I'm rarely speechless, but I'm having trouble putting my emotions into words after reading the latest report on the Detroit pension situation. Now, I admit it: I'm kind of naïve. Usually when I see an underfunded pension, I think to myself "poor pensioners -- undone by a combination of stupid tax rules, volatile stock markets and mismanagement by trustees who tried to restore depleted fund assets with an investment approach you might call 'desperate optimism'." Thus, I was not entirely prepared for the new revelations about the Detroit trustees' custom of handing out annual holiday "bonuses" to workers, retirees and the City of Detroit. Between 1985 and 2008, they handed out roughly $1 billion this way. Had they been invested, one estimate says those funds would be worth almost $2 billion today -- or more than half the current shortfall in the funds.
These "bonuses" were used to lower the contribution the city was required to make, to give retirees a little something extra around Christmas time, and to fund individual savings accounts that workers are offered along with their pensions. In 2009, when the financial markets were completely frozen and the automakers were shotgunning through the bankruptcy courts, the pension trust paid 7.5 percent interest into those accounts -- which is about 7.5 percent more than they would have gotten at a bank. This while the pension funds were busy losing about a quarter of their value.