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Cost shifting and the freezing of corporate pension plans

  • Joshua Rauh
  • Irina Stefanescu
  • Stephen Zeldes
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    Many U.S. corporations have frozen defined benefit (DB) pension plans, replacing new DB promises with contributions to defined contribution (DC) plans. We estimate expected DB accruals from the age-service and salary distributions of a large sample of U.S. corporate pension plans with more than 1,000 employees. Comparing the counterfactual DB accruals to the actual increase in 401(k) and other DC contributions for firms that freeze, we find only partial compensation to employees for the lost DB accruals. Net of the increase in total DC contributions, firms save 2.7-3.6% of payroll per year, and over a 10-year horizon they save 3.1% of total firm assets. Workers would have to value the structure, choice, flexibility, or portability of DC plans by at least this much more to experience welfare gains from freezes. The forgone accruals and net cost effects are initially largest for older employees but over time become largest for middle-aged employees who plan to stay with the firms until retirement. Furthermore, the probability that a firm freezes a pension plan is positively related to the value of new accruals as a share of firm assets. While there are differences in the age-service distributions of firms that freeze versus those that do not, we find that the differential accrual effect is largely driven by differences in benefit factors and the relative importance of labor in the freeze firm's production function. The results overall support the hypothesis that pension freezes affect overall compensation and therefore that they change compensation costs relative to a worker's marginal product.

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    Paper provided by Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.) in its series Finance and Economics Discussion Series with number 2013-82.

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    Date of creation: 2013
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    Handle: RePEc:fip:fedgfe:2013-82
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    1. James Poterba & Joshua Rauh & Steven Venti & David Wise, 2007. "Defined contribution plans, defined benefit plans, and the accumulation of retirement wealth," NBER Chapters, in: Trans-Atlantic Public Economics Seminar (TAPES), Public Policy and Retirement, pages 2062-2086 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Irwin Tepper, 1981. "Taxation and Corporate Pension Policy," NBER Working Papers 0661, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Shapiro, Carl & Stiglitz, Joseph E, 1984. "Equilibrium Unemployment as a Worker Discipline Device," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(3), pages 433-44, June.
    4. Olivia S. Mitchell & Gary S. Fields, 1983. "The Economics of Retirement Behavior," NBER Working Papers 1128, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Leora Friedberg & Michael Owyang, 2004. "Explaining the Evolution of Pension Structure and Job Tenure," NBER Working Papers 10714, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Leora Friedberg & Michael T. Owyang & Tara M. Sinclair, 2005. "Searching for Better Prospects: Endogenizing Falling Job Tenure and Private Pension Coverage," NBER Working Papers 11808, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Daniel Bergstresser & Mihir Desai & Joshua Rauh, 2006. "Earnings Manipulation, Pension Assumptions, and Managerial Investment Decisions," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 121(1), pages 157-195, 02.
    8. Petersen, Mitchell A, 1992. "Pension Reversions and Worker-Stockholder Wealth Transfers," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 107(3), pages 1033-56, August.
    9. Andrew A. Samwick & Jonathan Skinner, 2004. "How Will 401(k) Pension Plans Affect Retirement Income?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 94(1), pages 329-343, March.
    10. Tepper, Irwin, 1981. "Taxation and Corporate Pension Policy," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 36(1), pages 1-13, March.
    11. Joshua D. Rauh, 2006. "Investment and Financing Constraints: Evidence from the Funding of Corporate Pension Plans," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 61(1), pages 33-71, 02.
    12. Edward P. Lazear & Robert L. Moore, 1988. "Pensions and Turnover," NBER Chapters, in: Pensions in the U.S. Economy, pages 163-190 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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