On my own at eighteen, I self-funded my college education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I am a huge supporter of knowledge as an economic equalizer. As a former tenured university professor who later returned to industry and corporate training, I understand the challenge of teaching students who, through no fault of their own, lack basic skills in writing, math and logic. Therein lies the rub.

The United States spends much more per capita than other developed countries at the same time proficiency tests show American students lagging international peers in “the literacy, numeracy, and computer-age problem-solving skills needed to compete in the global labor market.” This is not good nor is it sustainable or desirable.

At the company level, employers are grappling with the real problem of too few people who can do the jobs they must fill. According to CNBC’s website, a Colorado construction firm, Oakwood Homes, jumped into action by creating its own school. Students learn to “saw, tile, drill, plaster and paint.” The CEO of this Berkshire Hathaway-owned company, Pat Hamill, laments the worsening worker shortage, saying “if we don’t do this, we’re not going to have a labor force to meet the needs of our industry.” I talked to a construction manager a few years old who told me his young workers could not convert measurements when asked to cut wood into certain size pieces.

From a financial perspective, the numbers are staggering. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that taxpayers funded $634 billion for public elementary and secondary schools during the 2013-2014 period or “$12,509 per public school student enrolled in the fall (in constant 2015-2016 dollars).” Inside Higher Ed tallies college and job training at $1.1 trillion.

While taxpayers are scratching their heads about oft anemic investment returns from the national education sector (recognizing that performance varies by region), venture capitalists are clapping with glee at opportunities to make money by solving existing woes. In 2015, Bertelsmann SE & Co announced its $230 million investment in a learning technology company called HotChalk. EdSurge Research chronicles “edtech” funding of K-12 focused start-ups since 2010 of $2 billion.

In an ideal world, young people graduate with adequate skills to land a job and progress towards eventual financial independence. To the extent that improvement is needed (just look at the data), let’s hope that outside investors and clever entrepreneurs can help drive reform with their contributions and independent insights.

With the nation’s capital knee deep in fiscal policy wonkery, it seems a good time to remind lawmakers about their fiduciary duties to taxpayers. Asking that our money be allocated wisely and efficiently is simple enough, especially at a time when the U.S. Debt Clock just whisked by $20 trillion. (If you have a strong stomach, click here to see how quickly the IOU levels are growing at a federal, state and international level, respectively.)

In my little household, like so many others, we balance our checkbooks to the penny. We don’t overspend and we borrow what we can reasonably repay on time. I don’t accept that a bigger purse leads to better outcomes. What about doing more with less and improving efficiencies? How is leaving a legacy of crushing debt the right thing for our younger generations? These questions are just two of dozens that demand good answers, regardless of your political affiliation.

It’s hard to joke about excessive debt and a runaway spending machine. On the other hand, if humor adds impact, then my recent efforts writing quirky prose are worthwhile. Click to download a pdf version of “A Taxpayer’s Scream” by Dr. Susan Mangiero.

When it comes to strategy games, count me in. Bridge and Scrabble are two of my favorites except when it looks like I have little chance for victory. It’s one thing to lose a hand or two but feel confident in a possible win. It’s altogether depressing to know that recovery is unlikely. This happened a few days ago when my husband added an E, U, A and L to create a cluster of words that scored him sixty-seven points. Ouch. Even with lots of high point letters, I knew that besting his bonanza move was improbable. Each time we play, I begin on an optimistic note and hope for a favorable outcome until that moment when I know it’s time to recast my calculations.

It’s good to wish upon a star yet just as important to distinguish fantasy from fiction. That’s why I was surprised to learn the results of a recent study of 400 institutional investors about their performance predictions. Carried out by State Street Global Advisors ("SSGA"), in conjunction with the research arm of the Financial Times, main takeaways from the "Building Bridges" study include the following:

  • Traditional asset allocation models may be unable to generate a long-term average rate of return of eleven percent, certainly without forcing buyers to take on more risk.
  • Forty-one percent of survey-takers expressed a preference for "traditional" classifications of asset exposures versus factor or objective-driven identifiers.
  • Eleven percent of those in search of closing "performance gaps" rank smart beta strategies as most important and 38 percent of institutional investors will employ this approach alongside other activities. "Significantly, three-quarters of those respondents who have introduced smart beta approaches found moderate to significant improvement in portfolio performance."
  • Enlightened decision-makers are finding it hard to get board approval of "better ways to meet long-term performance goals" and peer groups are slow to follow suit.
  • Eighty-four percent of pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and other asset owners believe that underperformance is likely to continue for one year.

