Musicians’ Pension to Cut Benefits

On May 24, the AFM Employers’ Pension Fund (AFM-EPF) announced that the plan has entered Critical and Declining status and would be applying to the Treasury Department for authorization to cut benefits to its 50,000 participating professional musicians and beneficiaries. The plan is calculated to fail in less than 20 years, including anticipated future contributions and expected returns from plan assets.

This announcement should come as no surprise to participants, and I think plan administrators have provided significant transparency and detailed communication in recent years. Today’s union officials inherited a program that was overly optimistic in its design a generation ago. While no one wants to see benefits cut, there’s no use in finger-pointing today. We have to work on a solution.

Read more: What is Critical and Declining Status?

The details of that solution aren’t known right now, but we do have some new information in terms of what retirees and participants might expect, and a timeline for the process. Here’s how it might impact you:

If you are presently retired and receiving benefits, you may or may not see any change to your benefits. If you are at least age 80, or disabled, there will be no cut to your pension. If you are between age 75 and 79, your benefit will be reduced on a sliding scale. And if you are under 75, your benefit will be cut to no less than 110% of the protected amount under the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC). The PBGC benefit is based on years of service and has fairly low guarantees, relative to what some musicians have accrued.

Read more: How to Calculate your PBGC Guarantee.

For vested participants in the plan who are not yet receiving benefits, your future payout will be reduced “equitably”. The good news is that the plan has confirmed that they plan to protect the $1 multiplier.

Originally, the plan was designed to pay out $4.65 a month (at age 65) for every $100 in contributions received while you were working. Trustees realized this was an unsustainable payout: $55.80 a year in payments from $100 in contributions. After 2003, they reduced the multiplier from $4.65 to $3.50 to $3.25 to $2.00 to $1.00 by January 1, 2010. However, all contributions received before 2004 are still under the old $4.65 multiplier.

What the Pension trustees and actuaries are going to do next is to calculate how much savings will be needed to prevent insolvency. This week, they indicated that they will propose a fixed percentage reduction to all the multipliers above $1.

For example, if they calculate a 35% reduction is necessary, that would reduce the $4.65 benefit to $3.02, the $3.50 multiplier to $2.28, and so on. The $1 multiplier would be unchanged. They expect to make this calculation in 2019 and apply to the Treasury Department to approve cuts by the end of the year. The cuts would become effective at the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021 at the earliest.

Some 60% of participants would receive no cut at all, due to age, the 110% PBGC floor, or if they are new since 2010. However, that also means that all of the cuts will be coming from 40% of participants, primarily those with significant benefits accrued prior to 2004, who are under age 75. Any cuts would be permanent.

How much of a cut will be necessary? The plan’s funded status one year ago was 64.5%. It is probably lower today; the most recent data is from 3/31/2018. That’s why I would anticipate a reduction of 35% or more. The actuarial value of plan assets were $1.8 billion, and the present value of liabilities is $3.0 billion. My estimate could be under what is necessary, since so many participants will not see any reduction in their benefits.

While we wait for this process to unfold, it might be helpful for all musicians, and especially those close to retirement or retired and under age 80, to calculate how this might impact them. In preparing your financial plan, we can estimate your PBGC Guarantee and consider how your payout might be calculated at a 35% reduction or other level. In some cases, this may merit changes to your retirement expenses or planning. I’d suggest looking into this now rather than waiting until 2021.

Please feel free to email me with your questions or if you are looking for a financial planner. I am accepting new clients. While I am prohibited from providing individual advice to non-clients, I may be able to help with general questions or discuss your topics in a future post. A great resource is also the FAQ section on the AFM-EPF website. As new information becomes available, I will be sure to update here at Finance For Musicians.