Is the pension crisis real? Or is it an accounting gimmick?
The stock market rallied last year, with the S&P 500 returning 26 percent. (It's up an additional 13 percent so far in 2010.)
But a new Moody's study of 120 multiemployer pension plans released Wednesday purports to show their financial status actually deteriorated during 2009.
The plans' investment assets covered only 54 percent of their long-term payment liabilities at year's end 2009, down from 56 percent at the end of 2008 (and 77 percent in 2007, before the stock market crashed).
The apparent growing gap between what funds own and what they owe looks like more bad news for old-time corporate employers like trucking and mining companies, as well as big firms like Verizon Communications Inc., Supervalu Inc. (they own Acme Markets Inc.), and others, who are trying to fund pensions as their current workforce shrinks.
No wonder so many companies have frozen their pension plans and told workers to invest their own retirement funds from now on, if they have any.
But how can pension funds be losing so much, when the stock market is going up so fast?
Moody's blames lower bond yields. At the suggestion of Moody's analyst Wesley Smyth, who wrote the report, I checked Moody's "AA"-rated corporate bond yield index and found it slipped from an average 5.8 percent at the start of 2009, to about 5.4 percent at the close of 2009.
"Doesn't sound like much" of a drop, he conceded. But his firm, following industry rules, calculated the effect on fund assets if bond yields remained at record low levels until all the plans' workers retired. A little less "adds up," he told me.
But how likely is it that interest rates will stay at today's rock-bottom levels for decades - or that pension funds should be managed as if they will? "If interest rates go back up a percent or two," Smith acknowledged, "the funded status will recover."
You can bet rates will rise again, and the pension crisis will ease - for those pension plans that survive - before most of us can afford to retire.
State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) took issue with my Tuesday column for wondering if the fast-rising public subsidy for the Pennsylvania Public School Employees' Retirement System might spark further changes in school and state workers' retirements.
Evans points out next year's steep increase in the state's teacher-pension subsidy is less than it would have been without HB-2497, the reform act Evans helped pilot through Harrisburg this fall, which trims pensions and eligibility for future hires.
Evans also expects the stock and bond markets will recover, pushing investment values higher and reducing the actual need for greater subsidies: "The markets have always come back in the past," he said.
And he doubts the Republicans who ousted him and other Democratic leaders from control of the state House, or GOP Gov.-elect Tom Corbett, will dare cut more: "This is not New Jersey," where Gov. Christie is pushing a new round of pension reductions.
Maranon Capital L.P., of Chicago, says it has invested $23 million in equity and mezzanine financing, plus $40 million in debt, to help Venio L.L.C., a New York unclaimed-property firm, acquire the unclaimed-property unit of the 65-year-old Keane Organization Inc., of Wayne, from chairman Steve Grossman.
Keane is a good-news company: It finds unclaimed stock, mutual fund, bank, brokerage, and insurance accounts, and matches them with heirs and other owners. "We get paid primarily with fees from the deceased," says Venio boss Michael O'Donnell, who will head the combined firms.
O'Donnell told me that he plans to keep most of Keane's 130 workers and its Wayne operations center, while shutting a 10-person Salt Lake City office. He said Keane was the biggest firm in their arcane industry. Venio employs 30.
Grossman, who inherited Keane from his father, is joining ex-Keane executives in a new company, RCP Solutions, to continue a group of Keane businesses he's not selling.