Category Archives: Pensions

The big bang theory and pension plan terminations

Pushaw-BartNuclear fission1 and pension plan termination. You’d be surprised at how much they have in common. In other words, left alone, fissionable material decays on its own, eventually distributing its last. On the other hand, with a little help, it can go away in one very big bang. It’s the same result in the end. Pension plans behave the same way. Left alone, they pay out monthly benefits along with lump sums, eventually distributing their final payments. The big bang version for a pension plan is a total termination. In either case, the result in the end is the same.

For a pension plan, these are the two extremes. Between these extremes is a continuum along the termination spectrum, which is controlled by the plan sponsor. We can accelerate the plan’s normal, slow rate of decay up to and including a big bang, total termination. This slower decay we ought to refer to as a termination, too, just not the big one, total termination. Today, such fractional terminations are popularly referred to as de-risking. Nothing new, mind you, just an updated moniker. Of course, with enough fractional terminations, we end up with a total termination just the same.

One type of fractional termination is a lump-sum window or cash-out initiative. Lump-sum windows usually refer to a plan which is offering lump-sum distributions to a vested group of former employees who otherwise would not have access to their benefits until retirement. The window of opportunity usually exists for a few months, then closes. Cash-out initiatives are slightly different in that the former employees already have access to a lump sum distribution but now are getting a friendly reminder. After declining the original offer, their lump sum may have grown and is perhaps now a bit more desirable. Both types of project can be regulated toward a manageable administrative size or with an eye toward avoiding unwanted accounting repercussions. Target groups are made up of those former employees who retain a vested benefit under the plan. Retirees in pay status are off limits. These groups may require administrative sleuthing if mailing address information is out of date.

Another type of fractional termination is off-loading plan obligations to an insurance company through the purchase of an annuity. This is the principal means of removing retirees from the plan. Carriers may want the business enough to drive the purchase price of the annuity down sufficiently to make the opportunity very attractive to a sponsor. These annuity placements may also be sized to fit the sponsor’s financial needs.

This leaves us with those plan participants who are still employed by the sponsor, which brings us back to the big bang total termination. We need to be a little clearer about this. A total termination is a big bang because you can distribute lump sums and place annuities for everyone left in the plan all at once. It also requires a high level of rigor as it falls under focused scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Labor, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). A big bang total termination is just a whole bunch of fractional terminations bundled up to occur all at once under a formal regulatory framework.

Nuclear fission can happen bit by bit over time or can be speeded up with sudden and dramatic results. Working a series of fractional terminations, perhaps leading up to a total termination, allows greater flexibility of timing and financial control for a plan sponsor.

1If your physics is a little rusty, nuclear fission is “the splitting of an atomic nucleus into approximately equal parts, either spontaneously or as a result of the impact of a particle usually with an associated release of energy. Collins English Dictionary, 12th ed. (2014). “Nuclear fission.” Retrieved January 18, 2016, from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/nuclear+fission.

What’s ahead for RP-2014 mortality table users?

Hagin NeilThe Society of Actuaries Retirement Plans Experience Committee (RPEC) published an October 2014 study analyzing mortality experience of uninsured private defined benefit pension plans in the United States for the period 2004 through 2008. It is referred to as the “RP-2014” mortality table report. RP-2014 replaces RPEC’s “RP-2000” mortality tables published in July 2000.

While the RP-2014 report may imply there is only one mortality table, there are several mortality tables published within the report. A companion report was concurrently published detailing a “mortality projection scale,” referred to as the “MP-2014” improvement scale. Because mortality studies are not completed all that frequently, mortality improvements scales are developed to be used in conjunction with a mortality table to project future mortality improvements.

Since the release of the two RPEC reports, defined benefit pension plan sponsors felt compelled to reflect the longer life expectancies in the determination of defined benefit plan liabilities for financial disclosures. For those plan sponsors that elected to change the plan’s mortality assumption to RP-2014 with projection scale MP-2014, it generally increased the plan’s liability between 4% and 10%. The impact on a plan was dependent on that plan’s demographics as well as on the mortality table that was previously used.

