Because of Obama-era bungling, you can't afford to retire
Unless you are a Federal government employee
Two reports released this week began to make clear the staggering costs to the U.S. economy of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s zero-interest-rate policies. The first, from Standard and Poor’s, outlined the yawning funding gulfs in U.S. private sector pension schemes. The second, from the New York Fed, shows the astronomical growth in student debt. Both problems are likely to lead to huge costs in the future; neither would have occurred without Bernankeism.
The pension fund cost of Bernankeism is huge, and is growing not shrinking. Standard and Poor’s showed that the unfunded pension liability of the S&P 500 companies reached a record level of $354.7 billion in 2011, an increase of over $100 billion from the end of 2010 and $50 billion higher than the figure at the bottom of the bear market in 2008. There’s an additional $223 billion in underfunding in “other post-employment benefits,” some of which is undoubtedly due to rising medical coats, but much of which must also derive from poor investment returns.
Until the last few years, pension fund trustees could assume that the majority of underfunding was due to the sluggish stock market since 2000 and that a stock market recovery, combined with a modest increase in funding by the companies concerned would eliminate the problem. However the problem is much more fundamental than that. With interest rates at current levels, there is no way on God’s green earth that pension funds can earn the 7.5%- 8% returns that most actuaries have built into their calculations. The recent news from the giant California state funds, CALPERS and CALSTRS, that they had earned only 1% and 1.8% respectively in the year ended June 2011, hopelessly beneath their actuarially assumed rates of return of around 7.5%, shows that the problem is not confined to the corporate sector. Indeed, the problem in the public sector, in federal, state and local governments is an order of magnitude greater, with the U.S. social; security system having the biggest actuarial deficit of all.
Stock market returns are over the long term fundamentally related to the cost of money. If money is very cheap, as it has been since 2008 then even in an ultra-sluggish economy corporate profits will be very high, as will stock market levels (in relation to the unattractively performing economy.) That will reduce the level of returns that stock market investments can expect to command in the future. In 1990-2010, bonds yielded around 4.5% on average, while stock market returns averaged around 7.5%. Today, with bond yields below 2% for 10-year Treasuries, stock market returns can be expected to be only around 5%. Moodies recently announced that it would value pension obligations using an assumed rate of return of 5.5%; that still seems a touch too high, since pension funds invest in a mixture of bonds and stocks.
If pension funds put any reasonable proportion of their money in bonds yielding 2% (which to some extent they have to, for liquidity reasons) their chances of making 7-8% returns overall are negligible. Many pension fund trustees have in the last few years sought to hide this unpleasant truth from themselves by investing in “alternative assets” such as private equity, hedge funds and timberlands. As is becoming increasingly clear however, private equity investments and hedge fund investments are unable to achieve superior returns to the public market over the long run; they merely involve their investors in much higher risk, much lower liquidity and hugely higher management charges, which inevitably come out of the pockets of the funds investing in them. As a Harvard man, I instinctively knew the “Yale Model” involving much higher alternative asset investment was rubbish; this is why.
Thus Bernanke’s policy of keeping interest rates far below even the modest current rate of inflation and using “non-traditional means” to drive long-term rates down even further below their natural level, has caused an increasingly desperate if slow-moving crisis in the U.S. pension fund industry, both public and private sector. However the full cost of Bernankeism ranges far beyond the area of defined-benefit pension funds. While these have actuaries, and must report the holes in their funding to the world, the pension changes occurring since the 1990s have simply transferred the massive retirement funding risk to individuals. The inadequate funding of pensions has in those cases become inadequate funding of savings; the stern admonitions from the Pensions Benefit Guaranty Corporation have become gloomy days staring at a 401(K) savings plan that is hopeless to fund a reasonable retirement. What’s more, when the unfortunate plan-holder enquires from his plan provider what the inadequate amount of money will buy him as an annuity, he will be even more shocked, since ultra-low annuity rates mean that even sums of money that appear quite substantial buy annuities that are pathetic in their inadequacy.
A recent survey of Baby Boomers conducted by the builder Pulte Group showed that 61% planned to retire within 10 years, that only 14% said they would be financially unprepared to do so, and that 59% said they would not postpone retirement and might accelerate it. While the survey showed one encouraging trend, that boomers planned to retire at an average age of 67, compared with 63 twenty years ago, the overall trend of the survey was relentlessly positive about Baby Boomer finances. Interestingly the survey also said that Baby Boomers feel on average 15 years younger than they are -- which suggests that Baby Boomers are, on average, delusional.
Baby boomers who are approaching their relatively late retirement at 67 with $500,000 no doubt feel they are in pretty good shape. They will awaken from their reverie when they discover that one typical insurance company quotes that amount as purchasing an annuity of only $2,966 per month ($2,755 for women) with no pension for the surviving spouse or guaranteed minimum payout period. Doubtless most Baby Boomers faced with this shock will opt not to annuitize, hoping that between 67 and 74 or so, when their money runs out, they will graduate from feeling 15 years younger than their actual age to being dead, solving the problem. Delusional, as I said, but one can hardly blame them. The poor souls are victims of Bernanke’s ultra-low interest rates.
