Milliman today released the results of its 2017 Public Pension Funding Study (PPFS), which analyzes funding levels of the nation’s 100 largest public pension plans, including an independent assessment on the expected real return of each plan’s investments.
As of June 30, 2017, the estimated aggregate funded ratio of the nation’s largest public pension plans is 70.7%, up from 67.7% at the end of the plans’ latest reported fiscal years (generally June 30, 2016). Total assets for these plans at their fiscal year-ends were reported at $3.19 trillion, and as of June 30, 2017, are estimated to have jumped to a combined $3.44 trillion thanks to strong market performance in late 2016 and early 2017. As for Total Pension Liability (TPL), the Milliman 100 public plans reported at their latest fiscal year-ends an aggregate TPL of $4.72 trillion, covering more than 26 million members; this figure is estimated to have risen to $4.87 trillion as of June 30, 2017.
An in-depth analysis by Milliman, however, estimates these plans’ total liabilities could be even higher. Based on the market’s consensus views that long-term investment returns have been declining, the study recalibrated TPL for each plan using independently determined interest rate assumptions. For this study, we use the term “interest rate” to indicate the assumption the plan sponsor has chosen to determine contribution amounts, and the term “discount rate” to indicate the rate used to measure liabilities for financial reporting purposes. In aggregate, Milliman estimates the recalibrated TPL for the Milliman 100 plans is $4.98 trillion as of their fiscal year-ends–$260 billion higher than reported by sponsors.
In this low-interest-rate environment, market expectations on investment returns have been falling faster than plan sponsors can reassess rates. And the gap that creates between sponsor-reported and our recalibrated market-based liabilities is widening, which is all the more reason plans should continue to monitor emerging investment return expectations and adjust their assumptions as needed.
While plan sponsors report a median discount rate of 7.50% (with a spread of 6.50% to 8.50%), Milliman’s assessment of the expected real return for each plan’s investments puts the median rate at 6.71%-lower than all but six of the 100 sponsor-reported rates. Despite one-third of the plans lowering their discount rates since the last study, this gap between sponsor-reported and independently determined rates continues to widen, indicating that further reductions in discount rates will be likely in the coming years.