Column: Quit using pensions as political pawns

Yolanda Hudson and James Short

For decades, pensions have been a source of long-term stability for individuals planning for retirement. But many pension funds have become pawns in a political chess match.

In 2011, about 90 percent of full-time government workers received a pension, as did about 70 percent of union workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While traditional or “defined-benefit” plans have become rarer — many employers now opt for “defined-contribution” plans, which shift the financial risk to employees — some $2.6 trillion in state pension money was under management in the United States in 2013.

Yet recent examples demonstrate just how fragile a financial tool pensions are, especially when mismanaged. In 2013, Detroit rocked the confidence of countless retirees when it declared municipal bankruptcy, citing insurmountable pension costs. The city’s retirees had to agree to cuts as part of a so-called “grand bargain” in order to emerge from bankruptcy court with the hope of collecting a fraction of what they were owed.

This newspaper reported that the city’s bankruptcy filing erased $1.7 billion in pension liabilities. That meant payments were reduced to 20 percent or less of their original value in some cases, and many recipients had to pay back amounts they already received with interest.

Detroit’s pension troubles were extreme, but they aren’t unique. According to Moody’s Investors Service, shortfalls in the 25 largest state and local-government pensions have tripled over the past decade to more than $2 trillion. A Pew Charitable Trust study found only 52 percent of Chicago’s pensions are funded. In New York, only 70 percent of the city’s pensions are funded, leaving a $44.1 billion liability.

In the face of demands for more prudent handling, some city managers have called for divesting holdings in the fossil fuels industry. This move has nothing to do with retirees’ welfare and excludes funds from benefiting from one of the country’s chief growth sectors.

Traditional energy producers have been a source of steady economic growth, especially in the wake of the Great Recession. Between 2005 and 2012, the U.S. economy shed more than 378,000 jobs across all sectors. During the same period, oil and natural gas production and the industries that directly support it created more than 293,000 jobs, according to a 2014 study by the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council. Traditional energy production supports more than $1 trillion in economic activity annually.

By precluding their pension funds from investing in these industries and other profitable sectors, officials are undermining the welfare of retirees for the sole purpose of waging a public relations battle against traditional energy producers. Those hoping to one day cash in on their pension should question whether such a strategy has their best interests in mind.

Gambling with hardworking Americans’ nest eggs to advance a political agenda is a poorly conceived way to generate financial returns. It’s easy for agenda-driven politicians to play hardball with other people’s money. It’s another story entirely for the folks whose retirement is on the line, especially when the evidence suggests divestment has no real strategic advantages for the political objectives it aims to achieve.

Leaders responsible for managing pensions have an obligation to maximize the value and solvency of those funds. They have no right to use them as political ammunition. It’s impossible then for officials to remain vigilant in their duties and advocate for divesting from profitable Fortune 500 businesses such as energy companies, whose return on investment is seven times higher than the average investment across all sectors.

To avoid another outcome like Detroit, it’s critical officials quit using pension funds as political pawns and instead get back to the business of prudent financial management. The welfare of too many retirees is on the line.

Yolanda Hudson is a retired science teacher from the Detroit Public School System and James Short is a retired deputy fire chief from the Washington, D.C., Fire Department.