Strategies for reducing retirement plan risk in defined benefit plans

This blog summarizes a presentation given by Steve Hastings and Mahrukh Mavalvala at the Mid-Sized Retirement & Healthcare Plan Management Conference in San Francisco.

The 21st century has been rough on defined benefit (DB) plans. The days in the ’80s and ’90s of pension plan “contribution holidays” have ceded to the current era of low interest rates and high market volatility, and plan sponsors face many risk factors. The types of risk inherent in defined benefit pension plans—interest, inflation, investment, longevity, and legislative risk—impact DB plans in complex ways, which may not end even if an employer has frozen its DB plan. So what is a DB plan sponsor to do? One answer is to work with its plan consultant to gain a deeper understanding of the issues at hand and the strategies available to alleviate the pain points.

Risk management strategies include both in-plan options (such as plan design changes, investment strategies, and annuity options), as well as settlement strategies (irrevocable actions that relieve the plan of benefit obligations). Plan design modifications, including hybrid and cash balance plans, can reduce longevity risk by reducing pension liabilities, and may transfer some investment risk to participants. Switching to a defined contribution (DC) plan may be another strategy, with the option of maintaining the DB plan as a longevity plan to provide annuity income at later ages. However, changing the plan design is a substantial undertaking that may include special ERISA compliance efforts and communicating what may be an unpopular decision to participants. In some cases, participants have filed lawsuits in response to plan design changes and settlement strategies.

Liability-driven investing (LDI) and tail risk management strategies have grown in popularity as in-plan strategies to manage risk via the plan’s investment policy. However, LDI strategies must balance reductions in volatility with hedging interest rate exposure and meeting asset return objectives—not always easily achieved. Tail risk management strategies, such as the Milliman Managed Risk Strategy™, can protect against debilitating investment losses over a short period of time.

Settlement strategies are another option for pension plan sponsors looking to reduce risk. One strategy is offering participants a one-time, irrevocable option to receive the present value amount of their benefit as a lump sum. Another strategy is purchasing an annuity contract where the insurer will provide the remaining annuity payments; in purchasing such contracts, the plan sponsor has a fiduciary obligation to select a financially strong, solvent insurer. Without plan termination, settlement strategies are only available to cover terminated and retired participants (and their beneficiaries). Ford recently implemented a single lump sum settlement strategy. GM recently terminated a frozen plan and purchased annuities to cover some of the pension liabilities. Verizon also recently purchased annuities for a block of retirees. In light of these and other events, this is an excellent time to reevaluate pension plan risk and risk mitigation strategies with your plan consultants.

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