Saturday, May 11, 2013

"How the IRS Wrecked your Pension"

When tax shelters, aren't (MeganMcArdle via Instapundit):

Back in the day, long before the stock market boom began, the IRS decided that pension funds were a problem, taxwise. As I understand it, this problem was mostly in small professional practices like doctors and lawyers offices. The doctors and lawyers would employ one or two other people, most of them transient single women who could be expected to leave to get married long before their pension vested. So you’d set up a “pension plan” in which, realistically, you were going to be the beneficiary. Then you’d stuff it full of money, far more than you needed to pay out your pension. It was a pretty nice tax shelter.

So the IRS got very strict about pension overfunding: they didn’t allow it. Or rather, they allowed it, but they wouldn’t let you deduct any payments into an already overfunded plan. Farewell, tax shelter.

This was fine in the 1970s, when the market just sort of lay there like a dying fish, occasionally flopping around, but mostly just gasping for air. However, by the late 1990s, a whole lot of pension plans were overfunded. Which created something of a problem. In popular legend, all these pension fund managers were total idiots who didn’t understand that the market was in a bubble, dammit. Undoubtedly, in some cases, this legend is even true. But in most cases, it wasn’t. The pension consultants and money managers who were responsible for calculating the required contributions were well aware that the rocket-fuelled 1990s price increases were not likely to continue forever. They even understood that prices were likely to fall, leaving the funds not-so-funded. They wanted to keep pouring contributions into the funds in order to protect against the inevitable decline. But the IRS wouldn’t let them.

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