The Financial Politics of Occupational Pensions: A Business Interests Perspective
Natascha van der Zwan, Institute of Public Administration, Leiden University
Chapter in Dennie Oude Nijhuis (ed.) 2019, Business Interests and the Development of
the Modern Welfare State, London: Routledge.
One of the most important contributions of the business interest scholarship to studies of
comparative social policy is the insight that employer opposition or support for welfare is
not a given, but strongly dependent on the economic and political environment in which
employers operate. Common explanations of business support for welfare provisions focus
on the moral convictions of enlightened entrepreneurs, the need for skilled workers, or the
possibility to avoid taxation by shifting corporate profits into benefit plans (cf. Sass 1997;
Nijhof 2009). Business interest scholars have complicated these views by showing how
factors such as the degree of exposure to international markets or the reliance on generic
or specific skills in the labor force explain variation in business preferences within, but also
across political economies (cf. Swenson 1991; Mares 2003). Moreover, these scholars have
shown important variation over time, as employers responded to political challenges posed
by labor unions and the state (Hacker and Pierson 2002; Paster 2013). Depending on
contextual factors, employers can therefore act as protagonists, antagonists or consenters
towards social policy (Korpi 2006).
The current chapter will explore how the financialization of the political economy
during the last quarter of the 20th century has influenced business preferences for
occupational pensions. Financialization refers to “the increasing role of financial motives,
financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions” (Epstein 2005: 3). In few areas
of the welfare state has financialization been as pronounced as in the area of occupational
pensions. Occupational pensions can be financed in various ways: for instance, through
book reserves, a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) system, or by capital funding. Because capital
funding allows pension savings to grow over time beyond the mere sum of contributions,
it has become a preferred policy option to deal with the budgetary challenges associated
with demographic ageing (e.g. World Bank 1994). Additionally, states have tried to offset
budgetary pressures on the first pillar of the pension system (state pensions) by
incentivizing pension provisions within the second pillar (occupational pensions), a
process known as pension privatization (Ebbinghaus 2011). The result is a growing
importance of the second pillar in pension systems across political economies, coinciding
with growing dependence of occupational pensions on investment in financial markets.
Capital-funded pension schemes, however, do not automatically lower the costs of
occupational pensions; they also introduce new kinds of risk. In the case of capital funding,
risk stems from the performance of pension plan assets in financial markets: while the logic
behind capital funding starts from the assumption that investment of plan assets will
generate positive returns, there is always the chance that in fact losses will be incurred.
Who carries the investment risk associated with capital-funded occupational pensions
depends on the nature of the pension plan. Defined Benefit (DB) plans, that promise a
particular pension outcome, commonly attribute the risk to employers. Should
underfunding occur, employers will need to either increase their contributions to the plan
or make repair payments. In the case of Defined Contribution (DC) pension plans, whereby
not the benefit but the contribution rates are guaranteed, such investments risks fall to the
beneficiary of the plan, the employee.
The central argument proposed in this chapter is that capital funding has important
ramifications for business preferences towards occupational pensions. With capital
funding, the extent to which these plans can protect against the social risks associated with
old age has become partially dependent on the financial risks stemming from capital
funding. Financialization thus turns an influential argument in the business interests
scholarship on its head, namely that, depending on size and industry, employers might be
willing to incur higher risks to gain more control over social welfare provisions (Mares
2003): as financialization reduces the possibilities for control over occupational pension
provisions, employers will be more likely to adopt political preferences aimed at risk
reduction. Contrary to the traditional focus point of welfare state scholarship, the financial
politics of occupational pensions does not necessarily manifest itself as a distributive
conflict between business, labor and the state. Equally important are political contestations
over funding rules for pension plans or the investment of plan assets, as well as the impact
of pension liabilities on corporate finance. The financial politics of occupational pensions
thus occupies a different terrain than normally associated with occupational pension
As plan sponsors, employers have a strong stake in the financial politics of
occupational pensions. Solvency rules that impose funding levels on pension plans
determine whether contributions need to be raised or can be lowered. Accounting standards
determine how pension liabilities should appear on corporate accounts. The visibility of
these pension liabilities shapes the ability of the corporation to attract outside investors.
Investment rules determine the extent to which pension assets can be invested in particular
asset categories. For employers, asset categories with higher rates of return are more
attractive, because they may allow them to lower contributions. For these reasons, we
would expect employers and their interest organizations to take strong positions on each of
these three policy issues: solvency rules that minimize the financial burden on the plan
sponsor, less stringent reporting requirements of pension liabilities, and relatively liberal
investment rules that give large discretionary power to investment managers. In this
chapter, employer preferences vis-à-vis these three policy area will be further explored.
The argument presented here will be advanced through a comparative case study of
the United States and the Netherlands. Both the United States and the Netherlands have
mature, three-pillar pension. When it comes to the institutional characteristics of each
system, however, the United States and the Netherlands constitute most different cases. In
the Netherlands, almost all private sector workers participate in occupational pension plans,
while plan coverage in the United States is low. Additionally, Dutch occupational pension
plans are overwhelmingly defined benefit (DB), whereas in the United States defined
contribution (DC) plans dominate. Finally, the Dutch pension system has strong corporatist
features: unions bargain collectively with employers over occupational pension plans at the
company or industry level; unions and employers jointly define pension policy within
corporatist institutions at the national level; and, employees (and retiree) representatives
jointly govern pension funds with employers. In the United States, by contrast, joint
governance is only required for multi-employers pension funds.
