Assume the Crash Position

With a new bill, Northwest puts Wall Street in first class and throws its retiring workers in steerage

As Congress was ironing the kinks out of a landmark pension reform bill earlier this month, lobbyists for American Airlines and Continental visited Capitol Hill to express their displeasure. This was ironic, since each was in line to gain a huge concession: the right to stretch catch-up payments into underfunded workers' retirement plans over 10 years, as opposed to the seven that other struggling companies were being given. The lobbyists were peeved, however, because they didn't receive as much breathing room as Northwest Airlines and Delta, which got 17 years to fill their funds.

The lawmakers' reply? Minnesota Rep. John Kline told reporters that American and Continental could have the same relaxed timeline as their bankrupt brethren, provided they agreed to freeze their pensions—that is, block new workers from joining the plan and cease making new payments on behalf of existing workers.

Monique Morrissey, a pension expert with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., supports the pension bill's catch-up period, which increases the chance that employers will meet their obligations. But every company, she says, should have received the special extension that Northwest and Delta will enjoy, with the extra time helping to smooth out the turbulence in the market.

The traditional retiree pension is literally being reformed out of existence, economists and lobbyists familiar with the machinations behind the legislation say. Adding insult to injury, they say, the only workers at Northwest who will benefit from the new federal legislation are the pilots. (Airline executives, naturally, stand to enjoy lavish retirement packages—but more on that later.)

The real winners under the bill are the investment firms—companies like Fidelity and Prudential—that also lobbied for the reform and that stand to pick up the estimated 5 million people who will now need to begin saving for retirement on their own in an IRA or 401(k).

"The financial services industry stands to gain a lot," says one Minnesota lobbyist who worked on the issue. "That's a pretty easy duck to fry; their profits are crazy."

Northwest is just one of a host of large corporations and business alliances that began lobbying for reform in 2002 after a confluence of events pension managers have dubbed "the perfect storm." Most retirement funds emerged from the record stock market highs of the 1990s flush with cash. But they went on to lose huge amounts virtually overnight in 2001 when the stock market and interest rates fell at the same time. Suddenly companies were expected to make up massive shortfalls in trying economic times. If they couldn't, and chose to resolve things by jettisoning their pensions, taxpayers would be left holding the tab.

When a company terminates its pensions, payments to its retirees become the obligation of the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. Because the agency caps the amount it will pay a worker at $47,000 a year, terminations have less of an effect on lower-wage workers such as flight attendants and mechanics than on pilots and other high earners who can lose as much as 75 percent of their payments. While pilots may now stand a better chance of receiving their more generous pensions, the majority of new workers at the airline will be left to fend for themselves.

 

Understanding how it is that number-crunchers decide if a pension fund has adequate resources is an exercise in math so complicated it makes determining the price of a business-class ticket on Northwest seem simple. Factors include how many people are now on the job putting in dollars, how many retirees are dependent on it now and in the future, how long and healthily those retirees can be expected to live, and, most obviously, how well every dollar is invested. As airlines, automakers, manufacturers, and other large employers cut their workforces, reducing the number of people paying in, the math becomes increasingly difficult.

These unfortunate Fortune 500 companies have found an easier way to make the numbers add up: Pay lobbyists to help ward off the companies' financial obligations. In 2004, the year the airline began pressing for the provisions of the current bill, Northwest spent $2.6 million lobbying Congress. In 2005, it spent almost $2 million. Many of its contracts went to firms and lobbyists doing work for a number of big clients on employee-benefits issues. (Federal law requires the airline to file a midyear report on its 2006 spending this week, but the numbers won't be available to the public for months.) Plenty of other employers facing the same predicament dug deep, too: During the same time period, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent some $8 million on lobbying, while the National Association of Manufacturers spent $2.2 million.

If that sounds like big money, it's dwarfed by the amount of influence the finance, insurance, and real estate industries have tried to buy on this and other measures. As a whole, the sector spent a total of $2.1 billion on lobbying between 1998 and 2005. Much of it—$50 million last year alone—has gone to encourage legislation steering more consumer dollars into the mutual funds the financial services industry wants to sell.

The details of the reform that President Bush signed August 4 take up 900 pages, but in its essence the legislation represents a win for both sets of lobbyists: ailing pension providers and financial services firms. Because it won't have to make up the shortfall quickly, Northwest is more likely to keep its pensions and to chip away at making sure they have enough assets to eventually pay out every dollar committed to until now.

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