Pension

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A pension is a steady income given to a person (usually after retirement). These payments are given either in recognition of past service or as a deferred payment rather than paying higher wages during a person's tenure.

Pensions are typically payments made in the form of a guaranteed annuity to a retired or disabled employee. Some retirement plan (or superannuation) designs accumulate a cash balance (through a variety of mechanisms) that a retiree can draw upon at retirement, rather than promising annuity payments. These are often also called pensions. In either case, a pension created by an employer for the benefit of an employee is commonly referred to as an occupational or employer pension. Labor unions, the government, or other organizations may also fund pensions.

While imperfect as a system, the idea of pensions to support those who retire from their work during the latter stage of their lives is one that resonates with the view that society should value all its members, regardless of what they can contribute at that time. The determination of who should care for each member of society in this way is less clear. For some, each individual is responsible for planning their life, and thus should invest their working income wisely for their future. In the ideal, the family, as the basic cornerstone upon which society is built, should care for all its members. However, it can also be argued that employers, particularly large organizations, act like an extended family for their employees, and thus some form of support for loyal members after their retirement is also appropriate. Equally, unions, whose role is the welfare of their members, continue to be concerned about their members after retirement. Finally, the government is ultimately responsible for the well-being of all its citizens. Thus, pension plans exist on several levels, as each community to which the individual has contributed during their working lifetime supports them in their later years.

Contents

Definition

A pension is a fixed amount, other than wages, paid at regular intervals to a person or their dependents in consideration of past services, age, merit, poverty, injury or loss sustained, etc.[1]

Occupational pensions are a form of deferred compensation, usually advantageous to employee and employer for tax reasons. Many pensions also contain an insurance aspect, since they often will pay benefits to survivors or disabled beneficiaries, while annuity income insures against the risk of longevity.

While other vehicles (certain lottery payouts, for example, or an annuity) may provide a similar stream of payments, the common use of the term pension is to describe the payments a person receives upon retirement, usually under pre-determined legal and/or contractual terms.

Types of pensions

Retirement, pension or superannuation plans

Pension plans are a form of "deferred compensation" and became popular in the United States during World War II, when wage freezes prohibited outright increases in workers' pay. By such an arrangement an employer (for example, a corporation, labor union, government agency) provides income to its employees after retirement.

Pension plans can be divided into two broad types: Defined Benefit and Defined Contribution plans. The defined benefit plan had been the most popular and common type of pension plan in the United States through the 1980s; since that time, defined contribution plans have become the more common type of retirement plan in the United States and many other western countries.

Some plan designs combine characteristics of defined benefit and defined contribution types, and are often known as "hybrid" plans. Such plan designs have become increasingly popular in the U.S. since the 1990s. Examples include Cash Balance and Pension Equity plans.

Defined benefit plans

Under 26 U.S.C. § 414(j), a defined benefit plan is any pension plan that is not a defined contribution plan (see below). A defined contribution plan is any plan with individual accounts. A traditional pension plan that defines a benefit for an employee upon that employee's retirement is a defined benefit plan.

The benefit in a defined benefit pension plan is determined by a formula that can incorporate the employee's pay, years of employment, age at retirement, and other factors. A simple example is a flat dollar plan design that provides $100 per month for every year an employee works for a company; with 30 years of employment, that participant would receive $3,000 per month payable for their lifetime. Typical plans in the United States are final average plans where the average salary over the last three or five years of an employees' career determines the pension; in the United Kingdom, benefits are often indexed for inflation. Formulas can also integrate with public Social security plan provisions and provide incentives for early retirement (or continued work).

Traditional defined benefit plan designs (because of their typically flat accrual rate and the decreasing time for interest discounting as people get closer to retirement age) tend to exhibit a J-shaped accrual pattern of benefits, where the present value of benefits grows quite slowly early in an employees' career and accelerates significantly in mid-career. Defined benefit pensions tend to be less portable than defined contribution plans even if the plan allows a lump sum cash benefit at termination due to the difficulty of valuing the transfer value. On the other hand, defined benefit plans typically pay their benefits as an annuity, so retirees do not bear the investment risk of low returns on contributions or of outliving their retirement income. The open ended nature of this risk to the employer is the reason given by many employers for switching from defined benefit to defined contribution plans.