RPEC published a revised mortality improvement scale in October 2015, appropriately labeled “MP-2015.” Additional mortality data published by the Social Security Administration (SSA) was used for the new calculation.

RPEC had indicated within the MP-2014 report that it intends to publish updated improvement scales at least triennially. However, an updated report issued one year after RP-2014 was a surprise to defined benefit pension plan sponsors, as well as many pension actuaries.

The MP-2014 mortality improvement scale was constructed based on a model developed by RPEC utilizing SSA mortality data between 1950 and 2009. The MP-2015 mortality improvement scale incorporates two additional years of SSA data (2010 and 2011). The SSA data indicates that mortality rates remained relatively constant for 2010 and 2011. This is in contrast to the expectations of the MP-2014 calculations, which predicted mortality improvement for this period. Plans that utilized the RP-2014 mortality table with MP-2014 mortality improvement scale may see a 0% to 2% decrease in plan liabilities by utilizing the MP-2015 mortality improvement scale in their fiscal year-end financial disclosures.

The SSA has recently released two additional years (2012 and 2013) of mortality data, which again indicate that the mortality rates are not decreasing as significantly as expected. In fact, this newly released data suggests that mortality rates have been stagnant over the last five years. The RPEC committee has indicated that it intends to issue future periodic updates to the model as soon as practicable, following the public release of updated data upon which the model is constructed.

The question is when will a new mortality improvement scale, reflecting the latest SSA data from 2012 and 2013, be released? Will RPEC issue “MP-2016,” a new mortality improvement scale reflecting the latest SSA mortality data?

The MP-2015 report states that RPEC will not publish any additional information before the second quarter of 2016. Unfortunately, because of the timing of the release, a new mortality improvement scale (MP-2016 potentially) will not be available for disclosures with fiscal years ending in 2015. However, the updated mortality improvement scale may be able to be incorporated into the net periodic pension expense determination for fiscal years ending in 2016. This will be dependent on the timing of the RPEC analysis and publication, as well as approval by the plan sponsor’s auditor.

Cost Accounting Standards in the defined benefit arena

Jo-SamCongress established the original Cost Accounting Standards Board (CASB) in 1970 to ensure consistency in the cost accounting principles used by defense contractors and subcontractors, as the results of these calculations are used to request reimbursements for their costs from the federal government. These Cost Accounting Standards apply in many areas, including the calculations of the costs of benefits available to a group of participants covered under a qualified defined benefit plan. These standards have been updated over time to reflect changes in the law, most recently because of the implementation of the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA). As a result, plan sponsors should be familiar with the nuances of the changes in the Standards in order to be sure that they are requesting the appropriate levels of reimbursement for their costs.

Cost Accounting Standard No. 412 (CAS 412) describes the procedures used to determine and measure the various components of pension cost. Cost Accounting Standard No. 413 (CAS 413) provides guidance for adjusting pension cost by measuring actuarial gains and losses and assigning such gains and losses to cost accounting periods. CAS 413 also provides the basis on which pension cost shall be allocated to segments of an organization.

Pension costs under CAS 412
For defined benefit pension plans (excluding plans accounted for under the pay-as-you-go cost method), the components of pension cost for a cost accounting period are:

(1) Normal cost.
(2) Amortization of any unfunded actuarial liability. A new amortization base will be established for any plan or assumption changes.
(3) Amortization of actuarial gains and losses.

Amortizations will be adjusted for interest.

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Weighing income options can prepare individuals for retirement

Pushaw-BartPension plans are providing an ever-decreasing portion of retirement wealth as wave after wave of Baby Boomers reach retirement. In and of itself, this is neither surprising nor remarkable. What is remarkable, though, are two typical characteristics of what we are being left with regarding retirement wealth.

