Posts Tagged ‘Pension Funding Study’

Pension plans: How’s that de-risking going?

May 20th, 2014 No comments

Herman-TimCorporate pension plans had a good year in 2013. The Milliman 2014 Pension Funding Study reported a $198.3 billion improvement in the funded status deficit during 2013. This improvement was due to a win-win situation where there was a 7.5% decrease in plan liabilities from higher discount rates and a 9.9% average return on plan assets.

There are a few interesting pieces of information that can be gleaned from the Pension Funding Study about plan sponsors that have made moves to de-risk their pension plans.

• In general, the asset allocations of the plans in the study have shifted toward a higher allocation of fixed income investments. However, some plan sponsors have retained a more traditional asset mix.

• In 2013, plan sponsors with higher allocations to equities experienced greater improvement in pension funded status than those with lower exposures to equities.

• Some plan sponsors who undertook de-risking activities such as lump sum payouts or annuity purchases may need to increase cash contributions to maintain funded status.

  • For example, Ford was one of the companies that undertook de-risking activities in 2012. Its 2013 contribution increased by more than $1.6 billion.

• There are 22 pension plans in the Milliman 100 index that had asset allocations to fixed income investments over 40% in 2009. Since 2009:

  • These 22 plans experienced significantly lower funded ratio volatility than the other 78 plans.
  • From 2010 through 2012, these plans earned higher average annualized returns.
  • Until 2013, this strategy paid off for these plans in terms of reducing funded status volatility.

• For the plans that did not increase asset allocations to fixed income investments, the combination of higher interest rates to discount liabilities with favorable returns on assets led to a significant improvement in their funded ratios.

What are the morals of the story? De-risking pension plans may provide advantages to plan sponsors in reductions in funded status volatility. But these advantages may come at the price of higher cash contributions and missing out on favorable moves in the market.

Possible MAP-21 extension presents additional funding stabilization

April 16th, 2014 No comments

A provision appended to the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2014 may offer defined benefit (DB) plan sponsors continued funding relief. The provision would extend the funding stabilization authorized under the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) another five years.

In a recent Bloomberg BNA article, Zorast Wadia talks about the benefits of lengthening the MAP-21 provision. Here is an excerpt:

The MAP-21 provisions stabilize the discount rates used to calculate employers’ pension funding obligations by adjusting rates if they fall outside of an interest rate “corridor” tied to average rates over a 25-year period. Those corridors gradually widen through 2016, weakening their impact. The provisions were designed to raise revenue by lowering companies’ required pension contributions and thereby driving up taxable income and projected tax receipts.

As the MAP-21 smoothing provisions enter the midway point in 2014, plan sponsors are beginning to see the relief wear off, said Zorast Wadia, a principal and consulting actuary in the New York office of Milliman.

Interest rates continually declined from 2009 to 2012, and only began to rebound in 2013, so pension liabilities still remain at all-time highs, Wadia said. Lessening the relief could put many sponsors in a “tough situation again,” he said.

Under MAP-21, the corridor incrementally widens from 10 percent in 2012 to 30 percent in 2016. Under the unemployment insurance legislation, the corridor would remain at 10 percent through 2017 and incrementally widen to 30 percent after 2020.

There is a lot of incentive to fully fund plans more quickly, one reason being rising premiums set by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, Wadia said. “But those [plans] that are cash-strapped will probably welcome this opportunity, and continue to eke by, to do what they need to get on through,” he said.

Results from the 2014 Pension Funding Study (PFS) suggest that plan sponsors took advantage of MAP-21’s funding relief. Contributions declined significantly during 2013, according to the PFS.

The $44.1 billion in contributions during 2013 (down $18.1 billion from $62.2 billion in 2012) was the lowest level in five years. The lower-than-expected contributions were likely due to plan sponsors changing their contribution strategy in light of the MAP-21 interest rate stabilization legislation, passed in July of 2012. Seven companies decreased their contribution by more than $1 billion in 2013 compared with 2012, for a total of $13.3 billion….