I have already discussed the Bernanke policies’ adverse effect on savings, and the consequent de-capitalization of the U.S. economy. By this means, the United States’ immense capital cost advantage against emerging markets has been eroded. Since the superiority of U.S. educational institutions is for the most part questionable at best, there is now little to prevent U.S. living standards being driven inexorably down towards those of China or India. Just as baby boomers may face the problem of a penurious old age thanks to Bernanke’s policies, younger Americans may face diminished earning ability or high unemployment or very probably both. Both the “stickiness” of wages on the downside and the ham-fisted and expensive attempts by politicians to solve the problem are likely to make the inevitable decline in living standards even worse than it needs to be.
The Obama version of "cost cutting"
Barack Obama has made it clear that he is a big believer in big government and has adopted a economic plan to run trillions of dollars in annual deficits for as long as possible. Obama remains steadfast against making any dramatic cuts in government spending and when pressed to announce some half-hearted effort to cut the size and the cost of government, his administration has resisted the cuts, and has transformed even the puniest efforts to cut federal spending into even greater demands upon taxpayer funds. The Obama Administration’s cost cutting efforts within federal agencies are so ineffective, they often cost taxpayers more than the savings originally proposed by the cuts.
Consider, for example, a recent Obama administration plan to consolidate data centers across the federal bureaucracy--an effort that they claim will save millions of dollars. However, close examination, by GAO and the DoD among others, shows that the cost of the implementation of data center consolidation for almost 24 agencies cost is likely to cost billions, that most of the federal agencies consolidating data centers haven't fully evaluated the total costs.
OMB estimated that " 30%-50% savings could be obtained" in operational costs through data consolidation efforts. However, OMB did not consider, on an agency-by-agency basis, the costs in manpower to transfer data and software from the IT servers located in various agencies throughout the country to the one location of the consolidated data center, nor the costs of the displaced IT persons within agencies who no longer provide IT support, nor the costs of the additional backup storage.
In addition to these increases in the operational costs for the agency, there is also the increase in the energy costs for the data centers to be considered. It turns out that a recent Congressional Research Survey (CRS) study shows that data centers consume "as much as 100 times the energy of a typical office building". In 2012, CRS estimates that costs for energy at consolidated data centers will run about $7.4 billion dollars annually. So, it seems that the Obama Administration is advocating spending $7.4 billion dollars annually to save $510 million. Can't they see what's wrong with that math?
Then, there is the complicated case of federal employee early retirement and buyouts which are occurring in several federal agencies. The U.S. Postal service is reporting that buyouts are expected for 7,400 postal employees. A buyout is where the government has deemed that the service level, capacity or task of a particular series of workers is unnecessary and can be eliminated without creating a negative impact on agency performance.
What often occurs, instead, is that federal employees with anywhere from 25 to 40 years of service who, already, were in the process of retiring, sign up for the buyout and are rewarded with an extra $15,000 to 25,000 for doing what they were planning on doing anyway.
Imagine, an entity such as the Postal Service, which is claiming that it can't afford to deliver mail 5 days a week, can afford to spend almost $150 million dollars this year on buyouts. Of course, taxpayers can also expect to pick up the costs of any of the Postal employees who then continue to receive retirement pay, averaging approximately $1.7 million in pay and benefits per retiree. Or, for those who take the buyout but can't find work, then the American taxpayer also face the possibility of paying for 99 weeks of unemployment in addition to the $15,000-$25,000 buyout. These expenditures are claimed as cost savings by the Obama administration.
Then there is the Obama administration's recent knee-jerk, political posturing in which the administration has canceled almost all federal meetings, conferences, and travel in a throw-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater cost cutting idiocy. In order for the government to cancel conferences at the last minute, many of which have already been issued contracts, the government is required to pay a "termination for the convenience of the government" penalty. These costs can range in the millions for each termination issued.
In addition to a termination penalty fee, the federal government must also pay for any special costs, such as the efforts of the business' contract lawyers, procurement and management professionals, partial goods ordered and severance costs for any persons involved. In fact, the termination costs can equal or exceed the amount of the original contract.
Recently, in the wake of the GSA conference and clown scandal, GSA canceled all travel and conferences, as did many other federal agencies. In addition to the down-the-stream costs to cities, hotels and travel service industries, the government has also paid and continues to pay millions in termination for convenience costs.
The Obama administration's intentions may be well-meaning. Certainly, in the midst of a heated election year, they are trying to avoid political scandal. And, without a doubt the administration is trying to claim that they are doing a good job saving taxpayer money, but this is just not true.
The Obama administration is not saving taxpayer dollars--in fact, their many different “cost cutting” initiative are actually resulting in greater spending.
