It’s easy to understand why pension participants get confused looking through their annual plan funding notices. The notice presents several different measures of the plan’s funded status and provides details for multiple measurements at different points in time. In a new article entitled “Funded status measurements for U.S. pensions,” Zorast Wadia explains these types of measurements.
The article was written as an introductory piece for an international audience, providing perspective on funded status measurements under U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) pension funding rules.
Here is an excerpt:
Funded status measurements
Several funding status measurements can possibly be derived from reading an annual funding notice. Each of the following funded status measurements involves comparing a plan’s asset measure to its liability measure, and often the comparison is made with and without respect to the inclusion of credit balances. Exactly which components are used within a particular funded status measurement is quite important. The various permutations on funded status measurements that exist can make this subject a little complicated and somewhat burdensome to explain to the non-pension practitioner.
Measurement Number 1: Actuarial value of assets compared to the funding target
These results appear on the first page of the funding notice and are shown for the last three years. If a plan’s actuarial value of assets is greater than or equal to a plan’s target liability, the plan is generally considered well funded and free of potential benefit restrictions. Depending on their nature, benefit restrictions may limit distribution options, benefit improvements or benefit accruals. If a plan’s actuarial value of assets is less than the target liability, then things start to get a little more complicated and this often leads to a more refined measure of the plan’s funded status.
Measurement Number 2: Actuarial value of assets reduced by the credit balances compared to the funding target
This funded status measurement is shown on the funding notice and often results in a highly skewed funding measure, depending on the size of a plan’s total credit balance. A plan may only be slightly underfunded when comparing just the actuarial value of assets with the target liability, but may be greatly underfunded when one subtracts credit balances from the asset value. This key measurement often determines whether a plan faces benefit restrictions. This measure may also determine whether a plan will need to make minimum funding contributions on an accelerated basis in the following year. Lastly, it can also have a great impact on the calculation of the amortization cost or credit component of the minimum funding requirement.
Without Congressional action by December 31, a series of tax cuts will expire, and automatic spending cuts will kick in. After a contentious election, the big question now is: Will the debt discussion be different this time? Will there be more political brinkmanship or has the tone shifted enough to allow for bipartisan cooperation? More importantly for our readers here: What will the outcome of the fiscal cliff negotiations mean for retirement plans if the fiscal cliff isn’t addressed before December 31?
The first day after the election, the Dow lost over 300 points, its largest one day loss in over a year. During the deliberations to raise the debt ceiling, the stock market was extremely volatile. With this backdrop, more stock market volatility is entirely possible. If we experience a drop in the stock market between now and December 31, the asset values for all retirement plans will be down. This will affect savings plans, IRAs, and pension plans.
Milliman’s November 2012 Pension Funding Index showed a pension funding deficit of $498 billion. If the fiscal cliff is not addressed in a timely manner, this deficit could get worse. In order to illustrate the possible implications for pension plans, we used the latest Milliman Pension Funding Index and assumed an equity decline of 20% in December. If such a scenario plays out it will lead to a record low in pension funded status.
Unless interest rates rise, corporate pension plan sponsors who measure their liabilities based on the current level of interest rates will continue to use historically low interest rates. This means their plan liabilities will remain at high levels, a hit to the corporate balance sheet, which is due to the pension plan’s funded status and an increase in contributions for the 2013 plan year.
For public pension plan sponsors, this will likely mean higher contribution rates for the 2013 plan year. For those pension plan sponsors who do not measure their assets and liabilities on December 31, it’s a matter of wait and see what happens until they check in next.
When Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) was passed, the interest rate stabilization provisions provided much needed funding relief for defined benefit pension plan sponsors. However, taking full immediate advantage of the reduced minimum funding requirements may not be the best answer for all sponsors, for a couple reasons.
First, the stabilization provisions have a significant impact in the short term, but that impact diminishes in the long term. Under the scenario where current interest rates remain at or near historically low levels, minimum funding requirements are projected to ramp up every year. Pension funding rules provide some flexibility such that smoothing out contributions over, say, a five-year period could be an appealing option in order to reduce contribution volatility.
Second, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) premiums will increase dramatically over the next few years. Currently, the variable rate premium (one component of the premium) is equal to 0.9% of the pension plan’s unfunded obligation. By 2015, that percentage will double to 1.8%. The same strategy of smoothing out contributions over a time period such as five years could translate into sizeable PBGC premium savings over that period. For example, the 2015 premium would be $18,000 lower for each $1,000,000 that the plan’s assets are higher under the smoothing strategy versus the bare minimum strategy. The same is true for the remaining years in the smoothing period.
Defined benefit pension plan funding relief may be just what some companies need right now in an uncertain economy. But others should take this opportunity to project funding requirements over the next several years, and perhaps find a strategy that will both reduce volatility and result in real cash savings through lower PBGC premiums.
It’s no secret that rock-bottom interest rates and slumping assets are severely limiting the ability of underfunded pensions to bounce back from a horrific third quarter in 2011. As we move into 2012 we wondered what you think the next year has in store for pensions. So we’re asking:
Pension and Investments (registration required) reports on public company pension performance in 2009 while also looking forward to what we might expect in 2010:
The combined funding ratio of the 100 U.S.-based companies with the largest defined benefit plans rose to 81.7% as of Dec. 31, up from 79.4% as of Dec. 31, 2008, according to the 2010 Milliman Pension Funding Study. The Milliman study consists of U.S. qualified and non-qualified plans, as well as non-U.S. plans….The Milliman study also showed the combined funding shortfall of the plans fell to $208 billion as of March 31, down from $243 billion as of Dec. 31 and from $254 billion at the end of 2008.
Plan contributions rose 84% to an aggregate $54.5 billion in 2009, up from $29.5 billion in 2008; Milliman forecast a record level of contributions for 2010, the study said, although it didn’t quantify the amount.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see contributions up to $70 billion, which would be record setting,” John W. Ehrhardt, co-author of the study and principal and consulting actuary, said in an interview, calling the forecast conservative. The record is $58 billion in 2003. Mr. Ehrhardt said.
Defined benefit plans offered by 100 U.S. employers with the largest pension programs were, on average, 81.7% funded in 2009, up from 79.4% in 2008, according to the Milliman Inc. survey.
That improvement was the result of solid investment gains, according to the survey. On average, plans earned 14.1% on assets, a huge turnaround from 2008 when investment losses averaged 18.9%.
In all, the market value of plan assets increased about $112 billion to nearly $1.09 trillion in 2009. On the other hand, the value of plan obligations increased by just more than $100 billion to $1.33 trillion, Milliman said.
The turnaround would have been even bigger except for falling discount rates used to measure plan liabilities, according to the survey. A fall in discount rates inflates the value of plan liabilities for reporting purposes.