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Ellen E. Schultz

RETIREMENT HEIST

How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers

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PORTFOLIO / PENGUIN

Published by the Penguin Group

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First published in 2011 by Portfolio / Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Copyright © Ellen E. Schultz, 2011

All rights reserved

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA Schultz, Ellen. Retirement heist: how companies plunder and profit from the nest eggs of American workers / Ellen E. Schultz. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN : 978-1-101-44607-2

1. Pensions—United States. 2. Corporations—Moral and ethical aspects—United States. 3. Life insurance policies—United States. I. Title.

HD7125.S38 2011

331.25’20973—dc22

2011015064

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Introduction

IN DECEMBER 2010, General Electric held its Annual Outlook Investor Meeting at Rockefeller Center in New York City. At the meeting, chief executive Jeffrey Immelt stood on the Saturday Night Live stage and gave the gathered analysts and shareholders a rundown on the global conglomerate’s health. But in contrast to the iconic comedy show that is filmed at Rock Center each week, Immelt’s tone was solemn. Like many other CEOs at large companies, Immelt pointed out that his firm’s pension plan was an ongoing problem. The “pension has been a drag for a decade,” he said, and it would cause the company to lose thirteen cents per share the next year. Regretfully, to rein in costs, GE was going to close the pension plan to new employees.

The audience had every reason to believe him. An escalating chorus of bloggers, pundits, talk show hosts, and media stories bemoan the burgeoning pension-and-retirement crisis in America, and GE was just the latest of hundreds of companies, from IBM to Verizon, that have slashed pensions and medical benefits for millions of American retirees. To justify these cuts, companies complain that they’re victims of a “perfect storm” of uncontrollable economic forces—an aging workforce, entitled retirees, a stock market debacle, and an outmoded pension system that cripples their chances of competing against pensionless competitors and companies overseas.

What Immelt didn’t mention was that, far from being a burden, GE’s pension and retiree plans had contributed billions of dollars to the company’s bottom line over the past decade and a half, and were responsible for a chunk of the earnings that the executives had taken credit for. Nor were these retirement programs—even with GE’s 230,000 retirees—bleeding the company of cash. In fact, GE hadn’t contributed a cent to the workers’ pension plans since 1987 but still had enough money to cover all the current and future retirees.

And yet, despite all this, Immelt’s assessment wasn’t entirely inaccurate. The company did indeed have another pension plan that really was a burden: the one for GE executives. And unlike the pension plans for a quarter of a million workers and retirees, the executive pensions, with a $4.4 billion obligation, have always been a drag on earnings and have always drained cash from company coffers: more than $573 million over the past three years alone.

So a question remains: With its fully funded pension plan, why was GE closing its pensions?

That is one of the questions this book seeks to answer. Retirement Heist explains what really happened to GE’s pensions as well as to the retirement benefits of millions of Americans at thousands of companies. No one disputes that there’s a retirement crisis, but the crisis was no demographic accident. It was manufactured by an alliance of two groups: top executives and their facilitators in the retirement industry—benefits consultants, insurance companies, and banks—all of whom played a huge and hidden role in the death spiral of

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