The Untold Story Behind UA's Pension Meltdown

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Untold Story Behind UA's Pension Meltdown

From Sunday's New York Times:
Had anyone listened to Doug Wilsman, tens of thousands of United Airlines employees would not be facing big cuts in their pensions. And the federal agency that guarantees pensions might not be struggling with its biggest losses ever.

... [Wilsman] is a retired pilot and a former fiduciary of United's pension plan for pilots, and in 1987 he discovered that the company had abandoned its older, tried-and-true approach of investing retirees' money in bonds timed to pay when the pensions came due. Instead, it had bought into the promises of Wall Street that it could put less money into the plan -- and take out more later -- if it just put most of the assets into the stock market.

Mr. Wilsman was skeptical of such promises, and soon after learning of the change in strategy, he filed a grievance with his union, the Air Line Pilots Association. "Hey, you guys are really building yourselves a trap," he recalled warning them at the time. "Someday, at the worst possible moment, when the bottom falls out of the stock market, the plan is going to have to come up with new money, and it's going to be enough to kill the company."

... Hearings have been convened in the wake of United's default, chief executives examined under oath, bills introduced in Congress, numbers crunched. But virtually everyone is looking at the rules covering how much money a company puts into a pension plan every year -- not at what happens to the money after that.

While the money managers and other pension professionals who ran United's pension plan walked away from the wreck unscathed -- indeed, they collected about $125 million in fees over the last five years alone, records show -- the ones who will have to pick up the bill for the advisers' collective failure will be the airline's 130,000 employees and pensioners, the federal pension guarantor and probably, someday, the taxpayers.

... Pension investing is largely unregulated, even though the federal government effectively covers the investment losses when a defined-benefit plan fails. At United, this freewheeling approach gave rise to investments in junk bonds, dot-coms and even what appears to be an energy venture in Albania.

... It's impossible to get a current list of a company's pension investments. The most detailed, up-to-date information, on file at the Labor Department, is at least two years old.

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