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Guaranteed Trouble: The Economic Effects of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation

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  • Jeffrey R. Brown

Abstract

How did the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a government corporation created to insure the pensions of workers and retirees in bankrupt firms, end up facing financial distress of its own? How did an organization designed to strengthen retirement security come to be seen as contributing to retirement insecurity? The superficial answer is that the PBGC's current funding problem arises from the decline in stock market prices in 2000, which reduced pension assets, and the fall in interest rates at about the same time, which boosted the present value of pension liabilities. But more fundamentally, much of the blame for the poor financial state of the PBGC, as well as the defined benefit system more generally, lies in some major design flaws of the PBGC pension insurance program. Specifically, the PBGC has: 1) failed to properly price insurance and thus encouraged excessive risk-taking by plan sponsors; 2) failed to promote adequate funding of pension obligations; and 3) failed to promote sufficient information disclosure to market participants. Together, these three flaws produced a system in which many firms fail to adequately fund their pension obligations, knowing that in financial distress, they can dump their pension liabilities onto the PBGC. Though the Pension Protection Act of 2006 made some progress in improving the PBGC program, it failed to correct these three major problems fully. Absent further reform, substantial problems will continue to plague the private defined benefit pension system in decades to come. To prevent this deterioration, this paper concludes that Congress should transfer much of the responsibility for defined benefit pension insurance to compulsory private markets.

Suggested Citation

  • Jeffrey R. Brown, 2008. "Guaranteed Trouble: The Economic Effects of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 22(1), pages 177-198, Winter.
  • Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:22:y:2008:i:1:p:177-198
    Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.22.1.177
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Zvi Bodie & John B. Shoven, 1983. "Financial Aspects of the United States Pension System," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number bodi83-1, June.
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    7. Jeremy I. Bulow & Myron S. Scholes, 1983. "Who Owns the Assets in a Defined-Benefit Pension Plan?," NBER Chapters,in: Financial Aspects of the United States Pension System, pages 17-36 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    15. Jeffrey R. Brown, 2008. "Guaranteed Trouble: The Economic Effects of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 22(1), pages 177-198, Winter.
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    Blog mentions

    As found by EconAcademics.org, the blog aggregator for Economics research:
    1. Insuring America’s Pensions: A Troubled Portrait of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation
      by Katharine Lusk in Journalist's Resource on 2011-03-01 03:54:10

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    Cited by:

    1. David A. Love & Paul A. Smith & David W. Wilcox, 2009. "Should risky firms offer risk-free DB pensions?," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2009-20, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
    2. Chen, An & Uzelac, Filip, 2014. "A risk-based premium: What does it mean for DB plan sponsors?," Insurance: Mathematics and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 54(C), pages 1-11.
    3. Efraim Benmelech & Nittai K. Bergman & Ricardo J. Enriquez, 2012. "Negotiating with Labor under Financial Distress," Review of Corporate Finance Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 1(1), pages 28-67.
    4. Haitao Yin & Howard Kunreuther & Matthew W. White, 2011. "Risk-Based Pricing and Risk-Reducing Effort: Does the Private Insurance Market Reduce Environmental Accidents?," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 54(2), pages 325-363.
    5. repec:eee:corfin:v:48:y:2018:i:c:p:261-274 is not listed on IDEAS
    6. Jeffrey R. Brown, 2008. "Guaranteed Trouble: The Economic Effects of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 22(1), pages 177-198, Winter.
    7. Thomas Crossley & Mario Jametti, 2013. "Pension Benefit Insurance and Pension Plan Portfolio Choice," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 95(1), pages 337-341, March.
    8. Haitao Yin & Howard Kunreuther & Matthew White, 2009. "Risk-Based Pricing and Risk-Reducing Effort: Does the Private Insurance Market Reduce Environmental Accidents?," NBER Working Papers 15100, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. Cory Koedel & Shawn Ni & Michael Podgursky, 2014. "Who Benefits from Pension Enhancements?," Education Finance and Policy, MIT Press, vol. 9(2), pages 165-192, March.
    10. Mario Jametti, 2008. "Underfunding of Defined Benefit Pension Plans and Benefit Guarantee Insurance: An Overview of Theory and Evidence," Canadian Public Policy, University of Toronto Press, vol. 34(s1), pages 39-46, November.
    11. Chen, An, 2011. "A risk-based model for the valuation of pension insurance," Insurance: Mathematics and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 49(3), pages 401-409.
    12. Love, David A. & Smith, Paul A. & Wilcox, David W., 2011. "The effect of regulation on optimal corporate pension risk," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 101(1), pages 18-35, July.
    13. Vincent Touzé, 2011. "Le financement des retraites aux États-Unis. Impact de la crise et tendances de long terme," Revue de l'OFCE, Presses de Sciences-Po, vol. 0(3), pages 63-112.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • G18 - Financial Economics - - General Financial Markets - - - Government Policy and Regulation
    • G22 - Financial Economics - - Financial Institutions and Services - - - Insurance; Insurance Companies; Actuarial Studies
    • G23 - Financial Economics - - Financial Institutions and Services - - - Non-bank Financial Institutions; Financial Instruments; Institutional Investors
    • H32 - Public Economics - - Fiscal Policies and Behavior of Economic Agents - - - Firm

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