Government unions and pension fantasies

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald

In Alberta, almost twice as many workers in the government sector possessed defined benefit pension plans in 2011 when compared with private sector employees. That might explain why so many government employees’ unions, from the Alberta Union of Public Employees to the United Nurses of Alberta, vociferously oppose modest pension reforms proposed by Finance Minister Doug Horner.

Those with an expensive status quo interest are unlikely to be persuaded by sweet reason about the need for reform, even when the greater public good requires just that. But the public might be interested in the facts.

In 2011, 148,572 people, or about nine per cent of 1.6 million private sector Alberta workers, were enrolled in a defined benefits pension plan. In contrast, 278,252 people, or about 79 per cent of 351,500 government/public sector employees, were in such plans.

In the private sector, 192,647 Albertans were enrolled in a defined contribution plan or some hybrid arrangement. Everyone else—over 1.2 million Albertans, saved for their retirements via investment accounts, RRSPs, Tax Free Savings Accounts or some other vehicle such as buying a rental property.

In the government sector, just 8,042 people were enrolled in a defined contribution plan or a hybrid pension; roughly 65,000 were not in any registered pension plan. Presumably they, as with 91 per cent of private sector workers, also practice safe savings in RRSPS, TFSAs and the like.

The government/private sector pension disparity is a problem. Defined benefit pensions promise enrollees guaranteed benefits at a certain retirement age.  But when existing contributions and the returns hoped for do not materialize, taxpayers without such guarantees must bail out government plans because of the promised benefits.

Over the past decade, Alberta’s taxpayers made a $1.2 billion special payment towards an unfunded liability in the (pre-1992) Teachers’ Pension Plan. They were also dinged for their share of contribution hikes in that plan, the Public Service Pension Plan, Local Authorities Pension Plan, Universities Academic Pension Plan, and the Management Employees Plan.

Despite such prior taxpayer help, government pensions still have a $10.8 billion unfunded liability according to the provincial government’s most recent annual report.

The province has thus suggested several reforms. One is that government workers who retire at age 55 accept a reduced pension. That’s reasonable, given that for example, full Canada Pension Plan benefits cannot be collected until age 65.

Government unions oppose even that modest reform. They prefer instead to throw up silly assertions.

One howler is that government employees’ pensions are like RRSPs, and so any reform is akin to an attack on the RRSPs of ordinary Canadians.

Except that RRSPs demonstrate the problem with government defined benefit plans: RRSPs will deliver retirement benefits that result from contributions plus investment returns—and nothing more.

Another tack, a diversion, is to demand that private sector companies just provide defined benefit plans and assert they are greedy where they do not.

But the “private sector” ranges from big to small business to the self-employed. Most are not backstopped by taxpayers. (Those that are should be unhooked from taxpayer life support.) Defined benefit plans can and have created unfunded liabilities and are a costly gamble. Just ask General Motors or multiple bankrupt American cities.

Alberta’s government unions claim their world will end if status quo pensions are modified. This ignores how the Saskatchewan NDP moved the entire government sector to defined contribution pensions in the 1970s. Horner’s plan to move to targeted benefit pensions (where benefits are modified if projected investment returns falter) is comparatively modest in ambition and in scope.

Government unions demand that taxpayers continue to promise and deliver benefits no matter the real-world investment returns. But such advocacy is akin to the logic of Ponzi schemes or poker: someone else pays for your winnings.

To bring government workers’ pensions closer to the reality of other Albertans is fair and safe. Despite the turmoil over the decades including the Great Depression and the last recession, the S&P 500 index (to use one example of market returns), produced annualized compounded returns of 5.2 per cent since 1928 (or 5.7 per cent since 1973 to use a shorter timeframe). Those returns are what most people live with; there is no alternate pot-of-gold reality.

Lastly, some assert any change to pensions is an attack on government workers. This is nonsense powered by myopia and wrapped in hyperbole. Nurses, police, social workers and others indeed have some tough days and deserve respect; so too many in private or non-profit careers, such as rig workers, farmers, cleaners and clerics. Such esteem does not mean government pensions should go unreformed.

Special interest pleading is common, but no one should mistake it for the common good.

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