30 November 2008

Now our Pensions are in Trouble as well...

Two days ago I wrote that a new scandal or outrage appears in Ireland now on a daily basis. Sadly, I have not been wrong and even Sundays are no longer free of bad news.

After the FÁS scandal dominated last week (see my entries of November 25th, 26th & 27th) and on Friday a 'double whammy' from the country's two largest health insurance companies hit us with immense and unaffordable increases in health insurance premiums (see my entry of November 28th), we are learning today that our pensions might be in serious trouble as well.

One cannot help wondering if there is actually anything left here in Ireland that is working well, functioning properly and in good order.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen (left) was quick to react this time and declared that the government would be "engaging the pension industry" to "review funding arrangements".

Once again he only gives us a few empty and meaningless words, despite the seriousness of the matter. What does it mean when the government is "engaging the pension industry"?
Should not the government be in regular contact with and in control of the 'pensions industry'?

(By the way, the use of the word 'industry' in this connection turns my stomach. An 'industry' produces things. Pension funds do not produce anything. They only administer money and shift it around in the hope to make profits, obviously not with much success lately.)

What will happen after the government has "reviewed funding arrangements"? And what exactly is a "funding arrangement" when it is at home?

If the Taoiseach thinks that he can bamboozle us with such hollow language, he is in error.

We demand to know what is really happening, when it is happening, and what the consequences are. And while we are at it, we also like to know why nothing has been done about the problem in the past.

Brian Cowen's empty statement today follows the leaking of a confidential report, which warns that a number of pension schemes "could collapse within the next six months, affecting tens of thousands of Irish workers".

The leaked internal report was prepared for the Cabinet by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs Mary Hanafin (right). So at least she seems to know what is going on.

A memo, seen and made public by Ireland's Sunday Tribune newspaper, warns that "defined-benefit schemes in the private sector and defined-contribution schemes could be under threat as the total pension deficit reaches between € 20 and € 30 billion".

The memo says that in defined contribution schemes, which are directly linked to investment returns and where a worker carries the investment risk, there is "anecdotal evidence that best practice is generally not applied", leaving people "exposed to more risk than they might realise".

"These are turbulent and difficult times for money markets, where most pension funds are invested," Mary Hanafin said in a statement today.
"Pension fund managers have yet to report on their funding standards to the Irish Pension Board, but in public comments they have indicated that funds are subject to market fluctuations."

She added that the government is "continuing to closely monitor the situation and is preparing proposals on the long term strategy on pensions, following the submissions made to the Green Paper on Pensions earlier this year".

Following the example of her master, Mary Hanafin is trying to keep us in the dark. How stupid does she think we are? Does she really believe we need to be told that "these are turbulent and difficult times for money markets"?
And what does it mean that "the government is continuing to closely monitor the situation"?

To 'monitor' something means a passive observation from a distance, in modern times usually via an electronic media screen, or monitor. So this is all the government does. Sitting there and watching numbers running over a computer screen.
No wonder that the country and our economy are in such a shambolic state!

Anyone can look at data on a computer. Even my cat is able to do it. And I am almost certain that she understands them better than our government does.

If incompetence and complacency would make people small, our present government would have a very comfortable existence beneath the floor carpets in Leinster House!

The Irish Business & Employers' Confederation (IBEC) has also repeated its recent expression of concern (see my entry of October 7th) that a number of private sector defined-benefit schemes are in danger and said "this situation could put companies themselves in danger".

Brendan McGinty (left), IBEC's Director of Industrial Relations and Human Resource Services, said he is "concerned that three out of every four providers of private sector defined-benefit schemes" would not be in a position "to meet total pension payments if they were required to do so tomorrow".
"This is the scenario which the government and pensions board use to determine a scheme's liquidity," McGinty explained.

Employers are increasingly seeing defined-benefit provision as a "bottomless pit", he added, stating that IBEC is "calling for the liability to the taxpayer from defined benefit pensions in the public sector to be capped" and urging the government and pensions board to take immediate action.

Meanwhile the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has called on the government to introduce a State-run mandatory pension scheme.

ICTU General Secretary David Begg (right) said that - given the current market difficulties - it is "almost inevitable that some of the schemes will be in trouble".
Begg also agrees with a recent IBEC suggestion that "funding standards for pension schemes may need to be relaxed".

Having lived in a number of different countries, I am familiar with different systems of government, economy and also pensions.
And it really puzzles me why Ireland has not established a State-controlled universal pensions system a long time ago. Why are we - after 86 years of independence - still copying everything Britain does, while there are much better options and models elsewhere that we could adopt?

In my entry of October 7th - titled "Irish Pensions System in Need of Reform" - I have written about this matter already. So I will not repeat all my points and arguments here and suggest you go to the archive and call up this entry, which includes a detailed plan Ireland could follow.

The Emerald Islander

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