“This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933
The same paralyzing fear President Roosevelt focused on over 80 years ago has become pervasive across our landscape today. With respect to pensions:
- Aging members of the work force fear being unable to retire and sustain a dignified life;
- Fund managers fear exposure to more risk than is typical of the pack even if circumstances suggest that such risk is warranted;
- Regulators fear not tightening the screws enough on what they are regulating;
- Politicians fear losing office—in many cases by term limits—before being able to usher in plan changes;
- Management fears increasing demands for pension contribution dollars;
- Employees fear losing their jobs and their related pensions;
- Actuaries fear being sued for signing off on assumptions that don’t come to fruition, regardless of whether there is a rational basis for those assumptions;
- Rating agencies fear repercussions from defaults on state and local government bonds;
- Corporate leaders fear public pension plan proxy voting;
- Defined benefit (DB) plan critics fear economic recovery will occur before they have a chance to put the last nail in the coffin of such plans;
- Accounting standard setters fear the federal government will take over their responsibilities unless draconian changes are made in pension accounting standards, regardless of whether or not they are warranted.
What is happening? This list just scratches the surface, and it just covers pensions. Our parents and grandparents faced the fear Roosevelt was addressing in the era of the Great Depression, and they overcame. Since that time, our nation has endured multiple wars, protracted periods of economic turmoil and societal upheaval, assassinations of leaders, weather-related tragedies, terrorist attacks, and a plethora of other hardships and horrific events, yet we always managed to overcome.
So what is generating the current paralyzing fear from which there seems no escape? Is there something that leads us to think, “It really is different this time?” Perhaps it’s the illusion that it’s different, where illusion has become our current reality. Perhaps Pogo foresaw it clearly when he said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Our historical resolve and our ability to overcome have had at their roots the basics of mutual trust, confidence in our leaders and hope for the future. Where is the trust? Where is the confidence? Where is the hope? All were seemingly destroyed, or seriously damaged, by the Great Recession of 2008. Who was responsible for that? Apparently, no one. That crisis made blame deflection an art form and accusation the order of the day, but neither provides solutions.
Solutions are sometimes found in unexpected places. For example, the following simple statement on the subject of overcoming fear is a line from the movie “The Princess Diaries”:
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something is more important than fear. The brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all.”
We still—as we should—praise and applaud the courage of those who ran toward rather than away from the twin towers. However, it is now time for more than praise and applause—it’s time for action of our own.
We all know brave acts when we see them. More often than not, they are the acts of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, with one thing in common. The common thread is that the action is typically not in the individual’s self-interest and may, in fact, run counter to self-interest.
It’s time for us to lay the facts bare and do the right thing, absent the benefit of rationalization. Almost without exception, we know the right thing. Specifically, we need to establish contribution rates using reasonable (not risk-free) assumptions, assure that those contributions are made, eliminate special interest benefits that critics characterize as the common condition, minimize the involvement of politics in plan administration and investing, and have total compensation arrangements for public employees that focus on attracting and retaining the talent needed to deliver the high quality services taxpayers expect and deserve.
Will it be easy? Probably not! Is it important? Probably more important than anything else benefit-related we’ve done before, knowing that it may run counter to self-interest! We need to put our fears aside and get on with it. Our predecessors gave too much for us to let others screw it up. Our successors deserve the opportunities we were given. The time is now for us to be brave.
Stay tuned for further discussion of these issues in Overcoming Fear! – Part 2.
Gary Findlay retired in January after 21 years as Executive Director of the Missouri State Employees Retirement System (MOSERS) and a total of 42 years of professional experience in the field of public employee retirement.This feature is to provide general information only, does not constitute legal or tax advice, and cannot be used or substituted for legal or tax advice. Any opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect the stance of Asset International or its affiliates.