Data from Milliman’s 2017 Corporate Pension Funding Study was recently the focus of an interactive graphic in Pensions & Investments entitled, “Top plans surpass their targets” (subscription required).
Milliman has released the results of its 2017 Pension Funding Study, which analyzes the largest corporate pension plans sponsored by 100 U.S. public companies. In 2016, these pension plans experienced a $21.7 billion decrease in funded status, the result of a $54.0 billion increase in the projected benefit obligation (PBO) that was only partially offset by a $32.3 billion increase in the market value of plan assets. As a result, these Milliman 100 plans finished off the year with a funded ratio of 81.2%, down from 81.9% the year before. But the $21.7 billion deterioration and incremental drop in funded status mask a year that experienced volatility across the board for pension plans.
The last year was quite the tug-of-war for these pension plans. Investment performance exceeded expectations, with the 100 largest U.S. pensions experiencing returns of 8.4%—compare that to 0.8% the year prior. But the volatile interest rate environment saw the discount rate plummet by 30 basis points. In 2016, these dynamics resulted in a funded ratio that oscillated back and forth for most of the year before the post-election bump. The end result was a funded ratio of 81.2%—not that far off from where we’ve been at the end of 2015 and 2014.
Study highlights include:
Analysis of asset gains. The 8.4% investment returns experienced by these pension plans was well above the 7.0% return expectation set for 2016. Meanwhile employers’ 2016 plan contributions were up 38% from the year prior. One possible reason for the higher plan contributions is that they improve funded status, resulting in lower PBGC premium expenses.
Impact of updated mortality assumptions. Further decreases in future life expectancy for the second year in a row result in significant reductions in PBO for several Milliman 100 companies.
Use of spot rates increases by 24%. Forty-six of the largest 100 plan sponsor companies will consider recording the fiscal year 2017 pension expense using an accounting method change linked to the spot interest rates derived from yield curves of high quality corporate bonds. The move to spot rates will result in pension expense savings.
Pension Risk Transfers continue. The estimated sum of pension risk transfers to insurance companies (“pension lift-outs”) and settlement payments increased from $11.6 billion in FY2015 to $13.6 billion in FY2016.
In April, Milliman released its 2016 Pension Funding Study. The study looks at the 2015 year end GAAP accounting results for the 100 largest defined benefit corporate pension plan sponsors. A surprising feature of this year’s study is that 37 of the 100 companies in the study disclosed on their Form 10-K financial statements their intentions to value their 2016 net periodic pension cost results using an alternative spot rate method.
Under the standard method typically used for determining pension expense, the yield curve is used to first determine the present value of plan liability. A single equivalent discount rate is determined that produces the same liability. This equivalent discount rate is then used for all purposes in the expense calculation that requires interest adjustments, including calculation of interest and service costs.
The spot rate method is an alternative method to calculate interest and service costs. Calculating the plan’s liability under the spot rate method is similar to the standard method, as the yield curve is used to determine the liability as the present value of payout streams. However, under the spot rate method, costs are developed using the individual spot rates of the yield curve for each year of expected costs. The interest cost for the year is developed by applying each individual spot rate under the yield curve to each corresponding cash flow discounted to the beginning of the year. Because the current shape of the yield curve has low interest rates in the early years and higher rates over time, payouts expected in the next few years are valued at lower rates than in the future. For example, the December 31, 2015, Citigroup Yield Curve has a rate of 1.34% for year 1 and 4.54% for year 20.
With 37 of the 100 pension plan sponsors analyzed planning on adopting the spot rate methodology in 2016 for some or all of their plans, the change is expected to result in savings in the 2016 pension expense for them. According to the 2016 Pension Funding Study, if all 100 companies adopted the spot rate methodology for all of their plans, the 2016 pension expense savings is estimated to be $14 billion (assuming a 20% reduction in the interest cost for a typical company).