Yet, while important institutional differences exist between the American and
Dutch pension systems, they share a strong likeness when it comes to the influence of
financial markets on pension outcomes. In both pension systems, capital funding is the
legally mandated method of financing for occupational pensions. Additionally, both
pension systems have relatively liberal investment regimes. Instead of substantive
investment restrictions, which are common in other political economies, Dutch and
American pension assets need to be invested in accordance with an open legal norm, the
prudent person rule. Finally, capitalization rates of both pension systems are well above
the OECD average of 37.1%, namely 79.4% for the United States and 171.4% for the
Netherlands in 2015 (OECD 2017a). With both pension systems deeply entrenched in
global financial markets, we should therefore expect a similar financial politics of
occupational pensions in both pension system regardless of their institutional differences.
In this chapter, I will compare business groups’ positions vis-à-vis occupational
pensions in the Netherlands and the United States from the 1980s until today. Dutch
employers are represented by the VNO-NCW (Verbond van Nederlandse Ondernemingen-
Nederlands Christelijk Werkgeversbond), a federation of employer associations
representing almost all large Dutch enterprises and 80% of medium-sized firms among its
membership. Its American counterparts are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business
Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers. The American Benefits
Council is a lobby organization in the area of occupational benefits, representing large
employers. The political preferences held by these organizations will be inferred from the
positions communicated in white papers, brochures, issue briefs and other publications.
Other sources of evidence include congressional or parliamentary documents related to
occupational pension reform and documents produced by consultative bodies in the
Netherlands, such as the Socio-Economic Council, and for the American case, documents
related to public consultations on occupational pensions.
The outline of this chapter is as follows. Section 1 will further elaborate on the
financial politics of workplace pensions by addressing what does this financial politics
entail and how it corresponds with scholarly insights on the social politics of workplace
pensions. Section 2 will introduce the two case studies of the United States and the
Netherlands by giving a brief outline of recent developments in both pension systems. The
next three sections will subsequently address one of the main issues associated with the
financial politics of workplace pensions: issues of plan funding, the impact of pension
liabilities on corporate finance in light of the financialization of the modern firm, and the
role of pension funds as financial intermediaries. In all three sections, the positions of
business federations will be taken as the point of departure.
2. The Financial Politics of Occupational Pensions
The investment of pension capital in financial markets, argued here to be one manifestation
of a broader process known as financialization, has greatly facilitated the expansion of
occupational pension provisions. Thanks to fortuitous financial market conditions during
the last quarter of the twentieth century, pension assets have grown exponentially: in 2016,
private pension assets reached $38 trillion worldwide (OECD 2017b). Capital funding has
not only made possible the growth of savings beyond the initial contributions. It has also
created a concentration of capital that can be used for investment in the productive
economy. For that reason, the expansion of capital-funded pensions has not only been
sought by groups directly benefiting from these provisions (e.g. workers and unions), but
also by actors seeking indirect returns from pension investment (e.g. state and business
actors) (Estevez-Abe 2001; McCarthy 2017). Financialization, however, has increased the
exposure of occupational pension plans to volatilities in global financial markets. The
extent to which these plans can protect against the social risks associated with old age has
therefore become partially dependent on the financial risks stemming from capital funding.
The financial risks associated with capital-funded occupational pension plans are
mitigated by institutional arrangements, in particular plan design and plan governance.
Occupational pensions are generally Defined Benefit (DB) plans, Defined Contribution
(DC) plans, or a combination thereof. DB pensions guarantee a particular outcome at
retirement, for instance 70% of a beneficiary’s average salary. DC pensions, on the
contrary, are schemes with fixed contribution rates, but variable outcomes at retirement.
The height of the pension is based on the investment returns accumulated during the
beneficiary’s career. Particularly DB plans can be costly for employers, since the plan
sponsor is responsible for delivering the promised benefit: should the plan be underfunded,
then the sponsor is expected to remedy the situation by increasing contributions or making
a capital injection into the fund.
Plan governance also mediates the impact of financial risks. Occupational pension
plans are managed either by single-employer funds (in the Netherlands: company pension
funds) or by multi-employer (industry) pension funds. In the case of multi-employer funds,
important risks associated with DB pension plans, such as longevity risk or investment risk,
can be shared within the collective. Multi-employer funds might have an additional
advantage over single-employer funds, as these funds often have labor representatives on
their boards of trustees. Evidence suggests that labor unions have a moderating impact on
financial volatility, as their board presence translates into more conservative investment
policies (Wiβ 2015). By extension, pension funds in coordinated market economies seem
to experience less financial volatility and losses than in liberal market economies due to
the strong entrenchment of labor unions in these systems (Wiβ 2015).
Yet, the risk associated with the investment of pension assets does not just make
plan funding unpredictable. It also affects the corporation’s position in the financial
marketplace. As with occupational pensions, the nature of corporate finance has changed
drastically since the 1980s as a result of the modern corporation’s growing reliance on
stock market financing (Van der Zwan 2014). Stock market financing has reinforced the
position of the shareholder in the firm. Corporate activities are increasingly aimed at
satisfying shareholders’ demands for return on investment. Business practices associated
with a shareholder value orientation include the dismantlement of corporate conglomerates
for a focus on “core business activities,” share value as measure of corporate performance,
and a focus on short-term results (Davis 2009). Public corporations may also perceive
pressures to abandon DB pension plans, as shareholders tend to respond negatively to large
pension liabilities (Dixon and Monk 2009). While these changes have been most
pronounced in Anglo-American political economies, scholarship suggests that similar
developments have taken place in the continental European political economies as well
(Van der Zwan 2014).
