Put Your Pension to Work

pensionFretting about how to manage your pension is like complaining about the cost of winterizing your beach house. Lots of people would love to have your problem.

Only about 18% of private-industry workers have a defined-benefit pension. Less than one-fourth of Fortune 500 companies offered a defined-benefit plan to new employees at the end of 2013, down from 60% in 1998, according to Towers Watson, the human resources consulting firm. The number is much larger for public-sector workers; about 80% of them have a traditional pension.

If you’re eligible for a traditional pension, you’ll be faced with important decisions that could affect your financial security, and they’re usually irrevocable. That means when you retire, you’ll need to do more than turn in your security badge and wait for the monthly checks to roll in.

Backing Away from Defined Benefits

The move away from traditional pensions reflects several trends. Employees are living longer, which increases the cost of providing a lifetime monthly payment. Low interest rates have reduced pension funds’ investment returns, requiring comA panies to put more money into their plans to avoid a shortfall. Government regulations designed to protect pension participants have increased the cost of offering and maintaining defined-benefit plans. Finally, companies used to view pensions as a way to attract and retain good employees. But these days, a benefit that rewards longevity is a lot less valuable because workers change jobs every 4.6 years, on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Even if you’re among the minority of private-sector workers covered by a pension, you’re not immune from efforts to reduce pension costs. AT&T, Boeing and IBM have joined other companies with big pension obligations in switching to a cash-balance plan. These hybrid plans combine features of a 401(k) and a traditional pension. Benefits from a traditional pension are typically based on a participant’s salary during the final years of employment, but with a cash-balance plan, benefits are accrued evenly over time. When a company converts, participants are usually entitled to the benefits they’ve earned to date under the traditional formula, with future benefits based on the cash-balance calculation. For longtime employees, the shift can result in a big cut in benefits.

Other companies have frozen pension benefits. The number of plans with frozen benefits rose from 10% in 2003 to 32% in 2011, according to Russell Research, a financial research firm based in East Rutherford, N.J. Many companies have cushioned a pension freeze by providing higher contributions to workers’ 401(k) plans. That could pay off for young workers who haven’t accrued much in the way of pension benefits, but a freeze can be costly for mid-career workers. Their future raises and years of service won’t be factored into their pension, and they’ll have less time to make up the difference by contributing to a 401(k), even if it comes with a generous employer match.

In the past, pension participants could count on the payouts they were promised once they started receiving benefits, but that’s changing, too. A new law allows multi-employer pension plans to cut benefits for current and retired workers. These plans typically provide coverage for union members who work for different companies, usually in the construction, manufacturing and trucking industries. Because of a decline in employment in those sectors, the plans have come under severe financial stress. In October, the Central States Pension Fund, a multi-employer plan that covers more than 400,000 participants, proposed cutting its benefits by an average of 22%. Some retirees will see their benefits cut by up to 60%.

(Source: Tribune Content Agency, LLC)