.