In 2013, corporate pension plans with the highest equity exposure were the biggest benefactors

April 2nd, 2014 No comments

Milliman today released the results of its 2014 Pension Funding Study (PFS), which analyzes the 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans. In 2013, these pension plans experienced historic improvement, with plan liabilities decreasing by 7.5% and assets improving by an average of 9.9%. This resulted in a $198.3 billion improvement in the funded status deficit from year-end 2012. While it was a “win-win” year for most sponsors, those with higher equity allocations performed the best.

Last year was a great year for pension funded status and helped reduce much of the underfunding that has persisted since the global financial crisis. Plans that held off on de-risking their plans were the biggest benefactors of the strong equity performance. With 18 of the 100 plans in our study now fully funded, and more hopefully reaching full funding this year, the timing for de-risking activities that can lock in funded status may be optimal.

Study highlights include:

Interest rate increases evident in financial statements. The discount rates used to measure plan obligations increased from 4.04% to 4.75% in 2013. While these rates are still down from a high water mark of 7.63% in 1999, the improvement in 2013 went a long ways toward minimizing the pension funded status deficit.

Investment performance exceeded expectations. The weighted average actual investment return on pension assets for the Milliman 100 companies’ 2013 fiscal years was 9.9%, which compares favorably to the expected return of 7.4%.

Contributions decline significantly during 2013. The $44.1 billion in contributions during 2013 (down $18.1 billion from $62.2 billion in 2012) was the lowest level in five years. The lower-than-expected contributions were likely due to plan sponsors changing their contribution strategies in light of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) interest rate stabilization legislation, passed in July 2012.

Pension expense decreased. Favorable investment returns in 2012 offset the impact of declining discount rates in that year, leading to a reduced level of pension expense: a $32.1 billion charge to earnings. This is $23.7 billion lower than the record high pension expense in 2012.

Market capitalization of these plans up more than 20%. The favorable equity market performance during 2013 increased the total market capitalization for the Milliman 100 companies by 21.2%. When combined with the decrease in pension obligations, this resulted in a decrease in the unfunded pension liability as a percentage of market capitalization, from 7.3% at the end of 2012 to 3.0% at the end of 2013.

Asset allocations remain relatively stable. The trend toward implementing liability-driven investing (LDI) continued in 2013, but at a slower pace. Overall allocations to equities remained largely unchanged in 2013. With strong 2013 returns across most equity markets and losses in many fixed-income sectors, it is evident that many plans rebalanced during the year by moving money from equities, and possibly other asset classes, to fixed income.

What to expect in 2014. Given the funded status gains in 2013, 2014 contributions are expected to decrease compared to those made in 2013. Plans already at surplus at the end of 2013 will have reduced incentive to further fund their plans in 2014. For some plans that had already engaged in LDI or other funded status lock-in strategies, higher contribution levels can be expected.

Given the compound effect of favorable investment returns in 2013 and higher discount rates at year-end, we estimate that 2014 pension expense will decrease to $19 billion, a $13 billion decrease compared with 2013. We may see more than 30 of the Milliman 100 companies with pension income in 2014, a level not seen since 2002.

To read the entire study, click here.

Watch Milliman’s Google+ Hangout where Zorast Wadia and I discuss the results of this year’s PFS with Pensions & Investments Executive Editor Amy Resnick.

Declining interest rates produce record pension deficit in 2012

March 25th, 2013 No comments

Milliman today released the results of its 2013 Pension Funding Study, which analyzes the 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans. In 2012, these pension plans were once again defined by record-low discount rates, which led to record-high pension obligations and a $388.8 billion pension funding deficit—a $61.1 billion deficit increase in 2012. Since the end of 2010, declining interest rates have widened the pension funding deficit by more than $150 billion, driving record deficits in each of the last two years. The pension funding ratio stood at 77.2% at year’s end, down from 79.2% at the end of 2011. The deficit increase and reduced funding ratio in 2012 happened in spite of efforts by certain plan sponsors to de-risk their pension plans.