While the financialization of occupational pensions poses additional risks,
employers have had few opportunities to control such risks. Pension funds commonly
outsource asset management of their plans to external investment firms. The further
removed the investment of plan assets from the plan sponsor, the more difficult it becomes
for the plan sponsor to exert influence over the investments (Ebbinghaus and Wiβ 2011).
Employers will therefore have to resort to other means to reduce the financial risks
associated with occupational pensions, most importantly changes to plan design. Hacker
(2004), for instance, considers the growing popularity of DC pension plans in the United
States part of a broader “risk shift,” whereby both state and business actors offload the risks
associated with the provision of retirement security onto individual workers. Short of a
complete transition to DC pensions, employers may also change the conditions of their DB
plans, such introducing a contributions cap or removing the responsibility to make repair
payments (Bridgen and Meyer 2009). Financialization thus alters the balancing act of risk
and control that shape employers’ preferences towards social policy: absent control over
global financial markets, employers will seek out alternative means of risk reduction.
Paradoxically, then, financialization may increase calls on the state for additional
regulation. Where employers deem a switch from DB to DC pension plans undesirable or
politically unfeasible, state regulation offers an alternative means to reduce risk. Scholars
of business interests have commonly seen state regulation as a factor inhibiting the
expansion of private welfare provisions. According to Hacker, for instance, the “essential
dilemma raised by subsidized private benefits” is that “any regulation that drives up costs
or interferes with corporate goals will undoubtedly reduce the incentive of employers to
sponsor benefits in the first place” (2002: 157; see also, Meyer and Bridgen 2012). In the
case of capital-funded pensions, however, state regulation can smoothen financial market
shocks and thus make capital-funded pension plans more stable and secure. For that reason,
both business groups and labor unions have sought regulation in this area.
In what follows, this argument will be underscored by comparing the financial
politics of occupational pensions in the United States and the Netherlands around three
issues: solvency rules, financial disclosure rules, and corporate governance regulation. In
particular, the analysis will show that in both political economies, business groups have
sought financial rules that reduce requirements for employers to raise contributions or
make repair payments in situations of underfunding, disclosure rules that downplay the role
of pension liabilities on the corporate account, and corporate governance rules that limit
3. Risk and Control in Two Pension Systems
Both the United States and the Netherlands have mature, three-pillar pension systems.
Occupational pensions have been in place in both political economies since the late 19th
century, for instance at American Express in the United States (1875) and the Delftse Gist-
en Spiritusfabriek, a chemical company (1886), in the Netherlands. Many of these early
schemes had strict eligibility rules and payout of benefits was uncertain. In both systems,
occupational pensions were traditionally seen as gifts, which the employer bestowed upon
his employees. For that reason, they were left relatively unregulated by the state. In both
political economies, moreover, the number of occupational pension plans increased rapidly
in the postwar period: the difficulty to attract skilled workers during wartime, post-war
labor union mobilization, and the introduction of universal state pension schemes, each of
these factors contributed to the expansion of private pension provisions (Van der Zwan
In a similar vein, the failure of two workplace pension plans as a result of employer
bankruptcy – the Koninklijke Hollandsche Lloyd in the Netherlands (1935) and the
Studebaker car manufacturer in the United States (1963) – provided the impetus for new
pension legislation in both countries. Both the Pension and Savings Fund Act (Pensioen-
en Spaarfondsenwet, 1952) and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (1974)
imposed several restrictions on occupational plans in order to safeguard employees’
pensions: the pension plan had to be managed by a legal entity separate from the sponsoring
corporation; the pension plan had to be financed by capital funding; and investment of plan
assets in the sponsoring corporation were restricted. The effect of these legal rules has been
the creation of pension funds as large financial intermediaries, legally detached from the
sponsoring firm, in search of investment opportunities within global financial markets.
Despite these commonalities, the institutional differences between the American
and Dutch pension systems remain vast. First, most Dutch employers are required to offer
an occupational pension scheme to their employees, while the American second pillar
remains voluntarist. Consequently, participation rates in the Netherlands are high (96%),
but relatively low in the United States (50% of private sector workers) (DNB 2017a;
Bureau of Labor Statistics 2017). Second, pension fund governance differs in both systems.
Dutch employer associations and labor unions bargain collectively over occupational
pension schemes. They are also jointly responsible for pension fund governance. In the
United States, bipartite governance is only required for multi-employer plans, which cover
a minority of private sector workers (18% of workers with DB plans) (BLS 2016). Third,
corporatism characterizes pension policy-making in the Netherlands, but not in the United
States. The Socio-Economic Council, in which employer and labor unions are represented
alongside academic expert, serves as an important advisory body to the Dutch government.
