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What the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation can learn from the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation

Abstract

This article attempts to draw attention to some important lessons that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) can learn from the experience of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC). FSLIC was the government agency that insured deposits at savings and loan associations until it was replaced in 1989, leaving a massive deficit to be financed by taxpayers. Like FSLIC, the PBGC is a government agency that guarantees a form of private corporate debt. As guarantor of the pension benefits promised by private plan sponsors, the PBGC bears the risk of a shortfall between the value of insured benefits and the assets securing those benefits. There has been a significant change in the attitude and behavior of senior public officials and legislators as a result of the S&L debacle. Directors of the PBGC and the Secretaries of Labor to whom they report have pointed out the weaknesses of some of the pension funds that the PBGC insures and have pursued an active legislative agenda designed to reduce the PBGC's vulnerability to those weaknesses. Those efforts have resulted in a series of laws and amendments to laws that have significantly improved the U.S. pension guarantee system. But the magnitude of the PBGC's exposure to shortfall risk depends on three factors: (1) the financial strength of plan sponsors, (2) the degree of underfunding of insured benefits, and (3) the mismatch between the market-risk exposure of insured benefits (a form of long-term corporate debt) and the market-risk exposure of the assets securing that debt. Only the first two of these have been addressed by past legislative reforms. The third factor appears not to be well understood. It is apparently a widespread belief among policymakers that a well-diversified pension portfolio of equity securities provides an effective long-run hedge against liabilities of defined-benefit pension plans, so that there is no mismatch problem. This belief is mistaken. Equities are not a hedge against fixed-income liabilities even in the long run. Thus, even if the PBGC achieves the goal of full funding at one point in time, the mismatch between the market-risk exposure of the pension benefits that it insures and the pension assets backing them creates the potential for large shortfall losses in the future as the economy and capital market rates change in unpredictable ways. Therein lies an uncomfortable parallel with the S&L debacle.

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Bodie, Z. What the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation can learn from the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation. J Finan Serv Res 10, 83–100 (1996). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00120147

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Keywords

  • Pension Plan
  • Corporate Debt
  • Shortfall Risk
  • Pension Asset
  • Legislative Agenda