Discount rates deepen pension funding deficit and make 2014 a banner year for liability-driven investing
Milliman today released the results of its 2015 Pension Funding Study, which analyzes the 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans. In 2014, these pension plans experienced a funded status decline despite a 10.9% investment return, with plan liabilities for these 100 plans increasing by $189.2 billion and assets increasing by $57.9 billion. This resulted in a $131.3 billion increase in the funded status deficit, representing a funding ratio decline of 6.1%.
Pension plan sponsors may be feeling whiplash after the last three years. In 2012, plans with the heaviest investment in fixed income experienced superior returns. In 2013, we saw the opposite: Plans with heavy equity allocations fared the best. Now with these latest results, we’ve again reversed ourselves, as plans with the highest fixed income allocation once again outpaced the field despite a strong year for equities. This whiplash is the result of discount rates that hit a record low this year, and continue to define pension funding status.
Study highlights include:
Asset allocations shift toward fixed income. Equity allocations in the pension portfolios dropped to 37.3% by the end of 2014, the lowest in the 15-year history of this study. The companies included in this study have generally shifted toward higher allocations in fixed income investments.
Risk transfer trend continues. Some plan sponsors engaged in pension risk transfer activities, including two well-publicized pension buyouts conducted for two of the Milliman 100 companies (Bristol-Myers Squibb and Motorola).
New mortality assumptions increase pension liabilities by 3.4%. The magnitude of these increases is contingent on age, gender, and other demographic characteristics of each plan’s participants. Based on the footnote disclosures at year-end 2014, the new Society of Actuaries mortality tables led companies to update mortality assumptions, increasing pension liabilities by approximately $38.3 billion, or 3.4%, at least among those plans that disclosed the impact.
Contributions decline during 2014. The $39.8 billion in contributions during 2014 were the lowest level since 2008 and marked a $4.4 billion decrease from 2013 contribution levels. The lower-than-expected contributions were likely due to plan sponsors changing their contribution strategies in light of the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014 (HATFA) interest rate stabilization legislation, enacted in August 2014.
Pension expense increases. Robust investment gains in 2013 were partially offset by the impact of lower contributions and increasing discount rates during 2013, producing a net increase of $4.8 billion and resulting in a total of $37.1 billion in pension expense. Pension expense hit an all-time high at $56.1 billion in 2012.
What to expect in 2015. The passage of HATFA may result in lower contributions on par with those seen in 2014. However, for plans already engaged in liability-driven investing (LDI), higher contribution levels can be expected. The lower discount rates at the end of 2014 are expected to lead to significant 2015 pension expense increases because discount rates for the coming fiscal year are set at the start of the fiscal year. This does not factor in any possible plan de-risking activity.