Category Archives: Defined benefit

Public pension plans’ funded status improves in Q3

Sielman-BeckyMilliman today released the third quarter results of its Public Pension Funding Index, which consists of the nation’s 100 largest public defined benefit pension plans. As of September 30th, the funded ratio of these plans rose to 71.0%, up from 69.8% at the end of June. The funded status improved by $48 billion, the result of an estimated $86 billion increase in plan assets thanks to relatively healthy investment returns of 3.5% for the quarter.

While investment returns were healthier than expected, our Milliman 100 plans experienced a wide range of returns, from an estimated low of 1.33% to a high of 4.37%. Bond funds and commodities generally fared poorly, after having done well in the second quarter. It’s yet to be seen whether they will rebound as we close out the year.

The Milliman 100 PPFI total pension liability (TPL) increased from $4.583 trillion at the end of Q2 to an estimated $4.620 trillion at the end of Q3. The TPL is expected to grow modestly over time as interest on the TPL and the accrual of new benefits outpaces the benefits paid to retirees.

To view the Milliman 100 Public Pension Funding Index, click here. To receive regular updates of Milliman’s pension funding analysis, email us.

Final fiduciary rules: Frustrations and the unknown

Tedesco-KaraOn June 8, 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) final fiduciary rules became effective, but these new rules are not actually applicable until April 10, 2017. The final rules outline what advisers, financial institutions, and employers need to do to adhere to them. Daunting? Yes. Impossible? Maybe, but some believe the fiduciary rules have been a long time coming. The new rules require advisers and financial institutions to comply with and uphold the fiduciary standards surrounding ERISA when advising clients for a fee. This is significant, as it has the potential to impact how some advisers help their clients with retirement planning. Some advisers may decide to stop helping.

As participants become more and more responsible for their own retirement savings, employers are finding they need to turn to their retirement plan experts for help. A plan adviser who gives fiduciary advice receives compensation for the recommendation he or she makes, and usually the recommendation is based on the specific needs of the participant. The advice is given so that an action will be taken. The final rules clearly state this expert is a fiduciary and the recommendation made has to be in the best interest of the participant and not the pocketbook of the employer and or adviser.

Why is this so important? Because millions of participant dollars have been rolled into IRAs that have high fees and expenses associated with them. Participants don’t understand the fees, they don’t understand their investments, and often they lack the proper tools to help them make educated decisions. It bears asking the question, should an adviser make a recommendation to roll or transfer account balances to another plan or IRA, when a participant might be better off staying put? The answer could be yes, and employers may find that terminated employees are staying with them because it is a better financial decision.

How do advisers and employers feel about this? Many advisers are frustrated they will have to comply with the best interest contract exemption. It has several requirements, but it means advisers may need to modify or fine tune their current practices to satisfy the rules. Plan sponsors will have to take another look at their advisers and service providers and understand their fiduciary responsibilities. It’s important they confirm that any rollover assistance is administrative in nature and cannot be perceived as advice from non-fiduciary human resources (HR) staff or service providers. However, plan sponsors can now feel good knowing that the general education they offer to participants about plans and investments is acceptable; it does not mean they are providing investment advice or taking on additional fiduciary responsibility.

With all of this said, could the election results change, delay, or repeal the final fiduciary rules? There is speculation this could happen, which makes the financial services industry happy, but for those pushing for reform, very unhappy.

Corporate funded status improves by $28 billion in October, biggest boost of 2016

Wadia_ZorastMilliman today released the results of its latest Pension Funding Index (PFI), which analyzes the 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans. In October, the funded status for these pension plans experienced its largest increase of the year, improving by $28 billion, primarily due to interest rate gains that resulted in a $45 billion decrease in pension liabilities. The funded ratio for these plans climbed a whole percentage point, from 76.3% to 77.3%.


This is the second straight month of funded status gains but we’re far from celebrating. These plans are still down $103 billion for the year, thanks to decreases in interest rates and lower-than-expected investment returns. Throw in a divisive election on November 8, and we’ll see what the rest of 2016 has in store for these plans.

Looking forward, under an optimistic forecast with rising interest rates (reaching 3.71% by the end of 2016 and 4.31% by the end of 2017) and asset gains (11.2% annual returns), the funded ratio would climb to 79% by the end of 2016 and 90% by the end of 2017. Under a pessimistic forecast (3.51% discount rate at the end of 2016 and 2.91% by the end of 2017 and 3.2% annual returns), the funded ratio would decline to 76% by the end of 2016 and 69% by the end of 2017.

