Pomerantz LLP

POMTalk: Defined Benefit Plans Truly Benefit Public Employees


As I visit institutional investor clients across America, a frequent topic of discussion is a cost/benefit analysis of defined benefit vs. defined contribution plans. As I will more fully explain below, research and experience have demonstrated that public pension funds and the employees they serve likely do best contributing to a defined benefit plan coupled with a portfolio monitoring service.

Most state, municipal, and county workers are covered by a traditional defined benefit plan.

The financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath led some public pension funds to consider shifting some or all of their pension systems from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan. In fact, six states have replaced their traditional defined benefit plan with a mandatory hybrid plan (which requires participation in both a defined benefit and a defined contribution plan): Georgia, Michigan, Rhode Island, Utah, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Prior to the financial crisis, while feeling the glow of the stock market’s stellar performance of the 1990’s, Michigan and Alaska introduced plans requiring all new hires to participate solely in a defined contribution plan. Meanwhile, California, Indiana, and Oregon adopted hybrid plans. Colorado and Ohio have introduced optional defined contribution plans. Enrollment in these plans has been modest, with most workers choosing to continue to maintain the protection against investment risk and the promise of an annuity that defined benefit plans offer. In Alaska, however, despite the fact that nearly three quarters of its public employees are not covered by Social Security, all new hires are required to join a defined contribution plan. The result is that Alaskan state workers and teachers hired since July 2006 do not have any form of defined benefit protection.

According to a 2014 study by Alicia H. Munnell, Jean-Pierre Aubry, and Mark Cafarelli of the Center for Retirement Research of Boston College, what motivated states to introduce a defined contribution plan differed before and after the financial crisis. Before 2008, some saw it as a way to offer employees an opportunity to manage their own money and participate directly in a rapidly rising stock market. In contrast, after the financial crisis, cost and risk factors motivated some states to make the shift.

A 2016 study by Nari Rhee and William B. Fornia of the University of California, Berkeley, modeled how retirement income would fare for teachers on three types of pension: (1) the current defined benefit offering from the $186 billion California State Teachers Retirement System (“CalSTRS”) for hires since 2013; (2) an idealized 409(k) plan (similar to defined contribution); and (3) a cash balance plan with guaranteed 7% interest on contribution. The result, in a nutshell: for the vast majority of California teachers (six out of seven), the CalSTRS defined benefit pension provided greater, more secure retirement income compared to a 401(k)-style plan.

Apart from the rewards of defined benefit plans touted by numerous studies, a significant benefit available to these plans—that is not available to defined contribution plans -- is that their investment portfolios may be monitored by professionals who are expert in identifying and evaluating losses attributable to financial misconduct, and providing advice to institutional investors on how best to maximize their potential recoveries worldwide. The United States sees hundreds of new securities fraud class actions filed each year, as well as approximately 100 class action settlements. Institutional investors that do not engage a portfolio monitoring service run the risk of leaving money on the table by not participating in settlement recoveries or taking affirmative action to recover their losses when appropriate.

Public pension funds that offer a defined benefit plan coupled with a portfolio monitoring service get top marks for ensuring that their employees will enjoy a secure and amply funded retirement.