Tag Archives: de-risking

Preparing a pension plan termination

The process of terminating a defined benefit (DB) plan is lengthy, time-consuming, and costly. An actuary, trust custodian, attorney, trustee, and investment advisor can assist with many of the duties. In this DB Digest article, Milliman’s Stephanie Sorenson discusses the multiple tasks that plan administrators must accomplish in preparation for a plan termination.

Here’s an excerpt:

It is important to review and validate the participant data. Quality data is critical to the termination process. Insurer quotes will reflect the accuracy, actual or perceived, of the data provided to them.

Also the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) requires that the plan sponsor maintain the participant and plan data for six years after plan termination (the date on which PBGC Form 501 is filed). The data should be gathered during the plan termination process and remain accessible during the six-year period.

Does the data have valid identification numbers for all participants? Does the data contain valid dates of birth, hire, participation, and termination? If not, review employment records and update.

Does the data include addresses for all participants and beneficiaries? Are the addresses valid? Do any participants reside outside the United States? Many notices are required to be sent during the termination process. An address and death search for all inactive participants may be prudent.
Verifying addresses prior to termination can save time and frustration.

Have all of the accrued benefits been calculated and certified? If yes, does the data include the information that was used to calculate the stored accrued benefit? During the termination process, a Notice of Plan Benefits will need to be supplied to all participants. This notice is required to provide the personal data used to calculate the participant’s accrued benefit along with a statement requesting that the participant correct any information they believe to be incorrect. If the plan has frozen accrued benefits but the calculation data is not available, the best available data must be provided to the participant on the Notice of Plan Benefits along with a statement giving the participant the opportunity to provide the missing data.

If benefits are not calculated and certified, does the data contain all of the information necessary to calculate the benefits? Final benefits will need to be calculated, not estimated, for all participants.

Data is fluid and constantly changes. Participants move, die, quit, get married/divorced, and retire during the termination process. Ensuring and maintaining accurate data is key to preparing for a plan termination.

Communicating lump-sum windows

Lump-sum windows are common ways for defined benefit (DB) plan sponsors to shed pension liabilities. According to Milliman consultant David Benbow, effective communication is essential when employers consider offering of a lump-sum window. He offers his perspective in a recent Money Management Intelligence article.

Here is an excerpt:

Three things are necessary to make a lump-sum window successful: communication, communication, communication. In addition to the required legal notices informing participants of their rights, you should do your best to create a package that is eye-catching (not many people read their mail after it goes in the trash) and easy to read (if it reads like stereo instructions, people will jump to the election forms and make up their own rules). The communication should spell out the pros and cons of taking a lump sum so that the participant can make an informed decision. The last thing anyone wants is for a well-intended offer to turn into a class action because participants were misled.

It takes time to create a good communication package, and usually there will be several people who wants to take a whack at the piñata, including legal counsel. Just know that clear communication up front will reduce the number of questions and follow-up on the back end.

For more Milliman perspective on lump-sum distributions, click here.

Lack of guidance may extend “window” for lump-sum distributions

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has not issued the anticipated guidance pension plan mortality tables. A recent Bloomberg BNA article quotes Milliman’s Zorast Wadia discussing what plan sponsors must consider, or reconsider, if the IRS does not issue guidance in the coming months.

“The longer we go into 2016 without seeing the IRS issue guidance on new mortality tables,” the less likely such guidance will be issued this year and in place for plans to follow before 2018, said Zorast Wadia, a principal and consulting actuary in the benefits consulting firm Milliman’s New York office… sponsors may want to begin monitoring interest rates to determine the optimal time to offer lump-sum distributions, Wadia said.

Until recently, many plan sponsors and their advisers have been anticipating that these new mortality tables would be required for plans in 2017. The tables are expected to incorporate longer life expectancies and thus make it more expensive for sponsors to offer lump-sum payouts to participants. A delay in the required use of the tables could affect a sponsor’s decision on whether to offer a lump-sum window—a temporary opportunity to take benefits in that form—in 2016.

Wadia said the IRS must also decide whether its new guidance will incorporate the original base tables issued by the Society of Actuaries [SOA] in 2014 with their revised projection scales issued in 2015 or some other basis.

