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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sunday, August 23, 2015

UCOP Begins Process to Reduce Pension Benefits for Employees (Updated with New Material)

As Dan Mitchell has been reminding us, UCOP has appointed a Task Force to implement the Regents agreement to reduce pension benefits for future employees.  As a result of the Committee of Two, UCOP has agreed to lower the amount of employee salary that can be counted towards UCRP to approximately $117,000.  They are proposing that some form of hybrid defined benefit/defined contribution plan be created to allow employees to save above that $117,000 limit.  UCOP is also proposing that an all-defined contribution (DC) plan be developed that would allow future employees to opt out from the defined benefit plan entirely.

UCOP insists that the "New retirement benefits options are being developed as a result of the budget agreement between UC and state leaders, which included nearly $500 million to help pay down UC’s unfunded pension liability." But there are several issues that need to be raised about this claim.

1.  UCOP refers to the nearly $500M that the University will receive from the state in exchange for pension modification.  But the University will have received only $96M upon the creation of the new pension tiers. I understand that the actual state budget promises only this one year of funding. Although President Napolitano and Governor Brown may have agreed on the larger number, there is no sign that the Legislature or its leadership have agreed.  What future budgets will look like is always unclear. UCOP, in effect, is proposing a serious reduction in pensions for future employees in exchange for less than a third of the money they now estimate they will have to spend to complete UCPATH.  Will their predictions for future state pension contributions be more accurate than their predictions on UCPATH?

2.  There is no evidence that either the Governor or the Legislature asked that UC create an option for a stand-alone DC plan. Sacramento's concern had to do with the limits on the salary on which benefits could be accrued, which is consistent with its hostility to high levels of UC executive compensation.   The notion that there needs to be a stand-alone DC plan appears to have emerged from UCOP or from some other source within UC.  President Napolitano's justification for this proposal seems to be that it is what has happened in the private sector so it should happen at UC.  But we should recognize that the shift in the private sector occurred not because of widely accepted actuarial proof that DC plans are better for employees but because they enabled businesses to shift the cost of retirement onto retirees. There was nothing natural or inevitable about it. It was not driven by a desire to stabilize or improve retirement security for employees.   

In addition, you'll recall that the University engaged in a serious debate about this question only a few years ago and decided to retain its long-term commitment to a DB plan.  Rather than appointing a task force to determine the best way to implement this new plan UCOP should engage in an open discussion about whether or not this is actually better for employees. There has not been, to my knowledge, any reason to think that the relative benefits of DB vs DC plans has changed in the last few years.  If anything, the weight of the argument suggests that DC plans are worse for employees and may in fact be worse for employers.  DC plans raise the fees on accounts, force employees to assume greater risk, and tie individual retirement fate even more closely to the stock market.  From the vantage point of employers, DC plans increase fees and reduce incentives for employees to stay. There is also--despite assurances to the contrary from UCOP--the danger of ultimately undermining the the DB plan by leaving it an "orphan" plan--moving funds needed to sustain it over the long term into other more volatile directions.

3.  Nearly two years ago, Colleen Lye and James Vernon documented the decline in the quality of UC faculty salaries and benefits.   The 2014 Mercer Remuneration Study confirmed these findings (see slides 33-34 for a summary).  UCOP's acceptance of the state's pension limits and even more so its eagerness to move away from a commitment to a DB plan simply accelerate this decline.  Although I think that there are reasons to cap accrual salary in exchange for sufficient state-funding on an ongoing basis, this is not the deal that UCOP has achieved. And the policy drift towards the Defined Contribution plan is an entirely different matter.  UCOP seems to be removing the conditions that promote loyalty to the institution and seeking to encourage faculty to consider UC a way-station rather than a home.  It is the self-destructiveness of existing conventional wisdom at its most short-sighted.

The faculty, and the Senate as part of the faculty, needs to insist that the Task Force be empowered to decide--after wide-ranging discussion and employee consent--whether a DC plan is good for the university and employees.  It should not be limited to deciding how to implement such a plan. 

In other words, the Task Force needs to maximize the interests of future employees and not simply implement the practices of the private sector.

UPDATE:  Dan Mitchell has now written a new post that very helpfully lays out the problems with "orphan" pension plans.


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