Tuesday, July 29, 2003

At issue are defined-benefit pensions, the type in which employers set aside money years in advance to pay workers a predetermined monthly stipend from retirement until death. Today, about 44 million private-sector workers and retirees are covered by such plans. Three years of negative market forces have wiped away billions of dollars from the funds, triggering the defaults of some pension plans and leaving the rest an estimated $350 billion short of what they need to fulfill their promises.

And later in the same New York Times article:

The measures they have put forward bear little resemblance to those considered earlier this month in a rancorous House Ways and Means Committee session. The House pension bill is more generous to business. If enacted, it would lop tens of billions of dollars off the amounts companies would pay into their pension funds in each of the next three years. Businesses favor the bill's approach, but hoped to make its changes permanent.

So some businesses want to put less into pension plans just as they are at their weakest. At first this seems rather odd, unless perhaps as a hard line negotiating ploy. Actually though, it makes perfect sense. When the economy is doing well, the stock market booms. Huge numbers of people believed that the new economy meant there would be no bust to follow, and pension fund investors were no exception. When the economy is stagnant, both businesses and pension funds must struggle.

Much of our economy is linked together, creating the business cycle. John Maynard Keynes wanted government to act countercyclically, spending more when the economy is bad and less when it is good, smoothing out the booms and busts of the oscillation. Unfortunately, government and voters are both part of the cycle. When the economy is good, or at least when it has been excellent for a long time, politicians and voters believe that capitalism has brought endless prosperity and there will be no bust - and resent and government interference with the market. When times are bad both are apt to fear hyperinflation - and the bond markets are most likely to charge higher interest rates if the government borrows money that would require prosperity to increase tax revenues to make repayable.

Both overborrowing and hyperinflation are real dangers - but people tend to fear them most at the wrong times. Perhaps an independent organization like the federal reserve could have a voice in roughly how much was to be spent - while congress decided how it was spent. Perhaps a change in how we all think would be required to make any system workable.

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