Via The New York Times:
As troubled pension funds go, the New York State Teamsters Conference Pension and Retirement Fund, with some $1.3 billion in assets, is by no means the largest. Neither is it in the direst financial shape, even though just 44.8 percent of its obligations are funded.
But given that participants in this fund may face benefits cuts of at least 20 percent, learning what went wrong could be instructive not only for other imperiled retirement funds but also for taxpayers who may have to cover the shortfalls.
Like many pension plans, the Teamsters fund was hurt badly by the steep market decline of 2008. Those overseeing the fund also tie its troubles to the decline of unionized employment in the trucking industry, which has translated into fewer contributions to the plan.
Both of those factors are real. But an examination of the fund identified other pernicious forces: most notably, illiquid, opaque and high-cost investments. At least 40 percent of the fund is in so-called alternative investments, including expensive private equity deals, hedge funds and real estate.
For a fund poised to suspend benefits, holdings like these are especially problematic.
Eileen Appelbaum, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a nonpartisan organization in Washington, said she was not surprised by the findings on the Teamsters fund.
“Wall Street promises these really high returns, but private equity has not delivered since 2006, and hedge funds have been losing money for a very long time,” Ms. Appelbaum said. “It’s not a sensible way to proceed.”
Accrued liabilities in the Teamsters pension, which benefits 34,000 current and former truckers in New York, exceed its assets by $1.8 billion. A year ago, the fund’s actuary certified that the plan was in a “critical and declining status” and projected an accumulated funding deficiency within four years. Within 19 plan years, the actuary said, the fund would be insolvent.
To tackle these woes, the pension trustees submitted an application in August to the United States Treasury to reduce benefits. The trustees acknowledged the pain and said their proposal was the only realistic way “to save the fund from financial failure and help ensure that we are able to continue to pay benefits to all New York State participants in the future.”
Under the proposal, subject to certain limitations, all active participants in the pension would see their monthly benefits reduced by 20 percent; retirees and other nonactive participants would see a 31 percent reduction.
Some fund beneficiaries say the fund’s decline took them by surprise; many have submitted comments to the Treasury against the plan.