The most important retirement stories of 2011

If you’re like a lot of people, you’re probably anxious to put 2011 in the rearview mirror. Yet the biggest stories of 2011 could play out for years to come. So let’s take a look in that rearview mirror and see if there’s anything we can learn from some of the key stories we tracked on Retirement Town Hall in 2011.

A record nobody wants to break
In the third quarter of 2011 the Milliman Pension Funding Index had its second-worst quarter in the history of the study (read the full story). Like a consecutive losses streak, nobody wants to break any records for worst quarter in the study.

How will underfunded pensions start to dig out in 2012? “With interest rates remaining at historic lows and low expectations for investment gains, plan sponsors will be facing record levels of contribution requirements in 2012 and 2013,” says John Ehrhardt.

Risky business
The Department of Labor (DoL) gathered experts to discuss the trend towards using investments with higher rewards but higher risks in pension plans (read the full story). Investing is all about risk and reward but pension plan managers face unique circumstances when investing people’s retirement money. That’s why many are exploring new approaches to managing this risk.

“The risk management techniques used by variable annuity providers saved insurance companies $40 billion during the financial crisis,” says Tamara Burden. “Pension plans can benefit from similar techniques, especially in this time of record-low interest rates.”

No more Social Security blanket
Changes are afoot at the Social Security Administration (SSA). In 2011 the SSA announced its plan to stop issuing paper checks (read the full story) and statements (read the full story). These moves are certainly eco-friendly, but they are really intended to help the SSA’s bottom line.

What effect will these changes have going forward? “As the world becomes more reliant on technology, electronic deliverables like these make more sense from both a practicality and cost standpoint,” says Tim Connor. “Get used to it, embrace it, and take part in it.”

Downgrades, they’re not just for hurricanes
The day some thought would never come came in 2011. The S&P’s downgrade of the United States was a dramatic event within the investing world that affected nearly everyone (read the full story). The downgrade led to immediate volatility, at the time.

What will be the lasting effects of the downgrade on those who manage retirement plans? “As humans we tend to forget, most of the initial effects of the downgrade have subsided, investors are still buying U.S. debt,” says Jeff Marzinsky. “However this should not lead investors to a false sense of security. The U.S. economy is improving, but still fragile, markets are volatile, and interest rates continue to remain low.  Investment policy and diversification are key areas to keep a close eye on, more than ever.”

As exciting as watching paint dry
It’s more of a non-story than a story, but 2011 was something of a regulatory vacuum in which employers operating both defined contribution (DC) and defined benefit (DB) plans waited and waited and waited for regulatory guidance on key issues…and are still waiting.

“There are numerous examples where some regulatory guidance would be quite welcome for plan sponsors,” says Charles Clark. “There are holes in the DB funding rules, many questions still swirling around disclosure rules, and new uncertainty around cash balance plan regulations, just to name a few.”

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