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If you have a Pension, Get to Know the PBGC

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If you’ve only ever had access to a defined contribution retirement plan like a 401K or 403B, you have little stake in the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

Defined contribution plans are, by nature, fully funded by what an employer and employee contribute to it (+/- non-guaranteed investment returns).

Defined benefit plans, on the other hand, are not always fully funded, and the result is they could be at risk of not paying out full benefits in the event of company failure. Thankfully, the PBGC was created as a safety net for private defined benefit plans. If you have a defined benefit retirement plan (aka a pension) – you’ll definitely want to read on and pay close attention.

Not sure what type of retirement plans you have? Check out my post on defined benefit vs. defined contribution retirement plans.

What is the PBGC?

Pension Benefit Guaranty CorpThe Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp, or PBGC, is an independent agency of the U.S. Government that is designed to provide an insurance backing to private pension, or defined benefit plans.

In many ways, the PBGC is to private pension assets as the FDIC is to bank deposit assets. Both are independent agencies of the government that are not funded by taxpayer dollars. In both cases, the majority of funding comes from insurance premiums charged to members (the PBGC also gets revenue from investment returns and the assets it takes over in the event of failure). Private pensions pay insurance premiums in to the PBGC. And banks pay insurance premiums to the FDIC. In both cases, becoming a member is voluntary.

If a member pension plan were to fail, the PBGC would take over remaining assets and make pension plan payments.

Massive Impact

In 2012, according to the PBGC annual report, it:

  • Protects approximately 44 million workers in 27,500 private pension plans.
  • Paid $5.5 billion to nearly 887,000 retirees in more than 4,500 failed plans (an additional 614,000 workers will receive benefits when they retire)
  • Assumed responsibility for more than 47,000 people in 155 newly failed single-employer plans

In a way, the PBGC is providing a massive insurance blanket to the U.S. economy via its coverage, which is truly why it exists. If there were no backing protections for all of these retiree benefit plans, taxpayers would be on the hook for essential care for retirees with little to no retirement savings, and lower payouts would equate to less currency flowing through the economy.

The PBGC and Public Pension Plans

It is key to note that public (state, federal, and local government) pension plans are NOT COVERED by the PBGC. Public pension funds are funded by taxpayer dollars, bonds, and investment returns.

If a municipality or state cannot meet its pension obligations and cannot raise taxpayer dollars to compensate, big problems can arise.

Case in point, the Detroit bankruptcy. Detroit cannot meet its pension obligations and faces declining tax revenues that present little future hope it will be able to. The emergency manager in charge of Detroit has proposed cutting pension benefits to 16 cents on the dollar as part of its bankruptcy filing. The State of Michigan had previously said it would back its municipalities, however, once a municipality goes to bankruptcy – all bets are off.

Public pensions, which once seemed invincible, no longer are. That’s a big problem for those who count on those benefits in retirement. And solutions need to be put in place.

Meanwhile, if you are a member of a public pension, do as much as you can to protect yourself by saving for retirement outside of your pension.

Maximum PBGC Payments

One very important difference between the PBGC and the FDIC is how much each will cover. Whereas the FDIC guarantees 100% coverage of all deposits to its member bank depositors, the PBGC sets annual maximums of what it will pay out to pension plan participants.

The PBGC maximum guaranteed payments, listed below for 2014, are very healthy by most measures, however, could be less than you expected – so it’s important to take this in to consideration for retirement planning. The PBGC sets its maximum benefit levels based on age, and if you were expected to receive less benefits than outlined below, that is what you would actually be paid out.

PBGC Maximum Monthly Guarantees for 2014
Age 2014 Straight-Life Annuity 2014 Joint and 50% Survivor Annuity*
75 15,027.27 13,524.54
74 13,662.95 12,296.66
73 12,298.63 11,068.77
72 10,934.31 9,840.88
71 9,570.00 8,613.00
70 8,205.68 7,385.11
69 7,365.34 6,628.81
68 6,623.86 5,961.47
67 5,981.25 5,383.13
66 5,437.50 4,893.75
65 4,943.18 4,448.86
64 4,597.16 4,137.44
63 4,251.13 3,826.02
62 3,905.11 3,514.60
61 3,559.09 3,203.18
60 3,213.07 2,891.76
59 3,015.34 2,713.81
58 2,817.61 2,535.85
57 2,619.89 2,357.90
56 2,422.16 2,179.94
55 2,224.43 2,001.99
54 2,125.57 1,913.01
53 2,026.70 1,824.03
52 1,927.84 1,735.06
51 1,828.98 1,646.08
50 1,730.11 1,557.10
49 1,631.25 1,468.13
48 1,532.39 1,379.15
47 1,433.52 1,290.17
46 1,334.66 1,201.19
45 1,235.80 1,112.22

PBGC Premium Rates

I was curious about what it costs to be covered by the PBGC (costs are covered by the employer). Here’s the answer (as pulled from the 2012 annual performance report section on insurance premiums):

“Flat-rate premiums for single-employer plans will increase to $42 for 2013, $49 for 2014, and will be indexed thereafter. Variable-rate premiums will be indexed for the first time and consequently are expected to increase to $13 or $14 per $1000 of underfunding for 2014 and to $18 or $19 for 2015. The variable-rate premium will be capped in filing year 2013 at $400 times the number of plan participants. The cap will be indexed thereafter. In filing year 2014, it will be $13 plus the inflation factor, and in filing year 2015 it will be the filing year 2014 rate plus $5 plus inflation adjustment. Flat-rate premiums for multiemployer plans will in crease to $12 for 2013, and will be indexed thereafter.”

Finding Out if your Company’s Plan is Covered by the PBGC

If you have a private pension plan and are not sure if you’re covered by the PBGC, check out the PBGC company search tool. Your employer should be proudly stating if their plan is covered by the PBGC, as it would be a huge employee retention nightmare if it was not (particularly when you look at the rate at which pensions seem to be failing lately).

PBGC Discussion:

  • If you are enrolled in a private pension plan, is it a member of the PBGC?
  • If you are in a public pension plan, what kind of guarantees, if any, have been stated for your pension assets?
  • Has your pension plan been taken over by the PBGC? What has the experience been like?
  • What do you think of the PBGC?

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About the Author
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