A review of 2017 PBGC premium rates

carnaval-nicholasThe Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) recently released the premium rates for the 2017 premium filing year. Each defined benefit plan sponsor must pay annual premiums if insured by the PBGC. Sponsors of single-employer and multiple-employer plans pay premiums consisting of two parts: (1) a flat-rate premium (FRP), equal to a fixed dollar amount per plan participant, and (2) a variable-rate premium (VRP), based on a percentage of unfunded liability. The latter part is limited by a cap that acts akin to the FRP, where the VRP cannot exceed a fixed dollar amount per plan participant. Multiemployer plans are only subject to the FRP.

Single-employer and multiple-employer plan sponsors will incur a 2017 FRP of $69 per plan participant (a 7.8% increase from the $64 premium paid in 2016). The 2017 VRP has increased to 3.4% of unfunded liability (a 13.3% increase from the 3.0% rate paid in 2016). The per-participant cap on VRPs increased 3.4% from $500 to $517 for the 2017 premium filing year.

Since 2012, single-employer and multiple-employer plan sponsors have seen sharp increases in PBGC premiums, which were written into funding relief rules under the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) and subsequent relief under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (BBA). These laws called for scheduled increases in premiums along with indexing for inflation. Flat-rates have nearly doubled since the pre-MAP-21 level of $35 per plan participant in 2012; while the variable-rate of 3.4% has almost quadrupled since 2012. Such sharp increases in the variable-rate have resulted in VRPs approaching the more modestly increasing per-participant cap introduced by MAP-21 for many plan sponsors. This makes de-risking strategies that reduce the number of plan participants (such as terminated vested lump-sum windows and annuity purchases for retiree populations) more attractive. This is because reducing the number of participants in the plan decreases the FRP and may also lower the VRP if limited by the cap.

Being limited by the per-participant VRP cap can offer some advantages to plan sponsors hypersensitive to cost volatility. De-risking strategies such as spin-offs and partial plan terminations have been developed to reduce premiums and target these advantages. Capped VRPs are generally less volatile than uncapped VRPs. Such premiums are based on participant counts, which are likely to be relatively stable from year to year (and are actually expected to decrease in a plan with frozen participation). They are not subject to the market volatility inherent in asset returns and liability, which is determined using market-related interest rates. Capped VRPs are also not subject to the sharp scheduled increases outlined in BBA. They are subject to increases due to inflation, which are typically more modest than the scheduled VRP increases.

Multiemployer plan sponsors will also incur higher 2017 PBGC premiums. Taft-Hartley plan sponsors will experience an increase in FRPs of 3.7% from $27 to $28. The 2017 level represents a 211% increase over the 2012 PBGC premium rate of $9 per plan participant. Large increases in premiums were enacted through the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014 (MPRA) as a response to the PBGC’s dire multiemployer program situation. According to a recent issue brief from the American Academy of Actuaries, the program is projected to become insolvent within eight years partly due to historically inadequate premiums. As a result, the PBGC will not be able to support fully guaranteed benefits for troubled multiemployer plans.

The 2017 premium filing year will not be the last time rates increase; more premium rate increases are scheduled in the future. All PBGC premium rates will increase because of inflation; however, the FRP and VRP for single-employer and multiple-employer plans have additional scheduled increases. The FRP for single-employer and multiple-employer plans is scheduled to increase to $74 and $80 per plan participant in 2018 and 2019, respectively (ultimately a 129% increase over the 2012 level). The VRP is scheduled to increase to 3.8% and 4.2% of unfunded liability for 2018 and 2019, respectively (ultimately a 367% increase over the 2012 rate). Multiemployer premiums are currently only indexed to inflation with no scheduled escalations. However, according to the same issue brief from the American Academy of Actuaries, increases of around six times current levels would be necessary for the program to remain solvent through 2035, with even larger increases needed for longer-term solvency and protection from adverse experience.

The 2017 PBGC premium rates represent a significant increase from where they were only five years ago. This has led to the development and implementation of various de-risking strategies aimed at reducing the cost of maintaining defined benefit plans. Due to regulated increases, anticipated inflation, and uncertainty within the PBGC’s multiemployer program, higher premiums are expected for years to come.

The DB/NDCP funding conundrum

Pizzano-DominickThis blog is part of a 12-part series entitled “The nonqualified deferred compensation plan (NDCP) dirty dozen: An administrative guide to avoiding 12 traps.” To read the introduction to the series, click here.

A particularly perplexing piece of the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) is Internal Revenue Code section 409A(b)(3), which creates a mandatory funding (i.e., a cash contribution) connection between a plan sponsor’s tax-qualified defined benefit (DB) plan and any nonqualified deferred compensation plan (NDCP) it maintains. Sponsors are prohibited from “funding” an NDCP for certain highly paid employees if circumstances arise that either actually or potentially jeopardize their DB plans’ funding status. The puzzle lies neither with the purpose of this rule nor its desired effect. True to PPA’s overall goal of protecting qualified DB plans, the prohibition put some teeth into the message that DB plan funding must take priority over dedicating corporate assets to NDCPs. Consequently, sponsors must continue to look closely at their DB plan funding before leaping into funding any NDCPs.