As Market Watch journalist Chuck Jaffe somewhat indelicately points out in "An overlooked investment risk: wishful thinking" (May 18, 2016), long-term investors are daydreaming if they believe they can regularly generate eleven percent per annum. He quotes Lori Heinel, chief portfolio strategist at SSGA, as acknowledging the difficulty of achieving this number, given "a really challenging growth outlook, inflation environment, and a really challenging investment return environment." Notably, it was only a few weeks ago when the special mediator for the U.S. Treasury Department sent a letter to Central States Pension Fund trustees, denying a rescue plan in part because its 7.5 percent annual investment return assumptions were not viewed as "reasonable."

As I described in an earlier blog post entitled "A Pension Rock and a Hard Place," public pension funds, union leaders, taxpayer groups and policy-makers are navigating choppy asset-liability management waters. They are not alone. Corporate plans, endowments, foundations and other types of institutional investors are likewise challenged with getting to their destination and not crashing on the rocks. My unrealistic expectations might lose me a game. For long-term investors, there is serious money at stake and model inputs are being scrutinized accordingly.

Not surprisingly, the conversations about pension reform are getting louder and taking place more often. Calls for further transparency, political posturing and headlines regarding the link between municipal debt service and questions about the contractual nature of pension IOUs are three of the many factors that are being hotly debated, with no end in sight. Interested parties are invited to read "Muni Bonds, Pension Liabilities and Investment Due Diligence" by Dr. Susan Mangiero, Dr. Israel Shaked and Mr. Brad Orelowitz, CPA. Published by the American Bankruptcy Institute, the authors bring attention to the fact that courts are making decisions about critical issues such as whether creditors, in distress, can move ahead of public pension plan participants. Click here to read more about the article and the connection between retirement plan promises and municipal bond credit risk.

Others are approaching the topic of public and corporate pension plan obligations from the perspective of younger workers being asked to subsidize seniors. In "Why We Need to Change the Conversation about Pension Reform" (Financial Analysts Journal, 2014), Keith Ambachtsheer writes that "Pension plan sustainability requires intergenerational fairness." He adds that suggestions such as lengthening the time over which an unfunded liability can be amortized or assuming more investment risk "effectively pass the problem on to the next generation once again."

Legislators are slowing starting to act, in large part because they cannot afford not to do so. According to Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Dawsey, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has spent his summer with constituents, holding town hall meetings to explain his decisions about pension plan funding. See "Christie Plays Pension Issue Beyond N.J." (August 9-10, 2014). On August 1, 2014, he signed Executive Order 161 to facilitate the creation of a special group that is tasked with making recommendations to his office about tackling "these ever growing entitlement costs."

New Jersey is not alone. Prairie State politicos are attempting to forge reform. In "4 reasons you should care about pension reform in Illinois" (July 25, 2014, Chicago Sun Times reporter Sydney Lawson explains that the $175.7 billion owed to participants and bond investors will cost every taxpayer about $43,000 if paid today. According to its website, the Better Government Association estimates that replenishing numerous police and fire retirement plans in Cook County will "require tax hikes, service cuts or both."

The Big Apple retirement crisis  is no less massive. New York Times journalists David W. Chen and Mary Williams Walsh write that "the city’s pension hole just keeps getting bigger, forcing progressively more significant cutbacks in municipal programs and services every year." A smaller asset base and decision-making that occurs across five separately managed funds are described as trouble spots for Mayer Bill de Blasio. Noteworthy is the mention of an investigation by Benjamin M. Lawsky, head of the Department of Financial Services, that seeks to understand how service providers were selected to work with New York City pension plans and the level of compensation they receive. See "New York City Pension System Is Strained by Costs and Politics" (August 3, 2014).

