PhillyDeals: A lifeline for the pension crisis?

Posted: October 14, 2013

Is a pension crisis eating your state or city budget?

Life insurers want to help. But can taxpayers afford their cure?

General Motors and Verizon have each pumped a mountain of cash into life-insurance companies that promised lifetime payouts to salaried retirees, freeing future corporate profits for business and shareholders.

John Hausladen, of Plan Funding Solutions L.L.C., of Malvern, has been meeting with officials in Harrisburg, trying to get them to consider a similar move for the underfunded Pennsylvania State Employees' Retirement System and Public School Employees' Retirement System.

Under state law, state and local taxpayers have to pay more money each year to make up pension shortfalls. Gov. Corbett has called rising pension payments a "tapeworm" on his budget.

The insurers would guarantee to pay a part of the pensions, and move these obligations off the state's books. The insurers call this "de-risking."

Hausladen has been banging this drum in Harrisburg.

" Steve Aichele, Gov. Corbett's prior chief of staff, was behind this and wanted to move this forward," Hausladen told me. "When [Aichele] left, I lost some momentum."

Aichele, now serving the governor in a different job, didn't return calls seeking comment.

Hausladen has also met with key Republican legislators in hopes that "rapid escalation of taxes in the next couple of years and taxpayer outrage may get the legislature working on real solutions."

Can we trust insurers? They have been guaranteeing retirement annuities "since 1928," Dylan J. Tyson, head of pension-risk transfer for Prudential, told me. "And we've been able to make every payment we promised."

Hausladen says he has signed Prudential, MassMutual, New York Life, and MetLife to a consortium of high-rated insurers willing to take over at least a part of Pennsylvania's pension obligations.

These guys buy bonds and make secured loans to blue-chip companies. They don't invest in the sometimes profitable, sometimes skittish real-estate, commodity and hedge funds, while the Pennsylvania pension systems spend hundreds of millions of dollars in fees each year in such investments.

What's the catch? Pennsylvania figures its stew of pension investments should return around 7.5 percent in profits each year. (The actual returns are sometimes wildly different.)

Insurers only expect to get around 4.5 percent from their plain-vanilla investments.

The insurers want the state systems to make up the difference - as GM and Verizon did - by giving them a one-time payment so they can increase the nest egg they will use to pay future pensions.

But where can the pension systems get that extra cash? That's what Jeff Clay, executive director of the teachers' pension system, asked Hausladen when they met in June.

"Due to insufficient cash flow, [Clay] did not feel they could proceed with it at this time," was how Hausladen put it.

As it happens, House Republicans are now weighing a proposal that would borrow money to shore up the pension systems. Philadelphia tried this in 1998, just in time for a market crash to wipe out gains.

Hausladen would love to use that borrowed money from the state to fund insurer annuities. He'll be back pitching in Harrisburg this week.

The professional money management firms won't like this. Unions will need convincing.

But I can imagine elected officials agreeing to pay insurers to make the pensions perform so they don't have to think about them anymore.

Until, that is, it's time to cash their own retirement checks.



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