GM, California, and America’s Multi-Trillion Dollar Pension Problem

Very good piece in current Institutional Investor on American’s multi-trillion pension funding problem. Read the whole thing.

What’s the difference between General Motors and California?

California hasn’t gone bankrupt. At least, not yet.

General Motors Corp. did go bankrupt, of course, in a historic Chapter 11 filing orchestrated by the federal government last June. A similar fate for California isn’t out of the question, though it is unlikely. No U.S. state has ever gone bankrupt, although California’s Orange County back in 1994 and, more recently, the City of Vallejo did take the plunge.

California’s $20 billion financial crisis — just the latest in a series, like a Hollywood horror movie with endless sequels — makes it Exhibit A of the pension funding predicaments looming over many state and local governments in the U.S. And as it happens, these crises have a lot in common with the pension overhang that helped sink General Motors last year.

Over several decades the leaders of both GM and GS (that is, the Golden State) caved in to the demands of aggressive unions, choosing what seemed the path of least resistance. Both gave their employees richer and richer retirement plans during their respective boom years and assumed that their revenue growth and the hefty returns on their pension fund investments would go on forever. Not so long ago, in fact, officials of both GM and California boasted that their employee pension plans were in good shape.