Many plan sponsors made significant efforts to de-risk their pension plans in 2012, even as record-low interest rates made it an expensive time to pursue these kinds of risk management efforts. But there was no fighting the inevitable gravity of these low interest rates, as the 100 pension plans in our study saw a cumulative deficit increase in excess of $60 billion. All this in spite of strong asset performance that exceeded the expectations of most plan sponsors. People are probably getting tired of hearing me say this, but pension funding status will continue to be tied to interest rates. If rates stay low—and all indications are that they will through 2014—these pension plans will struggle to fill their funding gaps.

Major pension stories for 2012 include:

De-risking results in shake up at the top of the Milliman 100. Throughout the 13 years Milliman has performed this analysis, General Motors (GM) has been the largest pension plan, based on total assets. That changed in 2012 after GM pursued de-risking efforts. IBM—long a solid #2 in the study—is now the largest pension plan in the Milliman 100. Other large plan sponsors, including Ford and Verizon, also pursued de-risking. Across the entire Milliman 100, de-risking by at least 15 plan sponsors resulted in a cumulative $45 billion reduction in plan obligations.

Asset increases and $61.5 billion in contributions were not enough to close the deficit. With an 11.7% investment return in 2012, the Milliman 100 pension plans performed better than they expected—but it wasn’t enough to offset the ballooning deficit. Nor were contributions in excess of $60 billion.

Record contributions in 2012—but not at the level expected. While the $61.5 billion in contributions during 2012 was significantly greater than most prior years, it exceeded the 2011 total by only $6.3 billion and the 2010 total by only $1.8 billion. The lower-than-expected contributions were likely due to plan sponsors electing to change their contribution strategies following the passage of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) interest rate stabilization legislation.

Another record year for pension expense. Following a $38.5 billion charge to earnings in 2011, the Milliman 100 pension plans again set a new record for total pension expense, with a $55.8 billion charge to earnings. The $17.3 billion increase in pension expense is consistent with the prediction of $16 billion reported by last year’s study. This year’s study predicts a $7.6 billion increase in pension expense in 2013.

Asset allocations relatively stable. In 2011, plan sponsors decreased the percentage of assets invested in equities by more than 5%. In 2012, the percentage of assets allocated to equities remained relatively stable (from 38.2% to 38.0%), as the move toward liability-driven investments (LDI) slowed. Because of the strong performance of equities in 2012, plans with higher equity allocations had better investment returns than those with higher allocations to fixed-income investments.

What to expect in 2013. With the Federal Reserve Board indicating its intention to keep interest rates low through 2014, pension obligations will remain high. The year is off to a strong start from an equity perspective, and de-risking may continue in 2013. But until interest rates move favorably, the pension funding deficit is likely to endure.

The 2013 Milliman Pension Funding Study is due out on March 25

March 12th, 2013 No comments

Milliman’s Corporate Pension Funding Study is an annual analysis of the 100 largest U.S. corporate defined benefit pension plans. Study co-author John Ehrhardt discusses new funded status results, General Motor’s de-risking measures, and 2013’s outlook in this preview.

The 2013 Milliman Pension Funding Study will be released on Monday, March 25. Contact us at to be added to our mailing list.

Falling interest rates define 2011 for corporate pensions

March 29th, 2012 No comments

Milliman, Inc. today released the results of its 2012 Pension Funding Study, which analyzes the 100 largest U.S. corporate pensions. In 2011, these pensions were defined by record-low discount rates, which led to record-high pension liabilities and a $326.8 billion pension funding deficit—a $94.7 billion increase over year-end 2010 and a new record for the 12-year history of this study. The pension funding ratio stood at 79.2% at year’s end.

Interest rates drove the pension funding deficit to record levels, and the record deficit drove everything else. We saw record pension expense and, for the first time in the history of this study, these pensions invested more heavily in fixed income than in equities. But it’s what we didn’t see that is perhaps most intriguing: Despite our prediction of record pension contributions, we instead saw contributions decline, setting up 2012 as a major contribution year for some of these companies. We’re already seeing evidence of this, with several companies making high-profile announcements about pension contributions in excess of a billion dollars.

