Stan worked on the line at GM’s Oshawa plant for thirty years. “Last of the breed,” he says. “Man, look at the news.” Indeed. GM just punted a thousand workers, who will be gone by November. When Stan started there, 15,000 guys crowded the gates. Now there are 3,600. Soon, a third less. “This place is doomed,” he prophecies.
Pensions are one reason, which is why I was talking to the guy. GM Canada has about 30,000 retirees drawing monthly cheques. It also has an unfunded pension liability estimated to be more than $2 billion. That’s despite a $3.2-billion cash gift the company received from the government when GM was bailed out in ‘09. It effectively means most company pensioners today are drawing taxpayer money. Yep, just like civil servants. Except most ex-GM workers get more.
Stan never saved a nickel, has no RRSPs, no TFSA, no investment portfolio and $12,500 in his TD Canada Trust daily savings account earning 0.10%. But he does have a house east of Toronto he paid $220,000 for, plus a wife who works at Loblaws.
But Stan’s one lucky dude. He has a gold-plated pension from the olden days when automakers secretly sweated as the union’s brass swaggered to the negotiating table. He also has a big choice to make. He can collect a monthly cheque until he dies. Or he can commute it – taking over the pension himself with a lump-sum payment. In his case, it will be just under $1 million – some of it rolled into a tax-free registered account, some of it in taxable cash.
“I’m scared,” he said. “I can’t sleep, and now all I do is worry.” That’s normal, I told him. People lacking money worry occasionally about being poor. People who have money obsess about losing it. It’s why rich people never smile.
Well, Stan made his choice finally. He took the money, will have it invested privately and get his monthly allowance that way. Here’s why.
“I don’t trust them.” These are the words of a guy who’s watched the ranks of the employed decimated, seen his company rescued from colossal failure by the government, and knows there’s not enough money in the pot to fund his pension for the next 35 years. In fact, unfunded pension liabilities are a ticking timebomb with the potential to blow up the lives of many unsuspecting people.
For example, Canada Post has an unfunded pension liability of $6.5 billion, which should explain why it’s trying hard to get out of the mail delivery business and laying off armies of people. Across Canada it’s estimated there are $300 billion worth of pensions that public sector workers are expecting that actually have no dollars allocated to them. Some bitter surprises are in store.
Anyway, Stan’s smart. Why even take a chance when you can take the money now?
Then there’s this: “What if they screw up again?” Governments struggling with their own debts and deficits might not be so generous with GM the next time it hits the rocks. Pensioners in Canada could live through the same experience as cops and firefighters have in American cities and states where pension benefits are arbitrarily cut. Already teachers in Ontario have been forced to pay more into their massive pension plan and will be receiving less, just to keep it solvent.
By taking the money and putting it to work, hopefully matching long-term investment returns, Stan will never deplete it and harvest a monthly amount equal to that the pension administrators were promising.
Most importantly he said, “I have to do this for Brenda.” Smart. If Stan took the company pension the way most of his greying buddies are, with its stress-free payments, then died in a few years, Brenda would get a small and temporary survivor benefit. But by commuting the pension amount, Stan’s family owns 100% of the money – forever. If he passes first (“Like that won’t happen…”) then Brenda gets every cent, to support her and help the kids as they get established.
Besides, there couldn’t be a better time for the guy to be doing this, since interest rates have cratered. Low rates make a commuted pension worth more in today’s dollars, since the present value of it rises. If current rates were a couple of percentage points higher then the autoworker’s pension value would be at least $300,000 lower. In fact, his commuted value jumped enough to buy a new RV with the tiny quarter-point bank rate drop in January.
Like I said. Lucky dude.
Finally, Stan can take his wad, invest it reasonably for growth and stability, and end up paying less tax than his pension-collecting pals. That’s because a portion of his income can be deemed return of capital, which means it’s not reportable, keeping him in a lower tax bracket.
Of course, in return for these benefits, he worries. He has to trust someone with his million. And that is the highest hurdle.