Curious about the extent of this New York City and New York State focused investigation, I asked one of my researchers to file a Freedom of Information Act request in order to obtain details. We are awaiting the receipt of meaningful results. So far, we are being told that information is not available to send. What is known so far, based on an October 8, 2013 letter from Superintendent Lawsky to Comptroller of the State of New York, Thomas P. DiNapoli, is that questions will or are being asked about retirement plan enterprise risk management and "[c]ontrols to prevent conflicts of interest, as well as the use of consultants, advisory councils and other similar structures."

Pandering for votes by promising lots of goodies may not be a successful recipe for reforming pensions that need help. Moreover, judges are in the driver’s seat once a dispute about contractual status is litigated. In a recent opinion, a federal court of appeals ruling about lowering cost of living adjustments overturned an earlier decision that such an action was unconstitutional. See "Baltimore wins round in battle over police, firefighters pension reform" (The Daily Record, August 6, 2014). Click to download the August 6, 2014 opinion in Cherry v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, No. 13-1007, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Like Homer’s Odysseus who was caught between Scylla and Charybdis, policy-makers, union leaders and heads of taxpayer groups are navigating some very rough waters indeed. We have not seen the end of these heated debates about what to do with underfunded municipal pension plans. Trying to align interests of seemingly disparate groups is only the beginning.

Thanks to the folks at the Mutual Fund Directors Forum for disseminating a January 13, 2014 letter from members of the New Democrat Coalition to the Honorable Thomas Perez, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL"). The gist of the four-page communication is that these members of the current U.S. Congress would like to see regulatory coordination in order to "protect investors while reducing confusion." They add that they are still concerned that a new version of the fiduciary standard, when proposed anew, might discourage plan participant literacy and disclosures. The worry seems to be that individuals with low or middle incomes as well as small businesses could be adversely impacted, depending on the ultimate version.

According to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association ("SIFMA") website, Republicans have likewise communicated their concerns to the U.S. Department of Labor as well as the Office of Management and Budget. These ranged from "the impact on an individuals’ choice of provider to potential unintended consequences limiting access to education for millions of individuals saving for retirement." Click to access SIFMA’s DOL Fiduciary Standard Resource Center.

On October 29, 2013, the Retail Investor Protection Act (H.R. 2374), sponsored by U.S. Congresswoman Ann Wagner (Republican, 2nd District of Missouri), was approved by the United States House of Representatives in a vote of 254 to 166. According to the Gov Track website, U.S. Congressman Patrick Murphy (Democrat, 18th District of Florida) joined as a co-sponsor on September 19, 2013. The stated legislative intent is to preclude the "Secretary of Labor from prescribing any regulation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) defining the circumstances under which an individual is considered a fiduciary until 60 days after the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issues a final rule governing standards of conduct for brokers and dealers under specified law." It further prevents the SEC from implementing a rule "establishing an investment advisor standard of conduct as the standard of conduct of brokers and dealers" prior to assessing the likely impact on retail investors. Click to read more about the Retail Investor Protection Act. Click to read the mission of the United States Department of Labor which states "To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights."

As I have repeatedly predicted in this pension blog and elsewhere, the retirement crisis, not just in the United States but around the world, is increasingly showing up as a political hot button issue. No one wants to lose votes from retirees who are struggling and employees who cannot afford to stop working any time soon. In his State of the Union address, U.S. President Obama described a new type of retirement account, i.e. "myRA," that is meant to help millions of individuals whose companies do not offer retirement plans. See "What you need to know about Obama’s ‘myRA’ retirement accounts" by Melanie Hicken (CNN Money, January 29, 2014). More details will no doubt follow.

There is a lot we don’t know about how politics will impede or enhance the state of the global retirement situation. As a free marketeer, I am not particularly optimistic about new rules and regulations that prevent an efficient supply-demand interaction from taking place. However, this is a lengthy topic and the hour is late so I will leave a discussion about the positive and normative aspects of capitalism for another day.

Job hunters and those already employed may need super powers to ready themselves for retirement. A big part of planning is knowing what you are likely to earn from work. For so many without jobs and deep in debt, looking ahead is tough. People with jobs are affected too. Even fuzzy mathematicians have to acknowledge that taxpayers will be stretched further as the number of non-contributors goes up.