Major pension stories for 2011 include:

Contributions deferred to 2012 and beyond despite expectations for record contributions in 2011. While the $55.1 billion in contributions during 2011 was significantly greater than most prior years, the contribution total was $5.2 billion lower than the record level of $60.3 billion set during 2010. According to footnote disclosures and press releases, many companies have chosen to defer their pension contributions to 2012, and at least 10 companies have already disclosed to investors contributions in excess of a billion dollars.

Assets underperform expectations. The record growth in liabilities (9.3% over 2011) drowned out the 5.9% investment return for the year. These 100 companies had set an expectation that 2011 investment returns would be 7.8% on average.

Record pension expense. The decline in discount rates drove record levels of pension expense. These 100 companies faced a $38.3 billion charge to earnings, $7.8 billion higher than the $30.5 billion in 2010. The prospects for 2012 are even more severe: Given the record-low discount rates, we estimate that 2012 pension expense will increase $16 billion, resulting in a record $54 billion charge to corporate earnings.

Reduced reliance on equities and increased reliance on fixed income. Between 2010 and 2011, the percentage of pension plan assets invested in equities decreased from approximately 43.8% to 38.1%, while fixed-income allocations increased from 36.4% to 41.4%. For the first time in the history of the Milliman study, the allocation to fixed income exceeded the allocation to equities. This shift reflects the strong outperformance of fixed income over equities in 2011. It also reveals an emphasis on derisking by these 100 companies. Plans pursuing liability-driven investment strategies typically reduce their exposures to equities, increasing their allocation to fixed income, and lengthening the duration of fixed-income assets to more closely match their liabilities.

Expectations for 2012 tempered by record pension funding deficit. With the Federal Reserve indicating its intention to keep interest rates low through 2014, pension liabilities will remain high, as will the deficit. Companies that deferred contributions may increase contributions significantly in 2012.

Here is coverage from Bloomberg. Here is coverage from Dow Jones. Here is coverage from the Wall Street Journal. Here is coverage from Reuters. Here is coverage from Business insurance.

To browse these and other stories, check out our Storify summary of Pension Funding Study coverage.

Pension funding discussion on CNBC

February 3rd, 2012 No comments

CNBC’s “Fast Money” interviewed John Ehrhardt yesterday, with a focus on what the interest-rate-driven pension funding deficit means for corporate pension contributions. The interview begins about two minutes in:

Here is a key quote from Ehrhardt’s interview:

“Record low interest rates result in historically high liabilities and the only remaining lever may be employer contributions.”

You can also see the interview here.

Get ready for record pension contributions

January 25th, 2012 No comments

In 2010, the 100 largest corporate pensions made record contributions to their pension plans, according to the 2011 Milliman Pension Funding Study. On January 25, we saw the first signs of our forecasts that 2011 and 2012 would be record years for these pensions. Two announcements in particular caught our eye:

We will not be surprised when other large employers with defined benefit pension plans make these announcements in this 2012 earnings report season.

We’ll cover these contributions in more detail in the 2012 Milliman Pension Funding Index, which is due out in late March.

UPDATE: The pension contribution announcements keep coming:

Asset allocation

April 6th, 2011 No comments

The 2011 Pension Funded Study includes analysis of asset allocation. In 2010, the percentage of pension plan assets invested in equities decreased from approximately 45% to 44%.

Meanwhile the fixed income allocations were unchanged at 36%.


The allocation to other investments increased from 19% to 20% during 2010. The minor increase to other asset classes reflects, in part, greater diversification of portfolios to help reduce funded status volatility.

We believe that companies should consider employing dynamic investment policy strategies for de-risking their plans as they move from underfunded levels to fully funded levels, reducing their equity allocations and increasing liability-matched fixed income allocations.

Ten eventful years in pension funded status

April 1st, 2011 No comments

The chart below, which many of you have seen before, depicts the quarterly pension funded status over the last 10 years. If you click on the chart you’ll go to an animated version that includes an audio explanation (by yours truly) of this tumultuous 10-year period. Check it out: