Pyramid Schemes and Pension Plans

A Ponzi scheme is an illegal program whereby investors are promised big return son investments in a short period of time, and where the underlying basis for this return is deliberately mis-stated.  We continually find people who perpetrate Ponzi schemes and when they are finally caught, they get put in jail.  For those unsure, a Ponzi scheme is defined as a scheme where the scheme operator says they will pay a high return to its investors from their original investment, but instead uses money from new capital paid to the operator by new investors rather than from profit earned by the operator.  Hence it is a flow through of money from people putting money in to people who are getting out.  To get returns on the investments for the earlier investors, the pool of new people must increase with time, so that there are always more people paying in that there were previously.  It that does not occur, then we have a problem.

What is a retirement system?  A retirement system is a form of deferred compensation used to attract and keep workers, by deferring a portion of their pay 10, 20 30 or 40 years from now.  It is part of the compensation to the employee.  With a retirement system, people pay into a program, where their money is invested.  A retirement system tends to rely on the fact that the number of people paying in increases exponentially so that the actual invested dollars are never touched, instead the new proceeds exceed the monies paid out.  For a pension, plan it assumes your invested dollars remain invested and profitable, and that the revenues from the new people in the system, exceed the monies paid to retirees.  What is the difference?  Well, the retirement system actually supposedly has assets while Ponzi scheme does not.  Otherwise, the systems work similarly – dollars paid in generally go out to others, and there is an assumption that the number or payees increases exponentially (a percentage every year).

So what happens to a pension plan when the number of employees decreases from 6.7 million to 4.4 million over 40 years?  Would you expect there to be a pension plan problem?  And if so why?  And who is at fault?  That is exactly what has happened to federal government employees since 1967.  And many states have seen reductions in the last 20 years as well.  So it is any wonder why these pension systems might be at risk?  The push to privatize services ensures that the basic assumption that the number of payees in a pension plan increases exponentially will be violated, which makes the pension plan vulnerable.  And ho is at fault.  I would suggest the people pushing privatization, who look only at short term consequences as opposed to long-term impacts.  Perhaps this needs to be part of any such discussion going forward.  Just a thought…


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