Because of the J-shaped accrual rate, the cost of a defined benefit plan is very low for a young workforce, but extremely high for an older workforce. This age bias, the difficulty of portability and open ended risk, makes defined benefit plans better suited to large employers with less mobile workforces, such as the public sector.

Defined benefit plans are also criticized as being paternalistic as they require employers or plan trustees to make decisions about the type of benefits and family structures and lifestyles of their employees.

The United States Social Security system is similar to a defined benefit pension arrangement, albeit one that is constructed differently than a pension offered by a private employer.

The "cost" of a defined benefit plan is not easily calculated, and requires an actuary or actuarial software. However, even with the best of tools, the cost of a defined benefit plan will always be an estimate based on economic and financial assumptions. These assumptions include the average retirement age and life span of the employees, the returns earned by the pension plan's investments and any additional taxes or levies, such as those required by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation in the U.S. So, for this arrangement, the benefit is known but the contribution is unknown even when calculated by a professional.

Defined contribution plans

In the United States, the legal definition of a defined contribution plan is a plan providing for an individual account for each participant, and for benefits based solely on the amount contributed to the account, plus or minus income, gains, expenses and losses allocated to the account (see 26 U.S.C. § 414(i)). Plan contributions are paid into an individual account for each member. The contributions are invested, for example in the stock market, and the returns on the investment (which may be positive or negative) are credited to the individual's account. On retirement, the member's account is used to provide retirement benefits, often through the purchase of an annuity which provides a regular income. Defined contribution plans have become more widespread all over the world in recent years, and are now the dominant form of plan in the private sector in many countries. For example, the number of defined benefit plans in the U.S. has been steadily declining, as more and more employers see the large pension contributions as a large expense that they can avoid by disbanding the plan and instead offering a defined contribution plan.

Examples of defined contribution plans in the United States include Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) and 401(k) plans. In such plans, the employee is responsible, to one degree or another, for selecting the types of investments toward which the funds in the retirement plan are allocated. This may range from choosing one of a small number of pre-determined mutual funds to selecting individual stocks or other securities. Most self-directed retirement plans are characterized by certain tax advantages, and some provide for a portion of the employee's contributions to be matched by the employer. In exchange, the funds in such plans may not be withdrawn by the investor prior to reaching a certain age—typically the year the employee reaches 59.5 years old—(with a small number of exceptions) without incurring a substantial penalty.

Money contributed can either be from employee salary deferral or from employer contributions or matching. Defined contribution plans are subject to IRS limits on how much can be contributed, known as the section 415 limit. These numbers continue to be increased each year and are indexed to compensate for the effects of inflation.

The portability of defined contribution pensions is legally no different from the portability of defined benefit plans. However, because of the cost of administration and ease of determining the plan sponsor's liability for defined contribution plans (you don't need to pay an actuary to calculate the lump sum equivalent under Section 417(e) that you do for defined benefit plans) in practice, defined contribution plans have become generally portable.

In a defined contribution plan, investment risk and investment rewards are assumed by each individual/employee/retiree and not by the sponsor/employer. In addition, participants do not typically purchase annuities with their savings upon retirement, and bear the risk of outliving their assets.

The "cost" of a defined contribution plan is readily calculated, but the benefit from a defined contribution plan depends upon the account balance at the time an employee is looking to use the assets. So, for this arrangement, the contribution is known but the benefit is unknown (until calculated).

Despite the fact that the participant in a defined contribution plan typically has control over investment decisions, the plan sponsor retains a significant degree of fiduciary responsibility over investment of plan assets, including the selection of investment options and administrative providers.