In a 2015 Benefits Law Journal article, Zorast offered perspective on how implementation of the new SOA mortality tables would reduce the accounting gains that are one of the key economic benefits associated with lump-sum distributions. Therefore, if the IRS does not issue guidance concerning mortality tables this year, plan sponsors may have an extended window to consider the potential benefits of offering lump-sum distributions. Any lump-sum offering would of course require a strong communication and education effort to ensure that plan participants are well equipped to make the important retirement decision that lies ahead.

To read the article, click here.

Planning key to avoiding pension termination data pitfalls

Pushaw-Bart“Data! Data! Data!” Sherlock Holmes cries impatiently in a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. “I can’t make bricks without clay!” Nothing could be truer, especially when it comes to a pension plan termination. However, this might easily be forgotten in the preparation process.

Plan sponsors can get bogged down with all the actuarial numbers, all the cash and accounting charges, all the corporate approvals, all the regulations. It’s a lot. Yet a pension plan and its termination remain at the mercy of the data. And there is a lot of data because there are a lot of participants. And properly dealing with it is a lot of detailed work.

First, plan sponsors will need to calculate final benefit amounts. Second, they will need to get this information into the hands of the participants—each and every one of them. Third, they’ll need participants to return completed election forms. And fourth, they’ll need to deliver the benefits to participants in either a lump sum (rollover) or annuity certificate. This may sound easy, but don’t count on it. These steps will not be successful without good data. When determining if your data is up to snuff, consider these factors.

At first blush, management might simply think of plan participants as current employees. However, former employees who retain a vested benefit in the plan and former employees who are retired and receiving monthly pension checks, are also plan participants. While active employee and retiree data is most likely current and accurate, the same may not be true for former employees.

Benefit calculations
To calculate benefits, plan sponsors need final, complete, and accurate data. We’re talking data going back maybe 30 to 40 years; that’s before desktop computers, back when file cabinets were filled with index cards containing employment history. Consider these questions:

• How complete and accurate are your files?
• Do you have historical information on groups that came in via corporate acquisitions?
• Do you have applicable prior plan documents?
• Is the data in an electronic format?
• Can you verify benefit distributions that might have been made many years ago?
• Can you verify the details of benefit calculations that were prepared many years ago for former employees or for when benefit accruals were frozen for current employees?

Finally, take a look at the location of your people. Where are they—and can you find them? Think about things like name changes, cross-country relocations, divorces, deaths. Ask yourself:

• Do you have current mailing addresses? How do you know?
• How many missing people can you locate? How do you do that?
• If a former employee died, do you know if there is a surviving spouse who is due a benefit?

Once the decision is agreed upon, the work falls on plan committees and assigned staff. One large job, the single largest probably, is dealing with the plan participant data. So it’s important to understand and assess data issues early with assistance from your actuary or pension plan administrator.

The big bang theory and pension plan terminations

Pushaw-BartNuclear fission1 and pension plan termination. You’d be surprised at how much they have in common. In other words, left alone, fissionable material decays on its own, eventually distributing its last. On the other hand, with a little help, it can go away in one very big bang. It’s the same result in the end. Pension plans behave the same way. Left alone, they pay out monthly benefits along with lump sums, eventually distributing their final payments. The big bang version for a pension plan is a total termination. In either case, the result in the end is the same.

For a pension plan, these are the two extremes. Between these extremes is a continuum along the termination spectrum, which is controlled by the plan sponsor. We can accelerate the plan’s normal, slow rate of decay up to and including a big bang, total termination. This slower decay we ought to refer to as a termination, too, just not the big one, total termination. Today, such fractional terminations are popularly referred to as de-risking. Nothing new, mind you, just an updated moniker. Of course, with enough fractional terminations, we end up with a total termination just the same.

One type of fractional termination is a lump-sum window or cash-out initiative. Lump-sum windows usually refer to a plan which is offering lump-sum distributions to a vested group of former employees who otherwise would not have access to their benefits until retirement. The window of opportunity usually exists for a few months, then closes. Cash-out initiatives are slightly different in that the former employees already have access to a lump sum distribution but now are getting a friendly reminder. After declining the original offer, their lump sum may have grown and is perhaps now a bit more desirable. Both types of project can be regulated toward a manageable administrative size or with an eye toward avoiding unwanted accounting repercussions. Target groups are made up of those former employees who retain a vested benefit under the plan. Retirees in pay status are off limits. These groups may require administrative sleuthing if mailing address information is out of date.