To say that this issue has touched a nerve is a gross understatement.

ERISA attorney Stephen Rosenberg and blogger extraordinaire at www.bostonerisalaw.com ruminates about labor force participation all the time and commented accordingly. "I have always thought that a reduction of force ("RIF") of people in their 50s, perhaps via early retirement programs (combined with subtle bias, structural and otherwise, against older workers), on the one end, and the demands for more education before starting careers/difficulty getting first jobs on the other end, were creating a much smaller and more demographically circumscribed labor pool. I am reminded all the time that the most important thing in the economy is job creation – real jobs, like when a new business makes it. It creates such a ripple effect for everyone else, that nothing equals it." ERS Group labor economist, Dr. Dubravka Tosic, asserts that "A critical lack of supply of qualified labor in certain occupations is really startling. Consider the shortage of truck drivers and truck mechanics as two examples. There is a nursing shortage as well although the imbalance may be somewhat corrected as qualified persons are allowed to work in the United States on special visas from countries such as the Philippines. Returning veterans with needed skills could be another way to help companies in need of qualified workers." She points to a recent article entitled "Seventy Four Percent of Construction Firms Report Having Trouble Finding Qualified Workers" (September 4, 2013) as one of many references.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor announced the addition of 169,000 jobs in August 2013 with a steady unemployment rate just above seven percent. Netted against its downward adjustments for June and July 2013 number, the true increase is pegged at 95,000 jobs. See "U.S. Adds 169,000 Jobs in August, But Economic Outlook Remains Gloomy" by Christopher Matthews, Time, September 6, 2013. Ask most people what they think about the future and expect to get a reply that reflects cautious optimism at best. Withdrawals from 401(k) plans have exacerbated an already difficult situation for the disillusioned, underemployed and out of work professionals.

This blog author will return to the issue of retirement planning as it is important to all of us, individually and collectively, except perhaps to the top one percent of wealth owners. According to "Top 1% take biggest income slice on record" by Matt Krantz (USA Today, September 10, 2013), individuals at the head of the class account for "19.3% of total household income in 2012, which is their biggest slice of total income in more than 100 years."

Labor Day always marks an assessment of where things stand with the state of employment (or unemployment as the case may be). This year is no different except that the news continues to get worse with respect to how many people are contributing to the country’s bottom line.

According to MarketWatch contributor Irwin Kellner, the unemployment rate is a poor substitute for knowing whether people are ready, able and willing to work. In "Labor pains – don’t count on jobless rate" (September 3, 2013), the point is made that the participation rate is at an all-time low. Excluding military personnel, retired persons and people in jail, fewer adults than ever before in the history of the United States are pursuing work. One reason may be that schools are not preparing young people to assume jobs that require a certain level of skills. Another reason is that being on the dole is a superior economic proposition for some individuals. Yet another factor is that long-term unemployed persons are too discouraged to keep going.

Indeed, I wonder if there is a productivity tipping point, beyond which a person says "never mind" to gainful employment. Certainly people with whom I have spoken talk about the need to work many more years beyond a traditional retirement age. However, they are quick to add that they enjoy what they do and sympathize with those persons who have jobs they loathe or are hard to do after a certain age. Some people simply believe that going fishing on other people’s dime, as a ward of the state, is a rational response to current incentives.

The numbers are gigantic and that should put fear in the hearts of those who are pulling the economic wagon. According to labor expert Heidi Shierholz, "More than half of all missing workers – 53.7 percent – are ‘prime age’ workers, age 25-54. Refer to "The missing workers: how many are there and who are they?" (Economic Policy Institute website, April 30, 2013). The Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, estimated in July 2013 that there are 11.5 million unemployed persons, of which 4.2 million individuals fall into the long-term unemployed bucket since they have been out of work for 27 weeks or longer. Click to review statistics that comprise "The Employment Situation – July 2013."