The institutional contexts of the Dutch and American pension systems present
employers with very different possibilities for discretionary action, when it comes to
occupational pensions. The position of Dutch employers is constrained by institutional
features such as the mandatory extension of collectively bargained pension plans, tripartite
governance of pension funds boards, and regulations stemming from the national and
supranational levels. These features do not only make it more difficult for Dutch employers
to opt out of the pension system, but also restrict their ability to change the second pillar
from within. American employers, meanwhile, benefit from a high degree of voluntarism
within the second pillar. There is no (quasi-)mandate to offer an occupational pension plan
to employees and labor unions tend to be weak when it comes to pension fund governance
(McCarthy 2017). For these reasons, it is expected that Dutch employers will be less likely
than American employers to translate their policy preferences into actual policy change.
The discretionary power of American employers over occupational pensions has
manifested itself in the widespread adoption of defined contribution (DC) pension plans,
since the passage of ERISA in 1974. The number of private sector workers with a DB
pension plan has since dropped from more than 80% in the early 1980s to 15% in 2017
(Ghilarducci 2008; Bureau of Labor Statistics 2017). More than half of private industry
workers and around 20% of public sector workers do not participate in occupational
pension plans to begin with. Scholars have attributed the switch from DB to DC plans to
several factors. Some have pointed at the preferential regulatory treatment of DC plans,
particularly 401(k) plans, over DB plans in terms of tax advantages and reporting
requirements (Zelinsky 2007). Others have attributed these changes in private welfare to
American class politics. To them, the widespread dismissal of DB plans is representative
of the political weakening of organized labor vis-à-vis business (McCarthy 2017). Finally,
scholars argue that the decline in DB plans reflects broader shifts in the American
economy, such as de-unionization, deindustrialization and the flexibilization of
employment. They find that DB plans are more common among unionized firms, among
manufacturing firms and among workers with longer careers (Hacker 2002).
The DB pension plans that remain are facing several challenges. First, many DB
plans are severely underfunded. According to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation
(2015), the total deficit of its insured single-employer and multi-employer plans ran almost
$900 billion in 2014. State and local government employee pension plans face similar
problems. Mitchell (2014) estimates that fifteen states will exhaust their state pension fund
assets before the year 2025. Second, where large deficits exist, some employers have opted
to suspend DB pension benefits or freeze their DB pension plans entirely. Since the turn of
the century, pension freezes have occurred at several large manufacturing corporations,
including Bethlehem Steel (2002), Polaroid (2002), and IBM (2006). Third, some
employers have undertaken so-called “de-risking” activities, whereby regular pension
benefits are replaced by lump sum payments or transferred to an insurance company.
According to Maher (2016), pension “de-risking” has involved over $100 billion in recent
years at well-known corporations, such as General Motors, Ford and Motorola. The effect
of these developments has been a further risk transfer from employers to employees and
retirees participating in DB pension plans.
The financial risk for American DB plans is partially offset by a public insurance
system, run by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). The PBGC is a federal
agency that takes over pension liabilities in case a DB pension plan is terminated due to
financial distress of the sponsoring firm. The agency is financed by insurance premiums
for each plan participant in the system, which are charged to sponsoring employers. Over
the years, these rates have steadily increased: from a $1 rate per participant at the agency’s
inception in 1974, to $69 per participant in 2017. The PBGC also charges employers a
variable rate premium for unfunded pension liabilities. In 2017, the variable rate was $34
per participant for each $1000 in unfunded pension liabilities (PBGC 2015). Nonetheless,
the PBGC is facing large deficits: $20.5 billion for the single-employer program and $58.8
billion for the multi-employer program in 2016 (PBGC 2015). The deficit is caused
predominantly by large terminations in the past, particularly in the airline and metal
industries (PBGC 2015). In 2005, for instance, United Airlines defaulted on its DB pension
plans, moving a historic $10 billion in unfunded pension liabilities to the PBGC.
At first sight, the Netherlands remains a bulwark of DB pensions: only 9.15% of
pension schemes are DC (DNB 2017). Yet, since the mid-1990s, changes to DB pension
plans have gradually shifted risks from employers to employees. In 1997, for instance, the
social partners and the state signed a Covenant on Occupational Pensions, in which the
social partners committed to reduce pension costs by replacing more expensive final salary
pension plans with average salary plans. By 2001, around a third of all fund members
participated in an average salary plan, against 15% in 1989 (Werkgroep
Evaluatieonderzoek Convenant Arbeidspensioenen 2001). During the same period,
moreover, almost all pension funds made indexation of pension rights conditional on
investment performance, covering around 90,4% of active participants (Werkgroep
Evaluatieonderzoek Convenant Arbeidspensioenen 2001). Finally, a growing number of
large employers have shifted from DB pension plans to Collective Defined Contribution
(CDC) plans over the last two decades. By adopting a new plan design, these employers
have severed the ties between the occupational pension fund and the sponsoring firm.
While not as profound as in the United States, the risk shift that has taken place in
the Netherlands has had direct impact on pension outcomes. Average funding rates dropped
after the financial crises of 2001 and 2008: from 199% in 199 to 124% in 2001 and further
down to 95% by the end of 2008 (DNB 2017). While the 2001 crisis provided the impetus
for a broad shift towards average salary DB plans and conditional indexation, the 2008
crisis saw the effects of these measures: with contribution increases political unfeasible,
several pension funds had to take the unprecedented action of reducing the pension
entitlements of active and retired workers. According the Dutch Central Bank, these
cutbacks affected around 5.6 million people in 2013 and about 2.5 million people in 2014
(DNB 2013, 2014). To place these numbers in perspective: in both years, the Dutch pension
funds counted around 5.5 million among their active members and around 3.1 million
retirees (DNB 2013, 2014).
