Canadian university budgets: standing at the edge of the abyss.

The Globe & Mail reports that Canadian universities face a budget nightmare brought on by pension shortfalls. Article highlights:

… Most faculty and staff have defined benefit pensions, which promise a set retirement income based on service and salary. But those funds suddenly cratered when markets crashed in 2008, most losing 15 to 30 per cent of their value. …

Two years ago, Dalhousie University’s $726-million pension plan lost 16 per cent of its value, leaving a $129-million solvency deficit – the amount that needs to be added so that if the university suddenly folded, it could honour the plan. …

The University of Toronto’s pension fund was the hardest hit, losing 29 per cent in 2008. As a result, the school expects to owe an extra $50-million a year on top of $100-million it already contributes from a $1.5-billion operating budget. Since an arbitrator recently ruled against a proposed premium hike for faculty and librarians, cuts to services are the likely solution again. …

Saskatchewan is in the midst of a three-year moratorium on solvency payments, while Manitoba and Quebec universities already enjoy permanent exemptions. So does Alberta’s UAPP, which the employers and employees run jointly, making employees “part of the problem, part of the solution,” Mr. Gupta said. But because UAPP lost 20 per cent in 2008, its employees now fork over nearly 2.4 per cent more of their salaries than they did two years ago.

Canadian universities are public institutions. The bloated pensions in the public sector are the product of the bubble mentality. When times were good, fund managers did not anticipate anything but steadily rising returns. They did not anticipate 2008. Now all the lavish promises of myriad pension plans seem unrealistic, to say the least. To keep these generous promises, universities will have to cut services for students who are already paying too much for their schools.

The article mentions about $2.06 billion pension deficits among select plans. And this is merely a snapshot of nine different institutions. In a small country like Canada, $2 billion is serious money. The final price tag will ultimately be much higher. And university pensions are just a snippet of a more general problem — unrealistically generous pensions in the public sector will become a cancer on Ottawa’s budget.

As with most western democracies, Ottawa is bound to obligations that it will be unable to meet without default, either through repudiation or Bank of Canada money printing. Ottawa is on the hook for $208 billion in public pensions, which is $65 billion more than Ottawa’s crony accounting previously suggested. This says nothing of the CPP, which will not withstand future demographic burdens, and is made up of 33% per cent fixed income, mostly government bonds, which will be decimated by the mass inflation that is sure to come. Then there are the obligations of individual provinces to various unions which are likewise unsustainable.

When the private pensions of Chrysler and GM were bust, governments intervened. University staff do not have the votes that inefficient auto workers have. But over time, as more pension funds are threatened, Ottawa’s nationalization of different retirement accounts is a very real possibility. This would be done in the name of the general welfare, of course. A government guaranteed return, say at the rate of Canada’s long-term bond, would be more reliable than the ups and downs of capital markets.

This is already reality in some parts of the world. This radical idea even gets serious consideration in the US.

Why would a government want to do this anyway? Two reasons: 1) It can help defer the bankruptcy for the CPP and federal employee pensions; 2) it confers control over Canadian capitalism because common stock carries voting rights. Think about how the US government got the president of GM to step down.

These dangers are not immediate, but they must be considered as you prepare for the future. The main lesson — whether you are a government employee sucking blood from the economy, or a productive worker whose blood is getting sucked — you cannot count on government promises for retirement.

 

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