Hybrid and cash balance plans

Hybrid plan designs combine the features of defined benefit and defined contribution plan designs. In general, they are usually treated as defined benefit plans for tax, accounting and regulatory purposes. As with defined benefit plans, investment risk in hybrid designs is largely borne by the plan sponsor. As with defined contribution designs, plan benefits are expressed in the terms of a notional account balance, and are usually paid as cash balances upon termination of employment. These features make them more portable than traditional defined benefit plans and perhaps more attractive to a more highly mobile workforce. A typical hybrid design is the Cash Balance Plan, where the employee's notional account balance grows by some defined rate of interest and annual employer contribution.

Financing

There are various ways in which a pension may be financed.

In an unfunded defined benefit pension, no assets are set aside and the benefits are paid for by the employer or other pension sponsor as and when they are paid. Pension arrangements provided by the state in most countries in the world are unfunded, with benefits paid directly from current workers' contributions and taxes. This method of financing is known as Pay-as-you-go. It has been suggested that this model bears a disturbing resemblance to a Ponzi scheme, which is a type of fraudulent investment in which returns are paid to investors by the investments of subsequent investors rather than on any actual return to the investment itself.[2]

In a funded defined benefit arrangement, an actuary calculates the contributions that the plan sponsor must make to ensure that the pension fund will meet future payment obligations. This means that in a defined benefit pension, investment risk and investment rewards are typically assumed by the sponsor/employer and not by the individual. If a plan is not well-funded, the plan sponsor may not have the financial resources to continue funding the plan. In the United States, private employers must pay an insurance-type premium to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a government agency whose role is to encourage the continuation and maintenance of voluntary private pension plans and provide timely and uninterrupted payment of pension benefits.

Defined contribution pensions, by definition, are funded, as the "guarantee" made to employees is that specified (defined) contributions will be made during an individual's working life.

Challenges

A growing challenge for many nations is population aging. As birth rates drop and life expectancy increases an ever-larger portion of the population is elderly. This leaves fewer workers for each retired person. In almost all developed countries this means that government and public sector pensions could collapse their economies unless pension systems are reformed or taxes are increased. One method of reforming the pension system is to increase the retirement age. Two exceptions are Australia and Canada, where the pension system is forecast to be solvent for the foreseeable future. In Canada, for instance, the annual payments were increased by some 70 percent in 1998 to achieve this. These two nations also have an advantage from their relative openness to immigration. However, their populations are not growing as fast as the U.S., which supplements a high immigration rate with one of the highest birthrates among Western countries. Thus, the population in the U.S. is not aging to the extent as those in Europe, Australia, or Canada.

Another growing challenge is the recent trend of businesses purposely under-funding their pension schemes in order to push the costs onto the federal government. Bradley Belt, executive director of the PBGC (the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the federal agency that insures private-sector defined-benefit pension plans in the event of bankruptcy), testified before a congressional hearing in October 2004, “I am particularly concerned with the temptation, and indeed, growing tendency, to use the pension insurance fund as a means to obtain an interest-free and risk-free loan to enable companies to restructure. Unfortunately, the current calculation appears to be that shifting pension liabilities onto other premium payers or potentially taxpayers is the path of least resistance rather than a last resort.”

Notes

  1. "Pension." Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). (Random House, Inc.) Retrieved December 3, 2007.
  2. "Ponzi Schemes." Securities and Exchange Commission. Retrieved December 3, 2007.

References

  • Ambachsteer, Keith. Pension Revolution: A Solution to the Pensions Crisis. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley, 2007. ISBN 0470087234
  • Blake, David. Pension Economics. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley, 2007. ISBN 0470058447
  • __________. Pension Finance. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley, 2007. ISBN 0470058439
  • Clark, Gordon. European Pensions & Global Finance. Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0199253641
  • __________. ed. The Oxford Handbook of Pensions and Retirement Income. Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 0199272468
  • Hardy, Melissa. Pension Puzzles: Social Security and the Great Debate. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2007. ISBN 0871543338
  • Hill, Michael. Pensions (Policy and Politics in the Twenty-First Century). Policy Press, 2007. ISBN 1861348517
  • McGill, Dan. Fundamentals of Private Pensions. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0199269505

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