Friday, December 26, 2014

Today's Principal Agent Problem

This is Joseph

From Mark Miller:
The fix moving through Congress would revised the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to grant plan trustees broad powers to cut retired workers' benefits if they can show that would prolong the life of the plan. That would mark a major change from current law, which calls for retirees to be paid full benefits unless plan assets are exhausted; then, the PBGC steps in to pay benefits, albeit at a much lower level. The bill also would increase PBGC premiums paid by sponsors, from $13 to $26 per year.

The big problem here is that the plan fails to put retirees at the head of the line for protection. When changes of this type must be made, they should be phased in over a long period of time, giving workers time to adjust their plans before retirement. For example, the Social Security benefit cuts enacted in 1983 were phased in over 20 years and didn't start kicking in until 1990.
My problem with this approach is that it does not appear to give the people who manage the plans (i.e. the corporate entities) any incentives to manage the plans successfully.  The focus on short term performance and the linkage of these metrics to managerial compensation, creates a severe principal agent problem -- the group responsible for managing the plan doesn't bear any of the cost if the plas end up dramatically underfunded.

It is often the case that such schemes do not end well, as it can be very easy to boost profits by underfunding the pension scheme.  Under these rules, the potential long term cost to the business is quite mitigated.  Do we really want incentives aligned like this? 

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