Both American and Dutch occupational pension provisions have undergone
profound changes, associated with the risk shift as described by Hacker (2002).
Remarkably, these changes occurred despite relative institutional stability within both
pension systems. Furthermore, while profound shifts taking place in the United States can
undoubtedly be at least partially explained by the declining power of organized labor, such
explanations do not hold for the Netherlands, where labor unions continue to occupy strong
institutionalized positions within the pension system. Instead, I argue that the policy
changes taking place in both pension systems should be considered against the background
of increased financial risks, stemming from financialization. In what follows, I will focus
on three policy areas in which employers have lobbied for new rules and regulations in
attempts to offset these new financial risks: solvency rules, disclosure requirements and
4. Keeping Pension Funds Solvent
Occupational pension plans can either impose large burdens on employers or become
lucrative windfalls, depending on market conditions largely outside of their control.
Favorable stock markets in the 1980s and 1990s provided a boost to funding levels in both
the United States and the Netherlands. Employers profited from pension funds’ good
financial performance in several ways. Between 1980 and 1989, for instance, American
employers transferred some $20 billion in excess assets back to the sponsoring corporation,
in many cases terminating their DB plans and replacing them with DC plans (Kosterlitz
1989). In the Netherlands, employers likewise awarded themselves a number of financial
perks, such as contribution refunds and premium holidays (Tamerus 2011). Such practices
came to a screeching halt, however, when financial market conditions changed
dramatically at the turn of the century: the burst of the tech bubble in 2001 heralded a new
period of stock market volatility and low long-term interest rates, which both negatively
affected funding levels in pension funds. Employers thus faced a new challenge: how to
keep pension plans solvent amidst fluctuating investment performance, when the
performance of these plans depended on markets outside of their control?
In both the United States and the Netherlands, the events of 2001 provided the
impetus for legislative reform of the solvency rules for pension funds. The Bush
Administration initiated the first major overhaul of American pension legislation since
ERISA in 1974. The President’s reform plan was not just motivated by the financial crisis,
but also by corporate scandals such as at Enron, that had brought to light the
misappropriation of employee pension savings by employers. The resultant 2006 Pension
Protection Act introduced new funding rules for pension funds: DB plan liabilities had to
be fully funded or otherwise amortized over a 7-year period. Plans facing underfunding
would be considered endangered or, in more severe cases, “at risk.” Depending on the
degree of underfunding, employers would need to make repair payments, avoid benefits
increases or even freeze benefits entirely. Similar rules were established for multi-
employer plans (Ghilarducci 2008; Zelinsky 2007).
While business groups generally expressed agreement with the intent behind the
legislation, they were critical of several elements of the Pension Protection Act. Together
with other business groups, the four organizations studied here formed a coalition to lobby
Congress for changes to the legislation. According to the American Benefits Council
(2005: 1), it was imperative that “funding obligations are neither artificially inflated nor
volatile, thus preventing employers from abandoning the system because of adverse effects
on business planning.” Opposition not only focused on the more stringent funding rules for
DB rules. Business groups also strongly resisted reform of the PBGC’s premium structure.
To remedy its funding problems, the PBGC proposed to switch to a risk-based premium
structure: premiums for well-funded plans would be cut, while those for at-risk plans would
be increased. In a joint letter to Congress, the coalition stated it would be “inappropriate”
for a government agency to make “formal pronouncements about the financial status of
American businesses” (American Benefits Council et al. 2011). Finally, the coalition
criticized the restrictions on self-investment in 401(k) plans and advocated permanent
funding relief for multi-employer plans (American Benefits Council et al. 2011).
The 2008 financial crisis exacerbated business opposition to the Pension Protection
Act. Estimates suggest that DB plan funding levels had dropped 13 percentage points to an
average of 85% by October 2008 (Munnell et al. 2008). Declining performance, mostly
due to depressed stock market performance, threatened plan funding levels with the legal
requirement to make substantial repair payments: an estimated $90 billion for the year 2009
alone (Munnell et al. 2008). Again, a broad coalition of business groups called on Congress
to postpone the PPA’s funding requirements, citing poor financial market performance and
the Fed’s low interest rate regimes (American Benefits Council 2012). Their opposition
proved successful: in various rounds of legislation, the PPA’s funding standards for single-
employer and multi-employer pension funds were slowly reduced. Labor unions supported
funding relief for DB plans as well, albeit reluctantly. The AFL-CIO hoped to make
funding relief conditional on employers’ promise not to freeze benefit for the foreseeable
future (Halonen 2010). The labor federation’s opposition proved unsuccessful. Per new
2014 rules, it has become possible to suspend pension benefits for multi-employer pension
plans were made possible.
In the Netherlands, solvency requirements for pension funds also underwent
important changes from the late 1990s onwards. Previously, pension plans had to be either
reinsured with commercial insurance companies or managed in accordance with actuarial
principles under the supervision of the Dutch Central Bank. Consultations with the social
partners resulted in new solvency requirements in 2005 (Stichting van de Arbeid 2004).
