Saturday, September 09, 2017

A "Real Life" Example

In addition to the books, reference guides, and a few personal “knick knacks,” I have for years had in my office a couple of model cars – but not for the reason people generally think.

These models happen to be Studebakers (a 1950 Champion, a 1953 Starliner and a 1963 Avanti). I’d wager that a majority of Americans have never even heard of a Studebaker, and the notion that a major U.S. automobile maker once operated out of South Bend, Indiana would likely come as a surprise to most. I keep them in my office not because I have an appreciation for classic cars (though I do), but because of the role the automaker played in ERISA’s formation.

Born into a wagon-making family, the Studebaker brothers (there were five of them) went from being blacksmiths in the 1850s to making parts for wagons, to making wheelbarrows (that were in great demand during the 1849 Gold Rush) to building wagons used by the Union Army during the Civil War, before turning to making cars (first electric, then gasoline) after the turn of the century. Indeed, they had a good, long run making automobiles that were generally well regarded for their quality and reliability (their finances, not so much) until a combination of factors (including, ironically, pension funding) resulted in the cessation of production at the South Bend plant on Dec. 20, 1963. Shortly thereafter Studebaker terminated its retirement plan for hourly workers, and the plan defaulted on its obligations.

At the time, the plan covered roughly 10,500 workers, 3,600 of whom had already retired and who – despite the stories you sometimes hear about Studebaker – received their full benefits when the plan was terminated. However, some 4,000 workers between the ages of 40 and 59 – didn’t. They only got about 15 cents for each dollar of benefit they had been promised, though the average age of this group of workers was 52 years with an average of 23 years of service (another 2,900 employees, who all had less than 10 years of service, received nothing).

ERISA did not create pensions, of course; they existed in significant numbers prior to 1974, as the workers at Studebaker surely knew (they certainly had reason to – Studebaker-Packard had terminated the retirement plan for employees of the former Packard Motor Car company in 1958, and they got even less than the Studebaker workers wound up with in 1964). But armed with the real life example of those Studebaker pensions, highlighting what had been a growing concern about the default risk of private sector plans (public sector programs weren’t seen as being vulnerable to the same risk at that time) – well, it may have been a decade before ERISA was to become a reality, but the example of Studebaker’s pensions provided a powerful and on-going “real life” reminder of the need for reform.

Has ERISA “worked”? Well, in signing that legislation – 43 years ago this past weekend – President Ford noted that from 1960 to 1970, private pension coverage increased from 21.2 million employees to approximately 30 million workers, while during that same period, assets of these private plans increased from $52 billion to $138 billion, acknowledging that “[i]t will not be long before such assets become the largest source of capital in our economy.” His words were prophetic; today that system has grown to exceed $17 trillion, covering more than 85 million workers in more than 700,000 plans.

The composition of the plans, like the composition of the workforce those plans cover, has changed considerably over time, as has ERISA’s original framework. Today much is made about the shortcomings in coverage and protections of the current system, the projections of multitrillion-dollar shortfalls of retirement income, the pining for the “good old days” when everyone had a pension (that never really existed for most), the reality is that ERISA – and its progeny – have unquestionably allowed more Americans to be better financially prepared for retirement than ever before.

It’s a real life example I think about every time I look at those model cars – and every time I have the opportunity to explain the story behind them.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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