While the statute’s intent seems clear enough, the dilemma is in the details or, in some cases, the lack thereof. As currently written, and still absent any clarifying guidance, the statute raises a host of questions, including:

• Which employees are actually affected by the funding restraints?
• What does “fund” mean in this context?
• How does the law affect a sponsor’s ability to pay NDCP benefits?
• What are the ramifications for deferral-only plans?

When do restrictions apply?
NDCP restrictions apply during the appropriately named “restricted period,” which goes into effect:

• When the “employer” is a debtor in a federal or state bankruptcy proceeding. (Note: Throughout this article, “employer” means the NDCP sponsor and any other employers in the same control group.)

• Six months before or after the date that an underfunded DB plan of the employer is formally terminated and approved by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and/or Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

• During any period when an employer’s DB plan is “at-risk,” which generally means the plan has more than 500 participants and the assets of the plan represent less than 80% of the value of the benefits earned under the plan.

Are all NDCP participants affected by the funding restraints?
The funding restraints of the NDCP only apply if an individual is identified as an “applicable covered employee” of the employer. This term includes not only presently “covered employees” of the employer but also captures any employees who were “covered employees” of the employer at the time of those employees’ termination of employment. The term “covered employee” has a two-pronged definition:

1. The principal executive officer (or an individual acting in that capacity during the last completed fiscal year) or an employee whose total compensation is required to be reported to shareholders under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by reason of the employee being among the three highest compensated officers for the taxable year (not counting the principal executive officer), as described in tax code section 162(m)(3) and clarified by IRS Notice 2007-49.

2. An officer, director, or shareholder who owns 10% or more of a publicly traded company’s equity (i.e., an individual subject to the requirements of section 16(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934).

While the application of these definitions to NDCP sponsors that are publicly traded is clear-cut, the extent, if any, of their applicability to private companies is the subject of debate. Some analysts have argued that private companies are completely exempt. Their rationale is that such companies generally would not be subject to the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, which would by definition exclude them from coverage under prong 2 of the above definition. In prong 1, they argue that the reference is to section 162(m)(3), which is part of section 162(m) and deals with the $1 million deduction limit for publicly traded companies. Accordingly, they ask, “How can this definition apply to private companies if it is from a code section governing publicly held entities?”

Getting a legal opinion before relying on that interpretation is advisable. If prong 1 applies to private companies, it may only apply on a limited basis, given that they have no employees “whose total compensation is required to be reported to shareholders under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by reason of the employee being among the three highest compensated officers.” Thus, in a private company, if anyone is affected, it would only be the principal executive officer. The IRS has not confirmed or denied a total exemption for private companies and no timetable for clarifying guidance has been announced, so the conservative approach for such companies (absent the above-referenced legal opinion) may be to treat the principal executive officer as an “applicable covered employee.”

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Nondiscrimination (Part 4): Time for employers to brush up again on nondiscrimination testing?

Many employers have modified their traditional defined benefit (DB) plans by moving to a “soft frozen” plan (or “closed” plan), where the existing participants continue to accrue benefits, but plan participation is closed to new employees. One common design is to maintain the DB plan for a closed group of employees and to establish or enhance a defined contribution (DC) plan for newer (and future) employees. In Part 2 of our earlier series on nondiscrimination testing, we explored the issues faced by a typical plan sponsor electing this route.

As an example of how circumstances change, many years ago Employer F permitted a “grandfathered” group of longer-service employees to continue accruals under its DB plan, and established a profit-sharing plan for all of the remaining employees. New employees joined the profit-sharing plan when eligible. At the time of the program change, the plans met the three main nondiscrimination tests, which are:

• Participation (only applicable to the DB plan)
• Coverage
• Benefits

A number of years have passed since the change, and the DB plan population has now declined and become more heavily weighted toward highly compensated employees (HCEs). The DB plan is no longer passing the 70% ratio percentage test, and is currently meeting the coverage requirement via the more complex average benefits test. Employer F is concerned that the average benefits test is in danger of failing in the near future, and is now looking for alternative ways to ensure that the DB plan continues to meet the coverage requirements.

In many circumstances, the nondiscrimination rules will currently allow plan sponsors to consider two or more plans to be a single combined (or “aggregated”) plan for purposes of meeting the coverage and benefit requirements (but not the participation requirements). If this is done for a DB plan and a DC plan, the combined plan is known as a “DB/DC” plan.

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