Corporate pension contributions reach record level in 2017, funding status improved to 86.0%

Milliman today released the results of its 2018 Corporate Pension Funding Study (PFS), which analyzes the 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans. Overall, this year’s study found that in 2017 corporate pension contributions hit $62 billion, tying the amount contributed in 2012 for the highest contributions since the inception of the PFS. Seventeen employers contributed at least $1 billion to their plans, with seven of them contributing more than $2 billion.

There were incentives to increase contributions in 2017. Additional contributions can both reduce the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) premiums paid by these plans, and allow them to leverage higher tax deductions in light of tax reform enacted at the end of 2017. It’s a trend that’s likely to flourish in 2018, as plan sponsors with calendar year plans can continue to leverage those higher 2017 tax deductions with contributions made prior to September 15 of this year.

The funded ratio for the Milliman 100 plans rose from 81.1% in 2016 to 86.0% in 2017, an increase due largely to strong investment returns coupled with a modest decline in life expectancy assumptions, and the higher level of plan contributions as noted above. Funding ratios for plans ranged from a low of 62.4% for American Airlines to a high of 155.0% for NextEra Energy, Inc.

Other key highlights from the 2018 study include:

Analysis of asset gains. Strong investment returns added $175 billion to the Milliman 100 plans, with a 12.7% rate of return (compared to an expected investment return of 6.8%). Pension assets for the Milliman 100 plans increased to an all-time high of $1.55 trillion.

Analysis of discount rate and pension liabilities. The median discount rate as of year-end 2017 declined to 3.60%, down 37 basis points from 3.97% the year before. Pension liabilities for the Milliman 100 plans increased to an all-time high of $1.80 trillion.

Pension Risk Transfer (PRT) market matures. The 2017 PRT activity for the Milliman 100 plans was slightly smaller than in 2016, with an estimated $12.7 billion in reported dollar volume.

To view the complete Pension Funding Study, click here. To receive regular updates of Milliman’s pension funding analysis, contact us here.