Starting points of these requirements was the maintenance of nominal pension entitlements
and the creation of capital buffers. To this end, a minimum funding level of 105% was
introduced. Pension funds would have to organize their asset management to ensure a
97.5% certainty that funding levels would not drop below 100%. Meanwhile, contribution
rates would have to cover not just nominal entitlements, but also buffer requirements,
indexation measures and the costs of fund management (Tamerus 2011).
The new financial framework (financieel toetsingskader, FTK) came into operation
right at the onset of the 2008 financial crisis. As funding levels plummeted and many
pension funds had to submit repair plans to the Central Bank, social partners began to
experience the constraints of the FTK. According to the Dutch Labour Foundation, the
FTK institutionalized two conflicting goals for occupational pension plans. On the one
hand, nominal pension entitlements presumed stable funding levels and sufficient financial
buffers. On the other hand, pension funds had to realize indexation of pension entitlements,
which presumed investment risk (STAR 2013). When the Minister of Social Affairs
announced a new broad-scale reform of the pension system in 2009, the social partners
therefore advocated new funding rules that would make contributions and outcomes
“independent of daily fluctuations in financial markets” (STAR 2013: 2). In 2010, social
partners agreed on a new Pension Accord, that included the following policy changes: a
ten-year period to amortize financial shocks; an automatic adjustment mechanism to tie
retirement age to increases in life expectancy; and the calculation of funding ratios over a
twelve-month period (STAR 2013). The new legislation also made an end to some of the
control employers had over the financial management of the pension plans, by banning the
possibility of contribution holidays or refunds to the corporation (STAR 2013).
In short, from the turn of the century onwards, employers in both countries began
to feel the constraints of the financial marketplace. Financial market volatility not only
impacted the costs of occupational pension plans. As firms themselves became more reliant
on market financing, other pressures associated with financialization became apparent as
well. These will be explored in the next section.
5. Occupational Pensions and the Financialized Corporation
The financialization of the modern corporation forms another source of risk, associated
with pension plans’ methods of funding, particularly in the case of DB pensions. DB
pension plans combine a strong pension promise, such as 70% of the average enjoyed
salary, with the uncertainties stemming from financial market investment. Since employers
ultimately carry the risks in these plans, their costs of sponsoring the pension plan may
fluctuate from one year to the next, depending on the investment performance of the fund.
For this reason, investors tend to consider large DB pension liabilities as perilous to the
realization of shareholder value. Credit rating agencies are likewise known to penalize
public firms for the existence of DB pension plans, particularly when underfunded (Dixon
and Monk 2009). For this reason, firms with a strong reliance on financial markets might
want to reduce or altogether eliminate the financial risks associated with DB pension plans.
Due to financial markets’ penalization of firms with large DB pension liabilities,
business groups have not welcomed legislative proposals to increase corporate disclosure
of such liabilities. In the United States, for instance, policymakers involved in the Pension
Protection Act suggested tying reporting standards for at-risk plans to a corporation’s credit
ratings. If credit-rating agencies considered particular firms to be risky investments and
assign below-investment grade evaluations, so the logic was, wouldn’t this also mean these
firms’ pension plans were at risk? Business groups disagreed. According to the American
Benefits Council (2004: 22), “such misleading disclosures could unnecessarily and falsely
alarm employees, financial markets, and shareholders.” When the PBGC similarly
proposed more stringent reporting requirements for the same category of firms, both the
American Benefits Council (2010) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (2013) opposed
the proposal. In both cases, business opposition was successful.
Reporting requirements stemming from international accounting standards have
furthermore exacerbated the penalization of DB pension liabilities in global financial
markets. Accounting standards set rules for how companies need to report their pension
liabilities on their annual corporate statements. In the European Union, corporations need
to follow International Accounting Standard 19, part of the International Accounting
Standard Board’s (IASB) International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). Central to
IAS 19 is the notion of “fair value” accounting, requiring firms to report the market value
of their pension assets and liabilities on their corporate accounts (Perry and Nölke 2006).
According to Dixon and Monk (2009: 625), fair value accounting is contradictory to the
very nature of pension liabilities: “In effect, fair value redirects short-term fluctuations in
the pension funds (which are by their very nature long-term institutions), directly into
short-term corporate financial statements.” In the United States, the Financial Accounting
Board (FASB) has required plan sponsor to use similar accounting methods. The FASB
and the IASB aim to harmonize their standards, with the goal of establishing one method
of valuating firms across the globe.
Unsurprisingly, neither American nor Dutch employer associations have shown
strong support for the harmonization of international accounting standards. In the United
States, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (2012: 13) condemned the reporting standards,
stating that these standards “have discouraged the continuation of defined benefit pension
and retiree health care plans.” According to the Chamber, “FASB’s requirements create a
picture of immediacy on the balance sheet for a defined benefit plan even though it is to be
funded and perpetuated over the course of decades” (U.S. Chamber of Commerce (2012:
13). Likewise, the Dutch VNO-NWC has lobbied extensively against the IAS 19
provisions. A broad coalition of organized business, labor unions, and pension funds called
on the Dutch government to negotiate an exemption for DB plans in Brussels. In 2013, the
business federation announced a compromise had been reached: if the pension plan
contained a contribution ceiling for the employer, then the firm would be able to treat a DB
plan as a DC plan in its corporate account and only report paid contributions (VNO-NCW
While VNO-NCW celebrated the 2013 modification of IAS19 as a victory,
however, Dutch employers have nonetheless abandoned their company pension funds in
large numbers. Since the introduction of IAS 19 in 2005, more than 70% company pension
funds have disappeared, either through liquidation or merger with other pension funds. At
least some of this decline can be attributed to the new pension accounting standards,
particularly among the Netherlands’ largest corporations. Swinkels (2011) shows how
immediately after the implementation of IAS 19 in 2006 already 12 of the 44 largest Dutch
company pension plans announced plan to place their company pension funds “at a
distance” from the firm. Other large employers have followed suit since then, including
Philips, ING and ABN AMRO. Consider how ABN AMRO (2014) announced its new
Collective Defined Contribution (CDC) plan: “With the [new pension plan], ABN AMRO
removes the volatility in its balance sheet and capital position introduced by the revised
pension accounting standard IAS 19 and reduces volatility in its pension expenses.”
