WASHINGTON - Just months before the start of last year's stock market collapse, the federal agency that insures the retirement funds of 44 million Americans departed from its conservative investment strategy and decided to put much of its $64 billion insurance fund into stocks.
Switching from a heavy reliance on bonds, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation decided to pour billions of dollars into speculative investments such as stocks in emerging foreign markets, real estate, and private equity funds.
The agency refused to say how much of the new investment strategy has been implemented or how the fund has fared during the downturn. The agency would only say that its fund was down 6.5 percent - and all of its stock-related investments were down 23 percent - as of last Sept. 30, the end of its fiscal year. But that was before most of the recent stock market decline and just before the investment switch was scheduled to begin in earnest.
No statistics on the fund's subsequent performance were released.
Nonetheless, analysts expressed concern that large portions of the trust fund might have been lost at a time when many private pension plans are suffering major losses. The guarantee fund would be the only way to cover the plans if their companies go into bankruptcy.
"The truth is, this could be huge," said Zvi Bodie, a Boston University finance professor who in 2002 advised the agency to rely almost entirely on bonds. "This has the potential to be another several hundred billion dollars. If the auto companies go under, they have huge unfunded liabilities" in pension plans that would be passed on to the agency.
In addition, Peter Orszag, head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, has "serious concerns" about the agency, according to an Obama administration spokesman.
Last year, as director of the Congressional Budget Office, Orszag expressed alarm that the agency was "investing a greater share of its assets in risky securities," which he said would make it "more likely to experience a decline in the value of its portfolio during an economic downturn the point at which it is most likely to have to assume responsibility for a larger number of underfunded pension plans."
However, Charles E.F. Millard, the former agency director who implemented the strategy until the Bush administration departed on Jan. 20, dismissed such concerns. Millard, a former managing director of Lehman Brothers, said flatly that "the new investment policy is not riskier than the old one."
He said the previous strategy of relying mostly on bonds would never garner enough money to eliminate the agency's deficit. "The prior policy virtually guaranteed that some day a multibillion-dollar bailout would be required from Congress," Millard said.
He said he believed the new policy - which includes such potentially higher-growth investments as foreign stocks and private real estate - would lessen, but not eliminate, the possibility that a bailout is needed.
Asked whether the strategy was a mistake, given the subsequent declines in stocks and real estate, Millard said, "Ask me in 20 years. The question is whether policymakers will have the fortitude to stick with it."
But Bodie, the BU professor who advised the agency, questioned why a government entity that is supposed to be insuring pension funds should be investing in stocks and real estate at all. Bodie once likened the agency's strategy to a company that insures against hurricane damage and then invests the premiums in beachfront property.
Since he issued that warning, he said, the agency has gone even more aggressively into stocks, which he called "totally crazy."
The agency's action has also been questioned by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, which concluded that the strategy "will likely carry more risk" than projected by the agency. "We felt they weren't acknowledging the increased risk," said Barbara D. Bovbjerg, the GAO's director of Education, Workforce and Income Security Issues.
Analysts also believe the strategy would not have been approved if the government had foreseen the precipitous decline in the stock market.
Now, they warn about a "perfect storm" scenario in which the agency's fund plummets in value just as more companies go into bankruptcy and pass their pension responsibilities onto the insurance fund. Many analysts say it is inevitable that the agency will face significantly increased liabilities in coming months.
"The worst case scenario is coming to pass," said Mark Ruloff, a fellow at the Pension Finance Institute, an independent group that monitors pensions. He said the agency leaders "fail to realize that they are an insurer of pension plans and therefore should be investing differently than the risk their participants are taking."
The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation may be little-known to most Americans, but it serves as a lifeline for the 1.3 million people who receive retirement checks from it, and the 44 million others whose plans are backed by the agency.
The agency was set up in 1974 out of concern that workers who had pensions at financially troubled or bankrupt companies would lose their retirement funds. The agency operates by assessing premiums on the private pension plans that they insure. It insures up to $54,000 annually for individuals who retire at 65.
Despite its name, the agency does not necessarily guarantee the full value of a person's pension and is not backed by the full faith and credit of the government.
Nonetheless, agency officials say that if the pension agency fails to meet its obligation, the government would come under intense political pressure to step in. That means taxpayers - including those who don't get pensions - could be asked to pay for a bailout.
Currently, the agency owes more in pension obligations than it has in funds, with an $11 billion shortfall as of last Sept. 30. Moreover, the agency might soon be responsible for many more pension plans.
Most of the nation's private pension plans suffered major losses in 2008 and, all together, are underfunded by as much as $500 billion, according to Bodie and other analysts. A wave of bankruptcies could mean that the agency would be left to cover more pensions than it could afford.
In the early years of the George W. Bush presidency, the agency took a conservative investment approach under director Bradley N. Belt, who favored putting only between 15 and 25 percent of the fund into stocks.
Belt said in an interview that he operated under "a more prudent risk management" style and said he "would have maintained the investment strategy we had in place." Belt left in 2006 and Millard arrived in 2007.
Under Millard's strategy, the pension agency was directed to invest 55 percent of its funds in stocks and real estate. That included 20 percent in US stocks, 19 percent in foreign stocks, 6 percent in what the agency's records term "emerging market" stocks, 5 percent in private real estate and 5 percent in private equity firms.
Millard said he thought he had little choice but to seek a higher investment return in part because Congress had limited the agency's ability to charge higher premiums based on each plan's likelihood of drawing on the agency's funds.
The agency's board - which consists of the secretaries of Treasury, Labor, and Commerce - approved the new investment strategy in a meeting in February 2008. But the board members have had only a limited role in the agency's operation, meeting only 20 times over the 28 years before 2008.
The board is also too small to meet basic standards of corporate governance, according to an analysis by the Government Accountability Office.
"The whole model of having three sitting Cabinet secretaries with day jobs overseeing a $60 billion investment portfolio and occasionally owning significant percentages of large American companies is fundamentally flawed," said Belt, the former agency director.
The Government Accountability Office is preparing a new review of the investment policy, but in the meantime it continues to place the agency on its list of federal programs at "high risk."
Michael Kranish can be reached at email@example.com