The combination of no job and an anemic retirement plan, if one exists at all, are harbingers of doom for taxpayers and for plan sponsors that are under increasing pressure to help their employees. Mark Gongloff, the author of "401(k) Plans Are Making Wealth Inequality Even Worse: Study" (Huffington Post, September 3, 2013) describes a recent study that has the wealthiest Americans with "100 times the retirement savings of the poorest Americans, who have, basically no savings."

My predictions are these. Even if you are a rugged individualist who keeps a tidy financial house, you will be paying for the economic misfortunes of others. Taxes are destined to rise, benefits may fall and you will likely have to work for a long time to pay for this country’s dependents. Retirement plan trustees, whether corporate or municipal, will be under increased pressure to make sure that dollars are available to pay participants, regardless of plan design. In lockstep with expected changes in fiduciary conduct, ERISA and public investment stewards could face more enforcement, scrutiny and litigation that asks what they are doing and how.

In what most people would call a significant announcement, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis ("BEA") will begin measuring economic growth this summer by taking pension finance into account. According to its March 2013 announcement, BEA will record defined benefit plan transactions on an accrual accounting basis. This entity, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, will now include a pension plan subsector in the national income and product accounts ("NIPAs"). As much as possible, the BEA will "provide estimates of the current receipts, current expenditures, and cash flow for the subsector." The intended changes contrast with the current method of including information about disbursements and earnings of pension plans as participants’ personal items and using a cash basis for reporting.

The goal of enhancing transparency about employer-provided defined benefit retirement plans is laudable. However, in reading the fine print, one wonders if the opposite will occur and users of post-implementation data will be more confused. For one thing, the BEA states that it will adopt an accumulated benefit obligation ("ABO") for "both privately sponsored and state and local government sponsored plans" and use a projected benefit obligation ("PBO") for federal government plans. This means that you will never be able to compare all defined benefit plans with a single set of rules. Second, the BEA describes a discount rate assumption that "will be based on the AAA corporate bond rate published by the Federal Reserve Board." Since debt issued by the U.S. is no longer rated AAA and recent regulations allow for temporary funding relief for corporate pension plans, how will BEA numbers compare and contrast with financial accounting numbers over time? Third, since certain data is not available prior to 2000, the BEA will extrapolate to generate "normal costs" for past years. Will their method of extrapolation allow for an accurate "apples to apples" assessment of historical pension earnings and costs? In the plus column, applying the same discount rate for private pension plans versus state and local offerings will help to better assess the economic viability for each sector.

Should the Public Employee Pension Transparency Act move forward, disclosures will be based on the BEA approach. Understanding what BEA numbers do or do not show will therefore be a critical exercise for policy-makers, investors and participants.

For a detailed discussion of these intended changes on the part of the BEA, read "Preview of the 2013 Comprehensive Revision of the National Income and Product Accounts: Changes in Definitions and Presentations," BEA, March 2013. Click to read about advantages of passing the Public Employee Pension Transparency Act. Click here to read criticisms of this proposed rule. On April 23, 2013, the U.S. Senate received a version of the Public Employee Pension Transparency Act in the form of S. 779. This proffered legislation cites a staggering $5.170 trillion in pension liabilities of the 50 states combined. It is no wonder that numerous individuals want a true tally of what is owed.

I have a favorite shirt that gets a few laughs when I wear it. The message is "Change is good. You go first." That is how I feel when I hear pundits talk about the future of pensions and the need for reform. What I continue to believe and have said many times in the last ten years is that the retirement issue is getting closer to the point of no return. Politicians will jump in to allegedly save the day. Part of the problem is that there is a battle of interests with few constituencies aligned to move in the same direction. When this occurs, a central authority typically intervenes.

On May 2, 2013, one speaker who presented as part of the "Bloomberg Forum on Pension Reform" called the situation "desperate." Another speaker said that he is optimistic that the U.S. Congress is proceeding apace with relevant reform. Another speaker hinted at inevitable higher premiums to be paid by plan sponsors to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation ("PBGC"). Comments were made that some underfunded plans will have to materially cut retirement benefits in order to survive.

People are starting to ring the alarm bells. In its 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey, the Employee Benefit Research Institute ("EBRI") found that only 13 percent of workers feel "very confident" about the ability to enjoy a comfortable retirement. That means that 87 percent of workers do not feel confident. Click to see the results of the 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey.