Severing the ties between a company pension fund and the sponsoring firm,
however, comes at a cost. Some of these costs are purely financial. When Dutch employers
wish to place a company pension fund “at a distance” from the firm - for instance, by
ending repair payment requirements or introducing contribution ceilings - they need to win
the support from labor unions. In return for union support, employers often commit to hefty
compensation packages. Mining company DSM, for instance, promised to pay extra
pension contributions of 21% of the wage sum (amounting to €99 million) when it
negotiated a collective defined contribution scheme in 2006, while SNS Bank contributed
a one-time payment of €105 million to its pension fund to accomplish the same goal (Van
Bergen 2005). Once company pension funds become independent from the sponsoring
employer, the latter also loses control over the fund’s management, including its
investment policy. Loss of control also occurs when a company pension fund merges with
an industry pension fund. Such mergers have also grown more common in recent years
6. Pension Funds as Financial Intermediaries
Pension funds in both political economies have always been relatively free to invest. In the
United States, pension fund assets should be invested in accordance with the prudent
person rule: using care, due diligence and a sufficient degree of diversification. Likewise,
Dutch pension funds were guided by the open norm that pension assets be invested “in a
solid manner,” until the prudent person rule was introduced in 2008. In both political
economies, the most important restriction on pension fund investments are legal limits on
investments by single-employer pension funds in corporate stock of the sponsoring firm:
10% in the United States and 5% in the Netherlands. These legal rules severely limit the
ability of employers to mobilize pension capital for investment in the corporation. In
response to the Enron scandal in 2001, the Pension Protection Act initially suggested
similar restrictions for self-directed DC pension plans, whereby the employee makes the
investment decisions. American business groups successfully opposed the PPA’s limits on
self-investment and no such legal provisions ended up in the final legislation (Ghilarducci
Ironically, as pension funds have gained more autonomy from the sponsoring firm,
they have increasingly been able to exert influence over the corporation. As large financial
intermediaries, pension funds have vast ownership stakes in public corporations. As large
owners of corporate shares of stock, pension funds are no longer able to sell shares without
affecting market values. Instead, they will wield their powers as shareholders to influence
corporate decision-making, a phenomenon known as active ownership (Hebb 2008).
Shareholder engagement is often aimed at increasing shareholder value or introducing
other measures to strengthen the position of the shareholder within the corporation. Such
activities can be at odds with the preferences of the employer. In the United States, for
instance, the role of pension funds in the takeover movement of the 1980s was widely
questioned (Van der Zwan 2017). As pension funds have gained an important degree of
autonomy from the plan sponsor, therefore, their interests and those of employers are no
longer automatically aligned.
Dutch pension funds have similarly embraced active ownership. Corporate
engagement by pension funds entered the Netherlands in the context of the European
takeover movement of the 1990s. While large industry pension funds, such as public sector
fund ABP, announced they would protect Dutch firms against hostile takeovers, several
company pension funds desired an end to protective measures against takeovers (Butijn
and Schoutendorp 1995; Tamminga 1995). A Committee on Corporate Governance,
chaired by Unilever CEO Peters, was subsequently tasked with updating corporate
governance guidelines for Dutch firms. The committee explicitly stated that pension fund
beneficiaries would benefit from good corporate governance and therefore proposed a
stronger influence of capital providers, “in particular institutional investors” (Commissie
voor Corporate Governance 1997). Both business and labor groups alike adopted the
committee’s view that proxy voting is an essential element of pension investing. Still,
VNO-NCW (2017) repeated earlier appeals to Dutch pension funds to act as so-called
anchor owners, when it recently called on Dutch pension funds to block foreign hostile
takeovers of Dutch corporations.
The absence of direct control over pension fund assets notwithstanding, different
actors in the political economy have tried to harness the investment power of pension funds.
In both the Netherlands and the United States, government administrations during the
1980s used the threat of taxation to force pension funds to increase their investments in the
domestic productive economy (Van der Zwan 2017). More recently, the Rutte
Administration has called on Dutch pension funds to reduce foreign investments and
instead help stimulate the post-financial crisis Dutch economy. Labor unions, particularly
in the United States, have similarly tried to gain a piece of the pension pot. With labor
federation AFL-CIO in a coordinating role, American unions have adopted a “capital
stewardship” approach, in which they use shareholder engagement to effectuate changes
in corporate policies. American, organizing proxy campaigns amongst its member-
affiliated pension funds (Van der Zwan 2011). Often, these campaigns have a social or
political orientation. In the wake of the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United (2010),
for instance, the AFL-CIO and other labor-shareholders have submitted shareholder
proposals on disclosure of corporate expenditures on political activities.
