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January 21, 2005

Health Care, the New Pensions

Underfunded defined-benefit pensions are killing corporate giants. They've already taken out Bethlehem Steel and TWA, and now they're stalking airlines and car companies. The companies had to choose between huge cash flow diversions and remaining competitive. Sometimes, they didn't even get to choose.

Now, it's health care. From yesterday's Wall Street Journal:

A decision by the ratings company, while not imminent, would represent a significant symbolic blow to a 108-year-old company that has epitomized the strengths and weaknesses of the American manufacturing belt. It could also deal a financial hit to one that has recently relied on cheap borrowing to keep its costs low while it deals with foreign competition and rising health-care costs.

If this isn't a canary in the coal mine, I don't know what is. Smaller companies groan underneath the radar. But GM? (It's a shame their CFO doesn't have a blog.) GM may be decades away from failure, but western Pennsylvania had turned into a junkyard 20 years before Bethlehem finally went under. We don't have Europe's welfare state problems, but we do have the same laws of economics and mathemtics, and as interest rates rise, it's going to be harder for GM and others to play this shell game.

Defined contribution 401(k) have largely replaced defined benefit plans. Give us the money, we'll take care of ourselves. Health Care needs a comparable shift. Employers, as the deep pockets, have been subsidizing rising costs, and now even deeper pockets are being called in.

Health Savings Accounts (Ted Kennedy's shrieks of indignation notwithstanding) are a good start. Other ways to get decision-making back down to the consumer level need to be found.

Posted by joshuasharf at January 21, 2005 06:36 AM | TrackBack

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