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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Left Behind

The bank of supercomputers at Goldman Sachs is possibly the most powerful computer array on Earth, located ten stories below The Street in a nuclear bomb-proof vault. Until several months ago, it used to take JPMorgan nine hours to run complete risk and value analyses on their vast holdings, but their new supercomputers do it in 238 seconds. Megafirm supercomputers are tied directly into the computers of every stock and commodity exchange. Using secret algorithms they can automatically move billions in assets milliseconds before the computers at the exchanges even acknowledge the buy and sell orders they’ve received. Some consider this high frequency trading to be an unfair advantage, a form of insider trading that many believe led directly to the infamous May 6, 2010 “Flash Crash” and other sudden freefalls.

And Governor Cuomo wants Joe who drives the school bus to compete with that.

The governor has proposed that new public employees choose between a defined pension and a defined contribution plan for their retirement. The pension would be significantly reduced from current levels, with significantly higher employee contributions and retirement ages. The defined contribution accounts, best known in the form of the 401(k), shifts all risk and many critical decisions and all of the risk to the employee.  

Mr. Cuomo says that this pension change would save public employers outside of New York City $83 billion over 30 years. That’s less per year than the state’s current projected budget deficit. The whole thing smells.

In the eyes of tens of millions of Americans, 401(k)s have been completely discredited as a primary retirement vehicle, a role for which it was never intended when the plans were invented in 1978. In a series of maneuvers, Congress made it attractive to private employers to offer these plans as a supplement to pensions, but many companies have phased out pensions altogether. Those who made asset allocations in equities watched 38 percent of their nest egg evaporate in 2008. Three years later, working with smaller principals, almost no one is back to where they were. Few will ever see the 8 percent returns they expected.

This is no secret. Two years ago, a Time magazine analysis declared that, “the 401(k) is a lousy idea, a financial flop, a rotten repository for our retirement reserves.” Reuters suggested five months ago that it’s time “to end the fraudulent notion that 401(k)-type plans are adequate retirement vehicles for most Americans.”

Despite the Happy Talk from some politicians, the financial world is filled with trepidation over what may happen in the coming months. Some analysts are urging small investors to stay out of stocks and mutual funds altogether. But some people are just festering for more New Yorkers to jump right in.

Thanks to computer high frequency trading, which now makes up 70 percent of all trades, the average stock is held for 22 seconds, up from 20 seconds in 2010. Jump right this way.

This 401(k) scheme has been warmed over for years. It was a centerpiece in the 2006 gubernatoral campaign of Republican-Conservative John Faso. It was dismissed and ridiculed then, even before the 2008 meltdown.

Nobody’s ridiculing this now. The Committee to Save NY, the mysterious committee steered by business interests that spent just under $12 million in 2011 to promote the governor’s agenda of tax caps on local services, tax reductions for high earners and take-it-or-leave negotiations with employees, is gearing up its advertising machine.

Cablevision and its subsidiary, Newsday, are gearing up. Cablevision, whose president is paid $15 million, is attempting to block a unionization effort among their cable installers, whose salaries range from $25,000 to $55,000, a third less than installers at rival companies.

$21,205. $21,738. $23,570. The Nassau County Civil Service has posted examination schedules for two dozen positions, and those are some of the potential starting salaries. These are positions that require technical training and skills. Pensions are a long-range salary supplementation. They are not a scam or a theft.

They are what your dad had, and your grandfather.

If there is a more reliable, more effective substitute, please let me know. I haven’t heard of it yet.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net