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The news from the traditional defined-benefit (DB) pension front seems to get progressively gloomier. In March, corporate leviathan General Motors Corp. announced that it, too, would freeze pension plans for its white-collar workers. Beginning next January 1, it will freeze accrued pension benefits for some 42,000 managers under the existing defined-benefit plan and begin a shift to defined-contribution (DC) plans, such as 401(k)s. GM said it expects the move to trim its pension liability by $1.6 billion this year, and create pension savings of $420 million next year.

Expect more such announcements, as traditional pension managers decide to freeze existing plans and transition toward DC programs, says Hugh Bromma, CEO of Entrust Corp., a retirement plan administrator that specializes in self-directed IRAs and 401(k)s. Bromma says that based on what he's seeing and hearing, two-thirds of existing DB plans could be frozen or eliminated within 10 years.

The economy is in transition, he notes, and the old ways simply don't work: whole industries, like the airlines and big automakers, are in distress and are seeking relief from their obligations to workers. Eventually, many of those plan sponsors will turn to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC) for protection.

"At one point or another, all those benefits will have to be paid," Bromma says. "The PBGC is wrestling with what they are going to do. The agency itself probably becomes a ward of the general fund, though the transition to DC plans actually saves the PBGC to some extent."

Bromma echoes the common warnings that too many U.S. workers are unprepared for retirement, and can't count on traditional pensions or Social Security to save them. Statistics show that the average worker is setting aside only $2,750 a year in a 401(k), he says, and the average employee in his or her early 50s has accumulated just $80,000 in a 401(k). To really retire comfortably, he says, "people need to save two to four times as much" as they are now, and start earlier.

"There's a very sad dynamic going on in the pension system," Bromma muses. "When you look at the '50s, by contrast, those were the days when everybody was going to work until 65 and get the gold watch at retirement" and be taken care of. "That's not happening any more."
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Title Annotation:pensions
Author:Heffes, Ellen M.
Publication:Financial Executive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
Words:393
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