First, the jettison of pension plans means relying on defined contribution plans as the provider of principal retirement wealth. This is suboptimal inasmuch as these plans are typically 401(k) savings plans, originally introduced as a sideline fringe benefit scaled for purposes less than what they’re now required to deliver on. This is mostly a benefit-level issue of which we have seen recent hints of amelioration—namely, the industry recognizing that in an all-account-based retirement world, saving 16% of annual pay is in the ballpark, not the historical mode of 6% employee deferral (plus maybe 6% employer match totaling 12%). This relates to the second endangered characteristic, which needs to be brought into brighter focus: an in-plan solution for generating guaranteed retirement income.

Pension plans are wonderful for participants in that everyone is automatically a participant, automatically earning benefits on a meaningful trajectory, and automatically having the ultimate retirement wealth delivered on a lifetime guaranteed basis. Yes, 401(k) plans are trending this way on the first two, and the third is quickly emerging as another area where we need more pension-like alternatives.

One may generalize by saying that retirees take their 401(k) balances and roll them over when they retire. An economic conundrum baffling academics is that none or very few of these folks take advantage of insured annuities even in the midst of robust studies identifying them as an optimal solution for retirement income in face of investment uncertainty and longevity risks. This raises two subtle yet important points.

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Changing public pension investment landscape

The global financial crisis shrunk the funding status of many public pensions. Some sponsors are beginning to cut their expected rate of return, and change the way they invest and handle portfolio risk. In this Reuters article, Milliman consultant Tamara Burden provides perspective on how sponsors can better manage their pension investment risk.

The growing recognition that short-term volatility can have a devastating impact on mature pension plans in the $4 trillion sector could herald a sea change in the way public funds invest in the future.

“There is this shift to recognizing risk is a relevant piece of the discussion, it’s not just about how you get the highest returns over a long period of time but that short-term fluctuations in asset levels can be incredibly detrimental,” said Tamara Burden, an actuary at consulting firm Milliman….

Burden is seeking to persuade public pension managers to use Milliman’s risk management strategy to reduce equity exposure in portfolios by shorting stock index futures. This means they don’t have to sell their fund’s equity holdings.

The strategy is being applied to about $70 billion in portfolios with variable annuities, retail mutual funds and collective investment trusts used by 401(k) plans, but so far not in the public pension sector.

Interest, Burden says, has increased this year with about 15 public pension administrators considering a shift versus five during the same period last year.

Calculating postemployment benefits in Indonesia

In Indonesia, there are two types of retirement plans used to fund postemployment benefits: defined benefit pension plans (PPMPs) or defined contribution pension plans (PPIPs). These plans are usually referred to as hybrid plans when liabilities for postemployment benefits are calculated. In this article, Milliman’s Danny Quant and Amelia Enrika discuss the most effective way to calculate benefits between the offset method and the asset method.

Sticky contribution rate can enhance public pension funding status

Alternative funding approaches can help public defined benefit (DB) plan sponsors stabilize contribution rates and maintain a healthy funded status. In this article, Milliman actuary Daniel Wade discusses how a fixed, or “sticky,” contribution rate approach helped one large DB retirement system maintain a strong funded ratio.

Here is an excerpt:

While policymakers have the discretion to recommend a change to contribution levels when deemed necessary, the funding and benefits policy has guidelines and metrics to assist those policymakers with the difficult decisions required. The policy has a relatively wide (but not too wide) zone for maintaining the status quo. When the funded ratio is between 95% and 120% and certain other parameters are met, the policy advises that no action should be taken.

Note that the “no action” zone is not symmetric around 100%. This is by design, which is due to the belief that actions required to increase the funded ratio when it dips below 100% are more urgent than taking actions that could decrease the funded ratio as it exceeds 100%. Reserves over 100% may be needed for future rate stabilization. The funded ratio is a useful measure, but it is based on the assumption that best estimates are met. A cushion above 100% is welcomed when assumptions are not met.

Often in the public sector, there are significant governance issues once there is a “surplus” as measured by a funded ratio above 100%. Permanent benefit improvements can be made based on temporary highs in asset values.

… Note that in the System’s policy, the term “funding reserve” is used instead of surplus when the funded ratio is above 100%. While this is only terminology and does not directly influence anything, it reflects a mindset that having a funded ratio above 100% does not mean that you have extra money that must be spent; instead there is a reserve for rate stabilization.