American business groups have actively lobbied to legally prohibit unions and other
political organizations to use the proxy process for their activism. To employers,
shareholder campaigns are a big nuisance: not only do they impose costs on the firm, but
the negative publicity associated with these campaigns may also cause reputational damage
to the firm. The various political actions undertaken by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
are exemplary in this regard. Not only has the Chamber pressed for a legislative ban on
social or political investment of pension assets, it has also pursued legal actions against
activist pension funds as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission, that is
responsible for regulating the proxy process (Hebb 2008). In 2007, for instance, the
Chamber urged the Department of Labor to ban any pension investment that would “further
public policy debates and political activities through proxy resolutions that have no
connection to enhancing the cause of the plan’s investment in a company” (U.S.
Department of Labor 2007).
From an institutionalist perspective, the pension systems in the Netherlands and the United
States could not be more different: (quasi-)mandatory versus voluntary participation,
bipartite governance versus employer unilateralism, and corporatist policy-making versus
adversarial politics, respectively. Yet, the strong emphasis on institutions in welfare state
scholarship, and scholarship on comparative political economy in general, hides one
important similarity between the two systems: the predominance of capital funding in the
occupational pension system. While business interest scholars have emphasized the
importance of exposure to competition in international production markets to explain
employer support for social policy (cf. Swenson 1991; Mares 2003), this chapter has
extended these viewpoints to incorporate financial market exposure. When occupational
pensions are capital funded, the financial market performance of the plan’s assets has a
direct impact on the overall costs of the pension plan, while opportunities to exert control
over global financial markets are severely limited. Financialization, or the growing
influence of financial markets over the productive economy and society, thus changes the
trade-off between risk and control over occupational pensions in a profound way.
That the influence of financial markets over pension politics should not be
underestimated is indicated by the fact that the financial crisis of 2001 provided the impetus
for major pension reform in both political economies studied here: the Pension Protection
Act in the United States and the Pension Act in the Netherlands. Among other things, the
Pension Protection Act legally required full funding of DB pension plans and increased
PBGC premiums. With the Act, the Bush Administration hoped to strengthen DB pension
plans, which American employers were abandoning at full speed. In the Netherlands,
meanwhile, the 2006 Pension Act similarly introduced new financial rules for pension
funds. The Act institutionalized the hybridization of DB pension plans, a development
originating from the late 1990s. Contrary to the United States, Dutch employers used
consultative bodies such as the Socio-Economic Council to shape the new pension
legislation in light with their preferences, for instance in the area of solvency requirements.
Absent such institutions in the United States, American business groups joined forces in a
political lobby to avoid additional financial obligations for employers, with limited success.
It is important to note that neither in the United States, nor in the Netherlands
business groups were driving forces behind the pension reforms. Instead, the state took the
initiative. Once reform plans were announced, business tried to shape them in their
interests. For instance, American business groups joined forces in an extensive lobby
against the funding provisions of the Pension Protection Act, while in the Netherlands
business and labor jointly worked on new financial rules. American and Dutch business
groups were outright antagonistic, when it came to the harmonization of international
accounting standards, that would result in more stringent reporting requirements for DB
pension liabilities. As shareholder value has become the driving force behind corporate
activities, DB pension liabilities are increasingly at odds with the expectations from
investors, credit agencies and other financial market insiders. These findings confirm that
employers’ preferences vis-à-vis occupational pensions are not just motivated by cost
considerations, but also by the position of the firm in the financialized political economy.
When it comes to the financial politics of occupational pensions, business and labor
in both political economies did not always find themselves at opposing sides of the political
debate. This makes sense, since investment of pension assets holds similar promises, but
also threats for both parties: high rates of return might reduce contributions or increase
benefits, while low rates of return threaten funding levels and could result in higher
contributions or lower benefits. For this reason, both business and labor groups in the
United States supported funding relief for DB plans after the financial crisis of 2008, while
the Dutch social partners jointly drafted new solvency requirements for pension funds in
the wake of the 2001 crisis. Opposition between business and labor has been more
pronounced, however, when it comes the use of pension investments for secondary
purposes, such as politically-oriented shareholder campaigns. On this issue, American
business and labor have been diametrically opposed, as the latter has embraced shareholder
activism as a new political strategy. Here the difference with the Dutch case is most
apparent: Dutch unions have been reluctant to adopt an activist investment platform,
because they fear jeopardizing their institutionalized position within Dutch corporatism.
In short, both American and Dutch employers are withdrawing their support from
DB occupational pension plans. In the United States, employers have terminated DB plans
in favor of DC pensions or have adopted other “de-risking” strategies to avoid the large
liabilities associated with DB pensions. In the Netherlands, employers have so far avoided
a widespread adoption of DC plans. Instead, they have placed DB pension liabilities “at a
distance” from the sponsoring corporation in order to limit their exposure to financial risks.
These developments cannot be explained by distributive factors alone. As business
opposition to international accounting standards in both political economies shows,
employers also experience strains of an increasingly financialized political economy in the
areas of corporate finance and corporate governance. Whereas corporatist governance in
the Netherlands has been able to smoothen the effects of financialization to a larger extent
than in the United States, the threats and opportunities facing employers in both political
economies are remarkably similar. The position of employers within the financialized
political economy should therefore be incorporated into scholarship on business interests.
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