Playing the Pension Funds

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of the Hudson report.

Now joining us is the man behind the report, Michael Hudson. Michael is a distinguished research professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. And his newest book, The Bubble and Beyond, has a new edition, with an index and two new chapters. And, of course, he’s a regular contributor to The Real News.

Thanks for being with us, Michael.

MICHAEL HUDSON, PROF. ECONOMICS, UMKC: Thank you very much, Jessica. It’s good to be back.

DESVARIEUX: So, Michael, today we’re going to be talking about the federal budget. What has really stood out to you in that budget?

HUDSON: Well, there’s something very radical happened that people haven’t been talking about very much. Normally a budget is supposed to decide what gets funded and what doesn’t get funded, and it’s simply a decision of what to cut back. A budget is not supposed to rewrite the law.

But what happened is something very radical. They rewrote two laws. One of the laws was about bank derivatives that Elizabeth Warren has spoken about, promising to bail out Citibank and other banks. If they lose on derivatives, they’re going to get bailed out like they did in 2008.

And the other was a decision not to bail out the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the government’s pension fund insurer. They’ve decided–they passed a new law. They rewrote the law. They declared the 1974 ERISA act protecting pensions illegal, and they said if pension funds cannot pay their retirees, they get to be cut back and they don’t get to go to the government to get guarantee. We’ve abolished the government guarantee on pension funds if the pension fund is run by a labor union, meaning if a pension fund is a multiemployer fund that has more than one employer contributing to it, like airline funds, truckers funds, Teamsters funds if you’re a truck driver, insurance employees, we’re going to give the fund managers, mainly the financial managers on Wall Street, the right to cut back on these pensions that are due. So the pensions that people had expected to receive when they made their wage contract saying, well, we’re not going to ask for as fast a wage increase if you give us security when we retire, all of this has been rewritten.

And the ironic thing is the Democrats led this fight against labor a year ago, this special ruling was put in, and people who were supposed to be Democratic liberals, like Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, decided to have something also radical in the new budget. They weren’t going to report which representatives voted yes or no for these amendments. So the Democrats covered up their tracks, and you can’t see that they were really behind the Wall Street constituency in saying, we’re going to cut back the pensions.
And you can see what’s on the mind, basically. The government said, look, we’ve got to balance the budget in the face of Obama’s sort of escalating the military confrontation with Russia and China. And on the face of increased bailout for the banks, there’s just not going to be enough money to guarantee the pension funds. So we can’t do for the pensioners what we did for the bankers in 2008.

So this has turned out to be just an absolute disaster. Yeah, it looks like a lot of union pension funds and public service pension funds are going to go the way of what happened in Detroit and California cities, of being cut back when there’s not enough.

And part of the problem is that these pension funds were all set up in a way that they were guaranteed to lose. The whole idea was to pretend that companies didn’t have to pay very much to support their workers or to put money aside to pay pensions, because they said, look, these funds can make money on Wall Street, they can make eight and a half percent a year. Well, as it turns out, pension funds are not making eight and a half percent a year; they’re making–if they want to be safe, they’re making less than one percent a year, which is the government Treasury bill rate.

So what they’ve done is they’ve gotten sort of desperate, and a lot of pension funds have gone to pension to hedge funds and Wall Street. They’ve gone to Wall Street money managers and said, look, can you–we’re desperate, we’re going to have to go under; can you help us make more money? Well, the Wall Street sharpies think, well, okay, sure, we’re going to put your money in derivatives and other things. And the banks that have been managing these funds, like Goldman Sachs and Northern Trust, have actually done very badly. And the most troubled fund of all of the ones in question are the Teamsters fund for the central states of America.

And the government’s trying to blame labor very much in the way that Malthus blamed labor a few hundred years ago for its poverty. The whole idea is, well, a few years ago there were, like, four workers for every retiree, so it was easy for the workers to pay into the funds and organize it sort of like a Ponzi scheme, keep paying in, and there was enough to pay. But now that the economy’s been de-industrialized, there are more retirees for every worker. So the Obama administration is saying, well, the problem is that there are just not enough workers to pay. Sorry, they lose.

But the Congressional Budget Office has found that that’s really not much of the problem at all. A lot of the problem is that the pension funds have gotten desperate, turned over their money to Wall Street. Some of this was done under congressional and Justice Department force. A lot of union pension funds, especially the Teamsters’, were run by the mafia. So the government said, well, look, the mafia are crooks; let’s turn the money over to Wall Street. What they didn’t realize is that Wall Street people are just as crooked as the mafia, and they did pretty much a strategy that was pioneered, I think, by Prudential Insurance a couple of decades ago, back a generation ago. Every day, Prudential would buy and sell a given stock. If the stock went up, they’d put the gains in their own account; if the stock went down, they’d say, oh, that’s the accounts of the clients we’re managing. Well, that’s pretty much what Wall Street’s been doing with the pension funds. They’ll play both sides of the derivative gains. They keep the gains for themselves and pay themselves bonuses and high salaries, and the losses are all stuck to Orange County or Detroit or Birmingham, Alabama, or other public funds. And there have been a number of lawsuits where Wall Street’s had to give back the money. And they’ve all been accused of fraud.

But the Justice Department said, well, wait a minute. These banks who were cheating the pension funds are too big to fail. They’re systemic. We can’t throw Citibank in jail. We can’t go against Northern Trust. So, essentially, now that Wall Street has realized that there is nothing to stop them from ripping off the pension funds, this is the largest single volume of capital to be grabbed. And that’s up for grabs.

And, basically, this is the first step towards the fight they’re going to be seeing over the next two years to balance the budget by cutting back Social Security, which has been Obama’s chief economic aim from the beginning, and then to privatize pensions and to privatize Social Security. The argument’s going to be made to American workers, well, wait a minute, you’ve seen your pension funds aren’t able to pay, you’ve see them lose money on derivatives. There’s only one way to be safe: take responsibility for yourself, and you manage your own money in the 401(k)s and the other personal programs.

So they’re going to privatize all of the pension funds. And by making your own choice, what this really means is the individual employees are going to have to turn over their funds to the same Wall Street companies–Goldman Sachs and Northern Trust–that have managed the–mismanaged the corporate pension funds and the union pension funds. And so the whole idea is that all of a sudden, now that employment is not growing, now that wages are not growing, instead of making profits by underpaying labor, Wall Street’s going to make profits just by siphoning off all of the savings that have been put aside in advance to pay the pensions. The argument will be, I’m sorry, folks, there’s not enough to pay the pensions, or the Wall Street calculators who made these forecasts made a terrible mistake. Unfortunately for you, under the law that Congress has just rewritten, not only do they get paid before you, but we’ve just canceled the government’s responsibility to insure you. We’ve taken away your insurance. That’s going to be the fight that we’re seeing.

And now that the Republicans are in control of both the House and the Senate, the Democrats can say, ah, let’s support Wall Street and blame it all on the Republicans. And they’re going whole hog, really, to stiff the pension retirees.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Michael, we’re going to certainly keep track of that story here on The Real News and see what unfolds in this coming year. Thank you so much for joining us.

HUDSON: Thank you. Good to be here.