In November 1999, a group of the nation’s leading pension experts met at the Labor Department in Washington to discuss a $250 billion problem. After eight years of double-digit returns, the pension plans at American corporations had more than a quarter of a trillion dollars in excess assets. Not a shortage of assets. Excess assets. At some companies, the surpluses had reached almost laughable levels: $25 billion at GE; $24 billion at Verizon; $20 billion at AT&T; $7 billion at IBM.
One might expect that such lush asset balances would be something to celebrate. Many employers hadn’t contributed a dime to the plans since the 1980s, yet they still had enough money to cover the pensions of all current and future retirees even if they lived to be 100. With so much money, the plans would cost the companies nothing for years to come. But employers weren’t celebrating. The money was burning a hole in their pockets.
Today the giant surpluses are gone: sold, traded, siphoned, diverted to creditors, used to finance executive pay, parachutes, and pensions. But you’d think the employers had nothing to do with it. Companies blame investment losses for their plight, as well as their aging workforces, union contracts, regulation, and global competition. But their funding problems were largely self-inflicted. Had they not siphoned off the assets, they would have had a cushion that could have withstood even the market crash that troughed in March 2009. Nonetheless, employers continue to lobby for more liberal rules that would enable them to withdraw more of the assets to pay other things. Meanwhile, their solution when funds run low remains the same: Cut pensions.
In 1997, Cigna executives held a number of meetings to discuss their pension plan. At the time, the plan was overfunded, but executives weren’t satisfied and suggested cutting the pensions of 27,000 employees in an effort to boost the earnings they could report on their bottom line. The only problem? How to cut people’s pensions—especially those for long-tenure employees over forty—by 30 percent or more, without anyone noticing?
Cigna was just the latest of hundreds of large companies, including Boeing, Xerox, Georgia-Pacific, and Polaroid, that had already gone through this charade in the 1990s.
These companies had something in common: They all had large aging workforces—with tens of thousands of employees who had been on the job for twenty to thirty years. These workers were entering their peak earning years, and with traditional pensions that are calculated by multiplying years of service by one’s annual salary, their pensions were about to spike. With the leverage of traditional pension formulas, as much as half an employee’s pension could be earned in his final five years. In short, millions of workers were about to step onto the pension escalator. Financially, that wasn’t a problem. Companies, including Cigna, had set aside plenty of money to pay their pensions, so having a large cohort of aging workers didn’t put the companies in peril. ..
The problem, from the employers’ perspective, was that it would be a shame to pay out all that money in pensions when there were so many other useful ways it could be put to use for the benefit of the companies themselves.
Laying people off was one way to keep pension money in the plan. When people leave, their pensions stop growing, and if this happens just when employees’ pensions are poised to spike, all the better. In the 1990s, companies purged hundreds of thousands of middle-aged workers from the payrolls at telephone companies, aerospace and defense contractors, manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, and other industries, reducing future pension outflows by billions of dollars.
Employers couldn’t lay off every middle-aged worker, of course, but there were other ways to slow the pension growth of those who remained. They could cut pensions, but there were certain constraints. Pension law prohibits employers from taking away pensions being paid out to retirees, and employers can’t rescind benefits its employees have locked in up to that point. But they can stop the growth, by freezing the plans, or slow it, by switching to a less generous formula.
That was the route Cigna took. The company estimated that the move would cut benefits of older workers by 40 percent or more, which meant that as much as $80 million that had been earmarked for their pensions would remain in the plan. The challenge was how to cut pensions without provoking an employee uprising. Pushing people off the pension escalator just when they’re about to lock in the fruits of their long tenure would be like telling a traveler that his nearly one million frequent flier miles were being rescinded—they weren’t going to like it.
Cigna’s solution to this communications challenge? Don’t tell employees. In September 1997, consulting firm Mercer signed a $200,000 consulting contract to prepare the written communication to Cigna employees, describing the changes without disclosing the negative effects. One of these was a benefits newsletter Cigna sent employees in November 1997, entitled “Introducing Your New Retirement Program.” On the front, “Message from CEO Bill Taylor” declared: “I am pleased to announce that on January 1, 1998, CIGNA will significantly enhance its retirement program.” “These enhancements will make our retirement program highly competitive.”
The newsletter told employees that “the new plan is designed to work well for both longer- and shorter-service employees,” provides “steadier benefit growth throughout [the employee’s] career,” and “build[s] benefits faster” than the old plan. “One advantage the company will not get from the retirement program changes is cost savings.” In formal pension documents it later distributed, Cigna reiterated that employees “will see growth in [their] total retirement benefits every year.”
The communications campaign was successful: Employees didn’t notice that their pensions were being frozen, and didn’t complain. “We’ve been able to avoid bad press,” noted Gerald Meyn, the vice president of employee benefits, in a memo three months after the pension change. “We have avoided any significant negative reaction from employees.” In the margins next to these statements, the head of Cigna’s human resources department, Donald M. Levinson, scribbled: “Neat!” and “Agree!” and “Better than expected outcome.”
When employees made individual inquiries, Cigna had an express policy of not providing information. “We continue to focus on NOT providing employees before and after samples of the pension plan changes,” an internal memo stresses. When employees called, the HR
staff, working with scripts, deflected them with statements like “Exact 02 comparisons are difficult.”
Cigna wasn’t the only company deceiving employees about their 04 pension cuts, and actuaries who helped implement these changes were concerned, because federal pension law requires employers to notify employees when their benefits are being cut. At an annual actuarial industry conference in New York later that year, the attendees discussed how to handle this dilemma. The recommendation: Pick your words carefully. The law “doesn’t require you to say, ‘We’re significantly lowering your benefit,’” noted Paul Strella, a lawyer with Mercer, which had advised Cigna when it implemented a cash-balance plan earlier that year. “All it says is, ‘Describe the amendment.’ So you describe the amendment.”
Kyle Brown, an actuary at Watson Wyatt, reiterated that point: “Since the [required notice] doesn’t have to include the words that ‘your rate of future-benefit accrual is being reduced,’ you don’t have to say those magic words. You just have to describe what is happening under the plan. . . . I wouldn’t put in those magic words.”
Just to make sure the message had sunk in, in December 1998, Cigna sent employees a fact sheet stating that the objectives for introducing the new pension plan were to:
- Deliver adequate retirement income to Cigna employees
- Improve the competitiveness of our benefits program and thus
improve our ability to attract and retain top talent
- Meet the changing needs of a more mobile employee workforce, and
provide retirement benefits in a form that people can understand.
The letter went on to say that “Cigna has not reduced the overall amount it contributes for retirement benefits by introducing the new Plan, and the new Plan is not designed to save money.”
This was true, literally. Cigna had indeed not reduced the overall amounts it contributed for retirement benefits. It had lowered the benefits for older workers and increased benefits for younger workers (slightly) and for top executives (significantly). Looked at this way, the plan wasn’t designed to save money, just redistribute it.
The communications campaign was successful. Janice Amara, a longtime Cigna employee, didn’t learn that she had not actually been receiving any additional benefits until September 2000, when she ran into Cigna’s chief actuary, Mark Lynch, at a farewell party for two other Cigna employees. “Jan, you would be sick if you knew” how Cigna was calculating her pension, she recalled him telling her. “Frankly, I was sick when I heard this,” Amara said. Under Cigna’s new pension formula, Amara’s pension would effectively be frozen for ten years.