Americans need to look carefully at the Obama administration's so-called energy-saving, budget-cutting, and efficiency efforts. Whether well-meaning incompetence or poor management, the reform mandates and cost cutting efforts of the Obama administration have not lived up to their hype and are costing the American taxpayer far more than is saved.
The Obama administration will be known as the biggest spender in our nation’s history and even the few half-hearted efforts launched to cut unneeded programs and reduce wasteful spending result in even greater taxpayers costs and a further expansion of government.
A small businessman answers back
Dear President Obama:
I’m still reeling from your recent remarks about small business owners in America. With one sweeping generalization, you stated that those of us who have had successful businesses did not earn that success. Instead, you insist that someone else made it happen for us. I’ve written to tell you my story in the hopes that you will see the foolishness of your unproven assertions.
Back in 1989, I decided to pursue a PhD in Criminology. I was nearing the end of my Master’s program in Psychology. I had a teaching assistantship that paid a mere $345 per month. I knew that I could not live on $345 per month for the minimum of three years I would need to finish my doctorate. I also knew that my parents would not be able to extend the same financial support they had so graciously extended while I was working on my Master’s degree. So I devised a plan to start a new business with just $1000 of initial investment.
My grandfather had passed away in December of 1988. In the late spring of 1989, my grandmother mailed me a check for $1000 that had been part of a life insurance policy payout issued upon my grandfather’s death. In the late summer of 1989, I met a graduate student by the name of Shannon Ruscoe. He had been playing tennis with my roommate Harry Wilson the day I met him. I was sitting in my living room playing a song by James Taylor when Shannon started singing along. After just a few minutes of listening to Shannon sing, I knew my life would never be the same again.
I called Shannon later that fall and asked if he wanted to get together and rehearse a few songs. We did. Within a few weeks we were hanging out at keg parties in places like Starkville’s College Station apartment complex. After a few beers, I would go to my car and get my 12-string. As our repertoire increased, so did Shannon’s confidence as a singer.
After a few months of getting to know Shannon, I laid out a plan. I found a beautiful Alvarez six-string with a cedar top and black jacaranda back and sides. I realized I could buy the guitar and install a Martin thin-line pickup under the bridge for just $700. With the remaining $300, I told Shannon that, for just $30 per night, we could rent a PA system from our friend Jim Beaty, the owner of Backstage Music in Starkville. The idea was that after playing free ten times we could start to earn a living as musicians.
First, we had to find a place to play. Fortunately, a Kappa Sigma named Mike worked as a manager at J.C. Garcia’s – a Mexican restaurant/bar that featured acoustic acts including the legendary Jeff Cummings and Jeffrey Rupp. We went to see him with an offer, telling Mike we would play at J.C’s free of charge on a Tuesday night, but only on one condition: if they sold $2000 worth of liquor, they would have to hire us the next week for 10% of the liquor sales, or $200.
Mike laughed. J.C.s had never sold $2000 worth of liquor on a Tuesday night, which was generally their slowest night of the week. Naturally, he felt he had nothing to lose. So we book our first gig at a real restaurant in a real college town.
I called all of my old friends at the Sigma Chi house and told them to show up at J.C’s the following Tuesday night. Shannon told all the girls at the Chi Omega house where he worked as a “house boy” in his spare time. As a result of our marketing, we packed the place out. J.C’s sold over $2000 in liquor that night and we were invited to come back the next week.
Playing free at keg parties also paid off. Later, by May of 1990, we were getting hired to play private parties. At one of those parties, we met the manager of the Bully III, a restaurant/bar near downtown Starkville. His name was David Lee Odom. He upped our salary to $250 per night plus free dinner and free beer. By the time I graduated, I would play in that bar over 100 times. It was there that I met other musicians and eventually had a chance to play all over the state and region. As a businessman and friend, Dave Odom changed our lives forever.
After Shannon moved to Nashville in 1991, I decided it was time to rely on the government for financial support. I’m just kidding. I simply went out and found another great singer named Anne Ford. We would play together until 1993. Our act was so successful that in April of 1993, my last full month of college, we played a whopping 22 gigs in just 30 days.
As the result of my business venture I was able to graduate with a PhD without taking out a single student loan. And it was a business venture. I was not just a guitarist. I booked most of our gigs, handled equipment purchases, and did a modest bit of accounting.
The irony is that, back in those days, I was a Democrat with socialist leanings. I voted for Dukakis and Clinton as the “lesser of two evils” – all the while complaining about the lack of a far-left alternative. Shortly thereafter, I would get involved in a two-year relationship with the daughter of the head of the Socialist Party of Ecuador. I simply failed to reconcile the discrepancies between my theoretical view of the world and my real world experiences. Eventually, I grew out of my childish socialist mindset and realized that capitalism had allowed me to utilize my God-given talents to earn a living government could never provide.
Someday, Mr. President, you’ll grow out of it, too.
Dr. Mike S. Adams
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