Inertia In Action

Tuesday - 1/27/2009, 4:00am EST

For the past three years a couple dozen of my friends or contacts in government have been threatening to retire. For most of them January 2, 2009 was the drop dead deadline.

They were outta here no matter who was elected president. Some had spent months preparing and revising their take-this-job-and-shove it farewell speeches. I, for one, could hardly wait for an invite to their various retirement luncheons.

Guess what?

Here it is January 27, 2009 and 100 percent of the above-mentioned folk are still on the job. In other words none of them pulled the plug, despite years of planning and promises.

How come?

One got a promotion. One got a promotion and a bonus. Two got new jobs within their agency. A couple said they wanted to be part of the new Obama administration. One lost his wife and said he needed his work friends more than ever.

Virtually all of them also cited the economy. All of them have money in the TSP and virtually all of them have a lot less money in the TSP this year than they did a year ago. One, wisely, switched all of his money into the Treasury-securities G-fund last summer when the market was (we now know) at its peak. So he lost nothing and has seen his account grow modestly. He's staying (at age 61) because the outside job market is so bad.

Most long-time feds (who are under the old CSRS system) will have very generous annuities that are fully-indexed to inflation. This month the COLA (cost of living adjustment) was 5.8 percent. That's the biggest inflation-catch up since 1982.

Those under the FERS system will get a smaller government benefit. It has a diet-COLA feature (FERS retirees got a 4.8 percent hike this month) but it is still better than 99.9 percent of those private sector retirees who still get pensions.

But for FERS workers, the TSP is critical to funding their retirement. When the federal 401(k) plan was set up it was expected to fund about 30 percent of a retiree's needs. During the boom years of the 1990s that estimate was raised. Some pros said earnings from a fully-funded, wisely invested TSP account would provide as much as 50 cents of every dollar the FERS retiree would have in retirement.

Now all bets are off.

Some feds have pulled all their money out of the TSP's stock funds, into the safe G-fund. Many say they will return to the stock market when it goes up. Others continue to invest in the C, S and I funds via regular payroll deduction. They believe the market is "on sale" and that they are buying shares at bargain prices.

Meantime, about 3 percent fewer feds are investing in the TSP than before the market downturn. The participation rate is now 83 percent, down from 86 percent.

Some are feeling the economic pinch. Or think they are. Others need all their extra cash for college tuition. Or to pay down credit card debt.

Whatever is going on, whatever people's reasons for hanging on are, people are hanging on.

Monitoring and fighting the brain drain has become a cottage industry. Hardly a day has gone by, in the last 10 years, without some new warning of a tidal wave of retirements. One former official referred to it as a tsunami. There are all sort of schemes, theories and suggestions as to how to idiot-proof the government.

Meantime, the tsunami we've all been bracing for has seems to have turned into a trickle.

How does it look from where you work?

Last Chance

Feds have only a couple of days left to change health plans or set up (or beef up) a Flexible Spending Account for 2009.

Tomorrow we've got a double-header coming up on our Your Turn with Mike Causey radio show. Resident retirement expert on CNBC's "On the Money", Bill Losey will talk about handling your investments during their troubled times. And benefits expert Tammy Flanagan will explain how and why you should have an FSA, and give us that all important best-date-to retire.

That's coming up Wednesday, 10 am EST, here at www.federalnewsradio.com or, in the Washington area, at AM 1500. Listen if you can, call if you like. If you have questions for Bill or Tammy you can e-mail them to me: mcausey@federalnewsradio.com or use the handy box on the Your Turn page.

Nearly Useless Factoid

There's a new category in the Guiness World Records: largest cheesecake. 20,000 slices of the two ton monster cake were given out around Mexico City.

To reach me: mcausey@federalnewsradio.com