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Replacing Belt at PBGC Might Not Be Easy

April 14, 2006
When business is booming, it’s usually a good time to attract candidates to lead a company. But that may not be the case when the job in question is top spot at the federal pension insurer.

Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. executive director Bradley Belt has announced that he will step down at the end of May, after more than two years on the job. His successor will be chosen by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, with input from the White House.

Chao may not find a long line of applicants at her door. Following huge airline and steel company bankruptcies over the past several years, the PBGC has a $22.8 billion deficit. It also has experienced substantial increases in the value of its claims—from $2.9 billion in 2000 to $9 billion in 2004—and in assets under its management, which have grown from $39 billion to $58 billion during the past year. The federal insurer backs the pension benefits of 44 million American workers and retirees participating in more than 30,000 private-sector defined-benefit plans.

"The difficulty of filling that slot stems from the fact that it’s hard to find someone smart enough to do the job and foolish enough to take it," says J. Mark Iwry, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "It’s a very hot seat."

In addition to running the PBGC, Belt has been the chief advocate for the Bush administration proposal to overhaul federal pension rules. Belt argues that the rules are outdated and have led to huge shortfalls in plan funding. In that role, Belt has weathered criticism from both Capitol Hill and business lobby opponents.

"Brad has done an excellent job of presenting the administration’s case," says Douglas Elliott, president of the Center on Federal Financial Institutions. "He knows the subjects well and he articulates them well."

Belt should be around long enough to see the completion of a contentious House-Senate conference committee that is formulating a final pension reform bill.

He hasn’t indicated what he’ll be doing next, but Belt may head to the private sector to earn substantially more than the $152,000 that is the upper limit at the PBGC.

Mark Schoeff Jr.