GE’s pension pennies


October 8, 2019

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Today, dollar store backlash rises, and humongous Chinese hogs aren’t being fed for prizes, but first…

The Hustle Daily Email

America’s pension tension persists as GE freezes 20k retirement plans

General Electric, one of the few big businesses that still pays out private pensions, said it will freeze pension plans for 20k US employees and offer pension buyouts to another 100k former employees.

Pensions are a pricey problem for GE: Its pension programs face a roughly $22B deficit. Icing these pensions will reduce that deficit by $8B, the company says.

Private pensions used to be HOT

American Express became the first US company to offer a private pension in 1875. By 1930, many of the country’s largest companies — Standard Oil, AT&T, Goodyear, GE — offered pension programs to their ’ployees.

Pensions — AKA “defined benefit” plans — became popular among both employers (who didn’t pay federal corporate income tax on them) and employees (who liked getting predictable retirement checks).

In 1975, 88% of private-sector employees with retirement plans had pensions — they were the rocks upon which Americans built their Jimmy Buffett-inspired retirement dreams. 

But then prevalence of pensions plummeted: By 2005, just 33% of private-sector employees with retirement plans had pensions.

So, where-oh-where did all the pensions go?

To put it bluntly: They were 401(k)illed.

Pension-pocalypse came about largely by accident: In 1978, Congress added a new provision to the tax code — subsection 401(k) — that allowed wealthy executives a tax-free option to defer compensation.

The change was aimed at the 1% — and NOT meant to replace pensions — but the cost-saving benefits inadvertently inspired the Great Pension Pivot: In 5 years, nearly ½ of big biz was offering 401(k) programs — which were cheaper than pension programs.

Then, pension programs started FREEZING

In our new, 401(k)razy world, employees — not their employers, as before — are at risk when the markets take a turn for the worse. 

This leaves pension-payers like GE with huge costs: GE’s pension obligations are the worst in corporate America, and last year it contributed $6B to try to reduce its deficit.

By freezing its pension program, GE will stop paying out benefits to 20k formerly pensioned employees in 2021 and force them to join its 401(k) program instead (it stopped accepting new pension participants in 2012).

GE joins a number of other big businesses that have rolled back their pension promises in recent years: UPS, AIG, IBM, Boeing, and The Washington Post all changed pension plans since 2014.

» 401(k)razy

Humongous hogs could be the solution to China’s pork problem

A fix for China’s pork shortage could be straightforward: Raise the biggest pigs possible. 

As Bloomberg reports, one farmer in the Guangxi province has produced a 1.1k-pound animal… meaning this little piggy grew to polar-bear proportions.

China’s got a pig problem 

China is the world’s biggest pork consumer, consuming about 60m tons of swine each year — as much as the rest of the world combined.

After an African swine flu epidemic forced Chinese farmers to cull between 250m and 300m hogs — about half of the country’s pig population — wholesale pork prices shot up 70%.

China now faces a pork shortage of some 10m tons. So in addition to China tapping into its strategic swine reserves, the pressure is on to pump up production.

Bigger pigs make up for smaller numbers 

Although the porcine giant in Guangxi is an anomaly, big pigs are a big trend — especially on smaller farms. With sow prices now at a premium, smaller operations often can’t afford to replace all of their breeding stock.

Unable to produce more pigs, they produce bigger pigs. In the Jilin province, farmers are aiming for average weights of 385 to 400 pounds — up from the relatively svelte normal weight of 275 pounds.

Even China’s biggest producers say they are trying to increase the size of their hogs. The average weight of pigs at slaughter for these farms has climbed from 240 pounds to 310 pounds. The extra girth could help these farmers see profits climb by more than 30%.

» Piggy Makes Bank
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Another day, another squalor: US cities are working to curb the rise of dollar stores

According to the USDA’s most recent survey, around 19m people live in areas that lack access to grocery stores or supermarkets with healthy and affordable food options. These low-income communities are known as food deserts.

Experts say the break-neck expansion of dollar-store chains, which box out local mom-and-pop retailers and grocers that aim to provide fresh food in those neighborhoods, has exacerbated the problem.

Now, a number of US cities are passing laws to curb the mass consumption of off-brand Cheez-Its and pudding packs brought on by dollar-store growth.

You really do get what you pay for

There are about 30k dollar stores in the US today. Per Axios, that’s more than the total number of Walmarts and McDonald’s combined. And discount juggernauts like Dollar Tree and Dollar General — which became the fastest growing retailer in the US in 2018 — have no plans to stop.

Over the years, local newspapers in places like North Dakota and Minnesota have trashed dollar stores for killing home-grown businesses. Now, Alabama’s getting in the mix.

Birmingham — where close to 70% of city residents live in food deserts — has passed 2 laws prohibiting new dollar stores from opening within a mile of an existing location.

Of course, the discount giants disagree

“Our stores provide an affordable and convenient fill-in shopping option for our customers… all while creating more jobs and investing in the communities we serve,” said a Dollar Tree spokesperson.

Nonetheless, buck-o-backlash is picking up steam, and more and more cities, from towns like Hutchinson, Kansas, to big metros like Cleveland are looking to fight the spread.

» Sometimes cheaper is steeper

A new St. Louis bar wants to shake-not-stir up the industry

A new bar opened its doors in St. Louis this weekend, and it’s charging customers by the hour — challenging the time-honored business model of insane markups on alcohol. The olive in the martini? The bar, Open Concept, is using tech to make it happen.  

All drinks are on the house

According to Open Concept’s website, when you open a tab, you’re paying for access to the space — not the booze. The rates: $10/hr for a regular open bar, and $20 for top-shelf liquor. (Which still sounds like paying for drinks if you ask me… but tequila, tuh-qwila.)    

Tech keeps the drinks flowing. When you book time, you create a profile. The proprietary system spits out a confirmation code, which you show to the bartender to order drinks. 

But is it a rough draught of beer history?

The bar’s proprietor — and current city official — Michael Butler says he got the idea after open-bar fundraising events were successful during his campaign. 

Critics think Butler’s had a few too many. But others point at the hopping success of pour-your-own bars in recent years — and think by-the-hour bars could represent the proverbial next round of alcohol consumption.

» Pour one out for alcohol markups
What Else…

🧫 Nostalgia wins. Oobleck, AKA the shape-shifting slime you made from cornstarch and water back in kindergarten, has always been a mystery. Finally, MIT engineers are learning how to harness the non-Newtonian fluid, which could lead to new industrial advancements.

📻 Back to the future… Mariah Carey and other pop artists of yesteryear are finding their old hits back at the top of the new music charts — and they have TikTok to thank.

🚗 Where we’re going we do need roads. According to analysis from WaPo, your average commuter spent about 225 hours driving to work in 2018. That’s a lot of lost Netflix hours… 

🚬 People are leaving #vapenation, brah. Problem is, no one knows how to quit. And, according to Wired, a new text-based support line is gaining momentum because of it.

🚔 Plus: ALPR (automatic license plate readers) are making it damn near impossible for assailants to outrun the po-po in their getaway cars. And privacy advocates are blowing a head gasket over the successful surveillance tech.

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Once you sort that out, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be belly up on a beach in Bali, shipping products in between sipping Bintang and frozen daiquiris. 

Better hurry, though — they’re only offering it for free from October 8th-25th, so take advantage while you can. 

(And don’t forget your surfboard, boss.)

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Dear Hustle…

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Why does Bobby Durben look so scared in his profile photo on your email?

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Less is more. And the more you choose less, the harder you will work to understand the difference between “like” and “love.”

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— W. Schlag.

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