Pension deficit increases by $6 billion in February

Milliman today released the results of its latest Pension Funding Index, which consists of 100 of the nation’s largest corporate defined benefit pension plans. In February, these pensions experienced a $6 billion decrease in funded status based on a $17 billion increase in the pension benefit obligation (PBO) and an $11 billion increase in assets. February’s growth in the funded status deficit follows a near-record improvement of $107 billion in January and still leaves these pensions in better shape than at the end of 2012.

Assets continued to climb in February, but as usual it was interest rates that ultimately drove pension funded status. Thanks to cooperative interest rates in January, we are still ahead for the year. Even with the Dow hitting new record highs, it will ultimately be interest rates that dictate the pension funding story in 2013.

In February, the discount rate used to calculate pension liabilities decreased from 4.45% to 4.40%, increasing the PBO from $1.666 trillion to $1.683 trillion at the end of the month. The overall asset value for these 100 pensions increased from $1.361 trillion to $1.372 trillion.

Looking forward, if these 100 pension plans were to achieve their expected 7.8% median asset return and if the current discount rate of 4.40% were to be maintained throughout 2013 and 2014, their pension funded ratio would improve from 81.5% to 85.6% by the end of 2013 and to 90.6% by the end of 2014.

These figures are tentative and will be revisited as part of the 2013 Milliman Pension Funding Study, to be released later this month. Milliman expects that de-risking activities made by some of these companies will probably lower asset and liability figures, which may slightly negatively affect the plans’ overall funded status.

About John Ehrhardt

John is a principal and consulting actuary in the New York office of Milliman. He joined the firm in 1983. John is the author of Milliman’s annual Pension Funding Survey and the Milliman 100 Pension Funding Index, which analyze the funded status of the pension plans of 100 of the largest U.S. corporations.