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Longevity risk poses long-term solvency issues for GCC public pensions

Longevity risk is a primary exposure for state-managed pensions within Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. In this Middle Eastern Insurance Review article, Milliman’s Simon Herborn, Khurram Mirza of Osool, and Fahad S. Alajlan of the General Organization for Social Insurance (GOSI) discuss how refinements to benefit structures can improve the sustainability of GCC pensions.

With a framework that delivers a meaningful view of life expectancy, we can prepare better forecasts of future financing requirements. As previously mentioned, this analysis is likely to reveal the schemes are not self-sustaining—that is, co-contributions will be required from the state. If these are deemed too onerous, the next recourse is higher contribution rates from the participants or employers. Failing this, the natural progression is refinements to the benefit structure to reduce costs.

One route could be raising the retirement age. All else being equal, this would shorten the time span for which benefits will be paid and thereby lead to a reduction in costs (though it should be noted that the full cost implications are deceptively complex and careful consideration is required to achieve the desired effects). This type of intervention has been very common in other parts of the world, among both state- and employer-sponsored schemes.

There are many other ways in which the benefits can be refined to help manage costs – for instance, changing the definition of salary for determining benefits (for example, an average of salaries over the individual’s career rather than just at retirement age), limiting cost-of-living increases, making dependent benefits less generous (though this coverage often has significant importance, particularly in this region), and penalising early retirements. These changes do not directly target longevity exposure but can still be very effective in reducing the overall quantum of exposure.

What changes will you make to help increase your employees’ retirement confidence?

Regli-JinnieThe 2015 Retirement Confidence Survey, published by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, continues to highlight the rise of retirement confidence in American workers. An increase in retirement plan participation (14% in 2013 to 28% in 2015 for those with a retirement plan) seems to closely correlate with the rise in the percentage of workers who are confident about having enough money in retirement (13% in 2013 to 22% in 2015).

The survey findings seem to indicate that more American workers are taking retirement planning into account and they are feeling very confident about having enough money in retirement, both of which may be related to the increase in availability and accessibility of online retirement calculators and a growing confidence in the overall economy. Yet at the same time, the percentage of American workers who report having saved for retirement has stayed fairly consistent at 63%, indicating that more may need to be done in order to assist workers in saving. Here are a few standout figures from the 2015 survey results:

• 80% of current workers believe personal savings will play a large role in their retirement incomes
• 71% of employed workers report their employers offer an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan
• 12% of those without a retirement plan reported feeling very confident
• 50% of those asked what they would do if they were automatically enrolled at 3% said they would raise their contribution rate; only 2% said they would stop it altogether

It seems that, as the economy strengthens, many American workers are comfortable making retirement savings a priority, so what better time to encourage them to make the most of it?

As plan sponsors, what can be done to help keep retirement confidence on the rise for years to come? Here are some ideas.

• If you don’t offer an employer-sponsored plan, consider offering one. Behavioral finance has found that inertia makes humans their own worst enemies when it comes to retirement savings, making it all that more difficult for the 29% of employed workers without an employer-sponsored retirement plan to save for their retirement. Open the door for them to begin saving today!
• If you already offer an employer-sponsored plan, think about offering additional employer-sponsored plans. Employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), nonqualified retirement plans, cash balance plans—there are a variety of options available that could be used to supplement your current 401(k) plan.
• Or continue to drive participation by considering plan design changes that will promote additional plan participation. Speak with your consultant about the best options for your company.
• Educate participants. Make sure your employees have sufficient information and tools to assist in their retirement planning.

What changes will you make to help your employees’ retirement confidence increase?

Retirement risks side by side: DB vs. DC vs. VAPP

In this video blog, I discuss the retirement risk allocation between a plan sponsor and the plan’s participants in a variable annuity pension plan (VAPP) structure compared with risks associated with traditional defined benefit (DB) plans and defined contribution (DC) plans. I also explain how a VAPP can reduce risks of inflation, portability, and interest rate.

View our VAPP video blog series here.

For more information on VAPPs, click here, or visit our VAPP reading list.