Another type of fractional termination is off-loading plan obligations to an insurance company through the purchase of an annuity. This is the principal means of removing retirees from the plan. Carriers may want the business enough to drive the purchase price of the annuity down sufficiently to make the opportunity very attractive to a sponsor. These annuity placements may also be sized to fit the sponsor’s financial needs.

This leaves us with those plan participants who are still employed by the sponsor, which brings us back to the big bang total termination. We need to be a little clearer about this. A total termination is a big bang because you can distribute lump sums and place annuities for everyone left in the plan all at once. It also requires a high level of rigor as it falls under focused scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Labor, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). A big bang total termination is just a whole bunch of fractional terminations bundled up to occur all at once under a formal regulatory framework.

Nuclear fission can happen bit by bit over time or can be speeded up with sudden and dramatic results. Working a series of fractional terminations, perhaps leading up to a total termination, allows greater flexibility of timing and financial control for a plan sponsor.

1If your physics is a little rusty, nuclear fission is “the splitting of an atomic nucleus into approximately equal parts, either spontaneously or as a result of the impact of a particle usually with an associated release of energy. Collins English Dictionary, 12th ed. (2014). “Nuclear fission.” Retrieved January 18, 2016, from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/nuclear+fission.

Is the “window” closing for lump-sum windows?

Offering lump-sum windows to terminated vested participants has financial pros and cons for defined benefit plan sponsors. The regulatory environment in 2016 presents sponsors with a unique opportunity to de-risk pensions through lump-sums. However, sponsors may miss an opportunity to capitalize on the financial advantages of offering lump-sums if they defer to later years. Milliman’s Zorast Wadia provides perspective in his article entitled “De-risking your pension plan: Do new regulations make 2016 the best time to offer lump-sum distributions?

Here is an excerpt:

A golden opportunity—perhaps the last of its kind—for lump-sum windows is coming up in 2016. After that, the window may close for quite some time.

The issue, in brief, stems from a disagreement within the actuarial profession. In October 2014, the Society of Actuaries (SOA) published its updated Mortality Tables Report. The new tables included much more optimistic assumptions about longevity than anything that had come before. If these assumptions are correct, employees would live longer, and the cost of funding their retirement benefits would increase in the 6 to 10 percent range for many plan sponsors.

Many in the actuarial community responded critically to the report, based on the table’s construction methodology and conclusions. At the same time, plan sponsors were concerned because the new longevity assumptions would have the effect of increasing funding requirements, pension expense, and PBGC premiums. Implementation of the new SOA mortality tables would also significantly reduce the accounting gains that are one of the key economic benefits associated with lump-sum distributions.

On July 31, 2015, the IRS stepped in and eliminated the controversy—and uncertainty—at least through the end of 2016 with IRS Notice 2015-53. As Milliman stated in its Client Action Bulletin of August 13, 2015:

For defined benefit plan sponsors (including multiemployer pension plan trustees), the updated tables provide certainty that the [new SOA tables] will not be required for 2016. The use of the IRS’s updated tables will have a more modest effect … on actuarial valuation results, including minimum funding, benefit restrictions, lump-sum calculations, and PBGC premiums.

Looking ahead to 2016, plan sponsors know they can benefit from the accounting gain traditionally received from lump-sum transactions. Furthermore, the US Federal Reserve continues to signal that an interest rate increase will take place before the end of 2015, with additional small rate hikes throughout 2016. Moreover, through the first nine months of the year, corporate bond interest rates, which are the benchmark interest rates used to calculate statutory minimum lump sums, are already up about 35 basis points. In fact, plans using a three-month lookback period for interest rates can already lock in this interest rate basis for minimum lump-sum distributions in 2016. The basic math of lump sums means that lump sums due employees will be smaller because of higher benchmark interest rates.

Additionally, it is rumored that, in 2017, the IRS will adopt a new table reflecting longevity improvements, which may be the SOA table6 or something similar. In other words, plan sponsors considering a lump-sum distribution may want to take advantage of the clearly favorable environment in 2016.