The 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans experienced a minuscule funding improvement of 0.1% in 2015, according to the Milliman 2016 Pension Funding Study (PFS). The aggregate funded ratio increased from 81.7% to 81.8% based on a $75.8 billion decrease in the market value of plan assets and a $94.5 billion decrease in the projected benefit obligation (PBO). This resulted in an $18.7 billion improvement in funded status.
In this Milliman Hangout, PFS coauthor Zorast Wadia discusses the results of the study with Amy Resnick, editor of Pensions & Investments.
To read the entire study, click here.
Milliman today released the results of its 2016 Corporate Pension Funding Study, which analyzes the 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans. In 2015, these pension plans experienced a relatively small funding improvement of 0.1%, as the aggregate funded ratio increased from 81.7% to 81.8% based on a $75.8 billion decrease in the market value of plan assets and a $94.5 billion decrease in the projected benefit obligation (PBO). This resulted in an $18.7 billion increase in funded status. The minuscule improvement belies the fierce dynamics facing these pensions last year.
|FIGURE 1: HIGHLIGHTS (FIGURES IN $ BILLION)|
|FISCAL YEAR ENDING|
|MARKET VALUE OF ASSETS||$1,453.6||$1,377.8||($75.8)|
|PROJECTED BENEFIT OBLIGATION||$1,779.7||$1,685.2||($94.5)|
|NET PENSION INCOME/(COST)||($37.3)||($33.7)||$3.6|
|ACTUAL RATE OF RETURN||10.8%||0.9%||-9.9%|
|Note: Numbers may not add up precisely, which is due to rounding.|
What a strange year for these 100 pension plans. These pensions weathered volatile markets, unpredictable discount rate movements, adjusted mortality assumptions, pension risk transfers, and an industry-wide decline in cash contributions…and yet they still finished the year almost exactly where they began. Given all that transpired in 2015, plan sponsors may be relieved that plans did not experience funded status erosion like that of the prior year. But that doesn’t change the fact of a pension funded deficit in excess of $300 billion.
Study highlights include:
Surprising move toward spot rates. Thirty-seven of the largest 100 plan sponsor companies will record fiscal year 2016 pension expense using an accounting method change linked to the spot interest rates derived from yield curves of high quality corporate bonds. The move to spot rates will result in pension expense savings.
Actual returns well below expectations. Actual plan returns were 0.9% for the year—just a fraction of the expected 7.2%.
Impact of updated mortality assumptions. Pension obligations at the end of 2015 were further reduced to reflect refinements in mortality assumptions. While we are unable to collect specific detail regarding the reduction in PBO, a 1% to 2% decrease has been anecdotally reported. Additional revisions to mortality assumptions may be published in the fourth quarter of 2016.
Cash contributions reduced by almost $9 billion. Approximately $40 billion was contributed in 2014, with that number falling to $31 billion in 2015. The likely cause of the decline: the continuation of interest rate stabilization (funding relief) courtesy of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.
Pension Risk Transfers continue. The estimated amount of pension risk transfers collected from the accounting disclosures was nominally higher in 2015 ($11.6 billion) compared with 2014 ($11.4 billion). It seems likely these transactions may increase in 2016, spurred by the significant increases during 2015 in premiums payable to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC); the extension of these premium rate increases was also courtesy of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.
Equity allocations reach a record low. By the end of 2015, equity allocations had dropped to 36.8%, the lowest in the 16-year history of this study. In recent years, the companies in the study generally shifted toward fixed income investments. However, unlike 2014—when plans with higher allocations to fixed income outperformed plans with lower allocations—2015 saw plans with higher allocations to fixed income experience the same rate of return as those with lower allocations.
Under the radar. The 2016 Pension Funding Study also reports on the funded status of Other Postemployment Benefits (OPEB) Plans.
To download the study, click here.
When the discount rate increases the projected benefit obligation (PBO), or pension liability, decreases, and vice versa. This relationship explains the volatile nature of pension liabilities and demonstrates why liabilities-driven investment strategies, which manage funded status and limit volatility of pension liabilities and asset returns, are useful.
To read the entire Corporate Pension Funding Study, click here.