Secure Pensions or a Lump Sum Buyout?

Karen Friedman
Detroit Free Press
July 23, 2012

By Friday, 42,000 salaried General Motors retirees will have made a critical financial decision that will dictate whether they have a secure or insecure retirement. GM is requiring these loyal old-timers to either exchange their lifetime monthly pension benefits for a onetime lump-sum payment or continue to receive equivalent lifetime monthly payments paid by Prudential instead of GM.

Understandably, after years of serving the company and being promised a pension for life, many of these retirees feel frightened, betrayed and confused. GM's decision to off-load their pension plan has put this group of retirees in the agonizing position of having to make a decision that will impact them for the rest of their lives, at a time when they are most vulnerable. While anger and distrust might fuel the temptation for retirees to take the lump of cash and run, the reality is that taking the annuity will be the far better and safer option for most retirees.

Studies show that retirees with ongoing monthly pension payments are more secure than those without them, better able to pay for housing, health care and daily necessities. Also, those with predictable monthly income, unaffected by the whims of Wall Street, can sleep better at night knowing that they have a stable income for life, no matter how long they live, and that their spouse will be protected, too.

GM is dangling the prospect of large lumps of cash in front of this group of retirees because the company will save money if retirees choose to take lump sums.

But taking the lump sum can be a risky business. Retirees will have to invest that money in today's jittery stockmarket to try to replicate the security of a pension. But retirees beware: Financial advisers who offer to help will likely charge high fees, will not be able to guarantee results, and may have some degree of self-interest. It will only take a few bad investments or another market downturn to turn the American retirement dream into a nightmare.

Also, once retirees take the lump sum there is no turning back. In the Free Press' July 12 online chat, many retirees suggest that they will take the lump sum and later buy their own annuity. However, it is costly for individuals to purchase annuities directly from insurance companies, which means they will end up with lower monthly payments than those provided by the annuities that GM is buying from Prudential.

Is there anyone who should take the lump sum? Economist Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, says that in these situations, "only those with serious illnesses who believe they do not have much time left should even consider it." She adds: "The trouble with counting on death, however, is its unpredictability; even sick people may live longer than they think."

Other experts say that lump sums might be a good alternative for people with abundant assets for whom the pension is not their primary source of income.

Unfortunately, GM's move is just the first in a series of expected lump-sum buyouts. Ford will start offering lump sums to groups of salaried retirees beginning in August, and industry experts predict that both companies will try to do the same with their union retirees.

Like GM, all too many companies are going to off-load pension promises to other companies or onto retirees themselves. But it seems clear that if retirees want security, they should stick with the monthly lifetime payments and say "no" to the lump sums.

Karen Friedman is executive vice president and policy director of the Pension Rights Center.

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