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Does Uncle Sam comply with the DOL fiduciary rule?

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The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing on the nomination of R. Alexander Acosta to be the next Labor secretary earlier this month.

Related: 7 things Trump’s new DOL pick knows about benefits

One of the shocking moments in the hearing came when Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked Acosta about the Labor secretary’s role as the head of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

Franken pointed out that the looming failure of the Central States retirement fund could affect $60 billion in pension obligations, and about 20,000 Minnesota residents.

“One of the largest pension crises in American history could land on your desk,” Franken said.

Franken asked Acosta to tell him how he’d solve that crisis.

Acosta, who got the U.S. Justice Department into the business of fighting Medicare fraud in Miami, and who seemed notably more inclined than other recent cabinet secretary nominees to give concrete answers to the hearing questions asked, declined to say what he would do about the possible failure of the Central States fund and other multi-employer pension funds.

“I have not proposed a plan,” Acosta said. “I have not seen a plan proposed, that has worked, in the past decade.”

The pension failure crisis is likely to be a $2 trillion crisis, Acosta said.

“This is a fundamental issue we’ve got to think about,” Acosta said.

Both the Executive Branch and Congress have to join together to come up with a solution, he said.

On the one hand: Acosta’s answer showed that he both understands the nature of the crisis and has the commonsense to know that he doesn’t have a simple solution.

On the other hand: The nature of that crisis hints at why so many of the post Dodd-Frank efforts to keep anything bad from happening to investors ever again, and to make sure retirement investment advisors’ interests first, seem so wildly off the mark.

The U.S. Department of Labor has been trying to impose a fiduciary rule on agents and advisors, while, for example, collecting premiums for the PBGC, which is shaky. If the DOL were a retirement plan administrator forcing employers and employees to contribute to a shaky retirement plan, would that comply with fiduciary rule standards?

Related: Texas judge denies emergency request to block DOL fiduciary rule

The trustees of defined-benefit pension funds are already fiduciaries. The PBGC is supposed to back the pension funds, and the U.S. government backs the PBGC. One would think that one could assume that the U.S. government puts the interests of the people first.

But, of course, the PBGC and the U.S. government are about as much fiduciaries as carnies asking onlookers to find the pea.

The poorly examined truth that propped up the mortgage market in 2007 is that home buyers just about always make their mortgage payments, and home prices almost always go up, so securities backed by mortgages were safe.

The central poorly examined truth propping up the U.S. financial services sector now is the idea that the U.S. government always pays its bills, can just about always borrow any money needed to pay the bills, and, in theory, if necessary, could print money with a meaningful value to make up for any shortfalls.

Regulators speak loudly about the failings of health insurers that raise premiums, and of long-term care insurers that raise premiums and have financial problems.

They aren’t talking enough about what we’ll do about the $2 trillion hole in our pension system.


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