It is unclear how much power voters will have to effect movement as relates to retirement reform such as tax incentives to save, especially when the issue is seldom discussed as part of political campaigns. That could change over time.

When I recently took my 22-year old nephew out to lunch, we talked at length about his views on the budget. He has no debt and has found a job but he knows that many of his peers are not so fortunate. They are graduating with large school loans, have not found a job and are sleeping on mom’s couch. These "boomerang" kids are growing in numbers around the world. While they may not be an economic force right now, they vote. At the polar opposite end in terms of desire for how the system should change, if at all, retirees vote as well.

How will politicians respond to younger persons who do not want to shoulder the high costs of social safety net programs and seniors who want them?

Politics and pensions may not make for strange bedfellows after all. As a champion of free markets, I am not particularly happy about the prospect of a "one size fits all" law(s) that seeks to create a national retirement system and/or levies tax penalties for those who wish to save more than $3.4 million or whatever level is deemed "too much." Think higher compliance costs, perverse incentives, the law of unintended consequences, moral hazard and the loss of flexibility. Unfortunately, with disparate owners who each want different things, something will have to take place soon. Many of the retirement piggybanks around the world are close to empty.

In between business meetings in Greenwich, Connecticut the other day, it started to rain heavily so this blogger walked a few blocks to an upscale department store (the closest in sight), in search of a reasonably priced umbrella. Since I have so many umbrellas already (but had forgotten to pack one), I figured I would spend a modest $15 or $20 to buy another umbrella to keep me dry. How much could an umbrella cost after all? To my surprise and shock, none of the umbrellas came in at less than $89 (plus tax of course). For some people, that’s a tiny price for protection. Certainly this merchant was thriving with designer attire, shoes and jewelry finding its way into shoppers’ bags.

However, the reality is that not everyone is going to shell out 89 big ones for an umbrella, no matter what the brand. For a large segment of the U.S. population, money is a scarce resource and confidence in a secure future is low. According to the results of a recent Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor study, optimism is down and pessimism is up. At the same time that 68% of respondents say they have "little to no" confidence in the stock market as a way to prepare for retirement, 80% of investors urge lawmakers to act now so that savings is encouraged.

Unfortunately, most of the initiatives that individuals cite as "must have" elements of a national retirement readiness program are in direct conflict with the political grab to raise taxes. Consider a few examples.

  • Sixty-nine percent of the survey respondents say it is "extremely" or "very important" that politicians encourage every company to offer a 401(k) plan to its employees. Since there is already talk in Washington, DC about stripping companies of the tax benefits associated with offering retirement plans, it is unlikely that employers will realize further tax advantages at the expense of big spenders having to lose tax "revenue."
  • Sixty-six percent cite the need for the government to figure out how Americans who participate in 401(k) plans can get "more quality investment advice." Anticipating increased regulations as relates to investment fiduciary duties, some financial advisors are becoming less generous with information for fear of being sued. As described in "401(k) Lawsuits, Investment Advisers and Fiduciary Breach" (November 18, 2012), breach of fiduciary duty is cited as the top complaint in FINRA arbitration matters.
  • Sixty-nine percent want the government to establish initiatives that will motivate individuals to participate in their employer’s 401(k) retirement savings option, assuming that they work for a company that offers benefits. Yet here we are, talking about a fiscal cliff that could impact millions of people with incomes below the magical "rich" benchmark of $250,000.  For one thing, in the absence of inflation indexing, the Alternative Minimum Tax that was enacted decades ago will show up as a nasty spring 2013 surprise for countless tax-paying middle-class households. Then there is the issue of jobs not created because employers will be writing larger checks to the IRS instead as various tax rates go up.

The United States is not alone in having to tackle difficult problems. The list is long and includes (but is not limited to) insufficient aggregate savings, underfunded social programs that are not sustainable safety nets without reform, high unemployment, corporate jitters about parting with cash, uncertain tax and regulatory environment and conflicting interests that make it almost possible to come up with near-term solutions.

There is a way forward to expand economic growth but that will require political courage. Let’s hold our policy-makers accountable in 2013.