Friday, February 27, 2009
This article examines the recent trend of transferring employer retiree health care liabilities to VEBAs. After providing a brief history of retiree health benefits and an overview of the basic tax rules governing VEBAs, the article explains the difference between traditional VEBAs and the new retiree health VEBAs. The article then discusses the advantages and limitations of the new VEBAs. The article concludes that the new VEBAs may be an appropriate vehicle for pre-funding retiree health benefits for some employers, particularly financially distressed employers with significant retiree health liabilities and large union forces, but they are not a panacea for the country's health care financing woes.
As Moore points out, in theory, VEBAs should insulate retired and retiring employees from firm performance: if the firm tanks, money should be left in the VEBA to fund current and future retiree health care. The rub is described in Section 7.06: firms often fund VEBAs with company stock, which by definition is worthless if the firm tanks.
In fact, I'd go even a step farther, and suggest (based only on anecdotal, and no empirical, evidence) that a large proportion of firms (automakers, auto parts suppliers) that have been setting up VEBAs in the last year or so are firms that expect to tank, and that are using VEBAs as a vehicle to dump their underfunded retiree health care liabilitesknowing full well that the deposited "assets" are or soon will be worthless. Their balance sheets look a little better now, and PBGC will be paying the piper later.