Pennsylvania, like many other states, is facing a huge unfunded pension deficit in its defined benefit plans: a $70 billion shortfall in two large plans for teachers and other state employees. Unlike most states, Pennsylvania in early June passed — with widespread bipartisan support — major legislation “to get real meaningful pension reform,” as Gov. Tom Wolf was quoted saying.
Indeed, the recent Pennsylvania law is a significant step in the right direction. However, the financial projections for the legislation show how long it takes, given the legal and political constraints, for this approach to pension reform to meaningfully reduce the burden on state budgets.
Here is the background. In 2001, Pennsylvania reported a $20 billion surplus in its two big defined benefit plans – the Public School Employees’ Retirement System and the State Employees’ Retirement System. But then state legislators boosted benefits for current state workers without increasing contributions to these plans, and even extended this giveaway to already retired public employees. In 2003, legislators compounded the state’s funding challenge by taking a “pension holiday” — decreasing pension contributions to allocate revenue to other state priorities.
These actions contributed to a giant shortfall during the global financial crisis, when the value of the state’s pension portfolios plummeted. In response, state legislators in 2010 reduced pension benefits — only for newly hired state workers — to pre-2001 levels. Nevertheless, because of growing obligations to current and retired workers, the state’s contributions to its pension plans ballooned to $6 billion in the 2018 fiscal year from $1 billion in the 2011 fiscal year.
As of Saturday, January 13, all EU member states were to fully implement the revised Payment Services Directive, known as PSD2.1) Among other things, PSD2 allows third-party payment service providers to gain access to customers’ bank accounts (with the customers’ consent, of course), and customers’ banks are required to provide API connection for identity verification. Its potential impact should not be underestimated. For example, under PSD2, customers and merchants can, in principle, cut credit cards and debit cards out of their transactions, saving significant costs along the way. In addition, banks can no longer “own” their customers’ account data or prevent competitors from accessing them.
The EU’s PSD2 is a major development in payments and financial market infrastructure, a once-sleepy “back-office” function that is now alive and kicking. The essence of PSD2 is to encourage competition and reduce the information advantages of incumbent banks. Likewise, the Bank of England announced in July 2017 that non-bank payment service providers can become direct settlement participants in the UK’s payment system, as long as certain requirements are met.
Access to financial market infrastructure such as payment systems has important implications for market competition. The study of industrial organization shows that competition is reduced by vertical integration. A vertically integrated incumbent that produces both “upstream” and “downstream” goods can effectively reduce competition in the downstream market if its stand-alone competitors rely on the incumbent for providing the upstream good.2) Financial market infrastructure is the ultimate upstream good for almost all economic activities. Privileged access to market infrastructure makes banks “special” and, in some situations, may encourage anticompetitive behavior. Good examples to keep in mind include two antitrust class lawsuits in over-the-counter derivatives markets in which investors accused dealer banks of, among other things, using their unique positions as clearing members in OTC derivatives to shut off new entrants that aim to compete with dealer banks in the transaction of these derivatives.3) One of these lawsuits has been settled, with dealer banks paying $1.86 billion.Read More »
Are you concerned about climate change, or about social issues such as corporate board diversity? Can you as a shareholder have your preferences communicated to company management and perhaps impact corporate policy on these issues? For the majority of individual investors, the short answer is “no.”
That’s because most individual investors own mutual funds. But the structure of the mutual fund makes it difficult to reflect shareholder objectives and values related to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues.
The growth in individual shareholder ownership ironically has created a huge gap in corporate governance and accountability. The ownership of Corporate America lies largely with employees through 401(k) plans and other retirement vehicles, except these same employee-owners cannot and do not have proxy voting rights — these are exercised by the fund providers.
Given the size of retail assets that fund managers control — collectively close to $10 trillion — there is a valid concern about their voting practices not reflecting the preferences of the millions of investors in their funds. A typical fund has to vote on hundreds of proxies each year, most of them routine. The voting process is centralized and fairly automated, with default guidelines regarding how the shares are voted. The fund manager conducts analysis only on issues that materially impact a company’s financial or operating performance, and then casts a vote.
Having managed mutual funds for a long time and voted hundreds of proxies globally, I believe there is a simple and direct way to reflect shareholder ESG preferences in the voting of proxies: Through the fund prospectus. Read More »
Harvard Kennedy School Senior Fellow Antonio Weiss
One of the central pillars of financial reform, the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), is under political attack and at risk of coming undone.
In the past, the balkanized U.S. financial regulatory system has consistently failed to address risks that took root in its jurisdictional gaps. The FSOC was created to solve that problem, bringing regulators together to make sure they have the tools to protect the economy from financial crises. It is already making an important difference.
Unfortunately, earlier this month the House Financial Services Committee passed the Financial Choice Act (CHOICE Act), which threatens to reverse that progress. It would, for example, all but eliminate the FSOC’s ability to prevent the regrowth of an unsupervised shadow banking sector that might once again threaten our financial stability and economic resiliency. At the same time, the administration of President Donald Trump has signaled that it may use the council to pursue deregulation, rather than its core mandate of financial stability, and to reverse or limit its ability to designate systemically important non-banks for enhanced supervision. Meanwhile, MetLife Inc., the largest U.S. life insurer, recently asked the courts to delay ruling on an appeal filed by the Obama administration seeking to reinstate the firm’s designation as a systemically important institution requiring prudential oversight by the Federal Reserve. The Trump administration has agreed to put the appeal on hold.
Almost all boards of U.S. public companies now have three committees that meet immediately before every board meeting and report to the full board — audit, compensation, and nominating-governance. Committees have become the workhorses of the governance process: with their small size and expert support, they can do more in-depth analysis of complex topics than the full board of directors.
However, since the passage of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the duties of the audit committee, especially, have become so large and complex that it cannot seriously assess broader financial issues.
Audit committees continue to perform the traditional functions of appointing the company’s independent auditor and reviewing its financial statements. But audit committees now have a long list of other obligations — including oversight of complaints by whistle blowers and violations of ethics codes; approval of non-audit functions by auditors; and review of the management report and auditor attestation on internal controls. The audit committee also holds private sessions with both external and internal auditors as well as the chief financial officer and the head of compliance/risk.
In other words, audit committees are overburdened by their increased obligations to oversee the details of the reporting and compliance processes. As a result, the audit committee no longer has enough time to seriously consider broader financial topics. If directors are going to have meaningful input into the broad financial issues faced by any public company, they need to form a finance committee with the time and expertise to address the issues.