Tag Archives: Pension Funding Study

Spot rate methodology: Plans are making the switch

Moliterno-MariaIn April, Milliman released its 2016 Pension Funding Study. The study looks at the 2015 year end GAAP accounting results for the 100 largest defined benefit corporate pension plan sponsors. A surprising feature of this year’s study is that 37 of the 100 companies in the study disclosed on their Form 10-K financial statements their intentions to value their 2016 net periodic pension cost results using an alternative spot rate method.

Under the standard method typically used for determining pension expense, the yield curve is used to first determine the present value of plan liability. A single equivalent discount rate is determined that produces the same liability. This equivalent discount rate is then used for all purposes in the expense calculation that requires interest adjustments, including calculation of interest and service costs.

The spot rate method is an alternative method to calculate interest and service costs. Calculating the plan’s liability under the spot rate method is similar to the standard method, as the yield curve is used to determine the liability as the present value of payout streams. However, under the spot rate method, costs are developed using the individual spot rates of the yield curve for each year of expected costs. The interest cost for the year is developed by applying each individual spot rate under the yield curve to each corresponding cash flow discounted to the beginning of the year. Because the current shape of the yield curve has low interest rates in the early years and higher rates over time, payouts expected in the next few years are valued at lower rates than in the future. For example, the December 31, 2015, Citigroup Yield Curve has a rate of 1.34% for year 1 and 4.54% for year 20.

With 37 of the 100 pension plan sponsors analyzed planning on adopting the spot rate methodology in 2016 for some or all of their plans, the change is expected to result in savings in the 2016 pension expense for them. According to the 2016 Pension Funding Study, if all 100 companies adopted the spot rate methodology for all of their plans, the 2016 pension expense savings is estimated to be $14 billion (assuming a 20% reduction in the interest cost for a typical company).

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Milliman Hangout: 2016 Pension Funding Study

The 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans experienced a minuscule funding improvement of 0.1% in 2015, according to the Milliman 2016 Pension Funding Study (PFS). The aggregate funded ratio increased from 81.7% to 81.8% based on a $75.8 billion decrease in the market value of plan assets and a $94.5 billion decrease in the projected benefit obligation (PBO). This resulted in an $18.7 billion improvement in funded status.

In this Milliman Hangout, PFS coauthor Zorast Wadia discusses the results of the study with Amy Resnick, editor of Pensions & Investments.

To read the entire study, click here.

The 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans’ funded status improved by only 0.1% in 2015

Wadia_ZorastMilliman today released the results of its 2016 Corporate Pension Funding Study, which analyzes the 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans. In 2015, these pension plans experienced a relatively small funding improvement of 0.1%, as the aggregate funded ratio increased from 81.7% to 81.8% based on a $75.8 billion decrease in the market value of plan assets and a $94.5 billion decrease in the projected benefit obligation (PBO). This resulted in an $18.7 billion increase in funded status. The minuscule improvement belies the fierce dynamics facing these pensions last year.

2014 2015 CHANGE
MARKET VALUE OF ASSETS $1,453.6 $1,377.8 ($75.8)
PROJECTED BENEFIT OBLIGATION $1,779.7 $1,685.2 ($94.5)
FUNDED STATUS ($326.1) ($307.4) ($18.7)
FUNDED PERCENTAGE 81.7% 81.8% 0.1%
NET PENSION INCOME/(COST) ($37.3) ($33.7) $3.6
DISCOUNT RATE 4.00% 4.25% 0.25%
ACTUAL RATE OF RETURN 10.8% 0.9% -9.9%
Note: Numbers may not add up precisely, which is due to rounding.

What a strange year for these 100 pension plans. These pensions weathered volatile markets, unpredictable discount rate movements, adjusted mortality assumptions, pension risk transfers, and an industry-wide decline in cash contributions…and yet they still finished the year almost exactly where they began. Given all that transpired in 2015, plan sponsors may be relieved that plans did not experience funded status erosion like that of the prior year. But that doesn’t change the fact of a pension funded deficit in excess of $300 billion.

Study highlights include:

Surprising move toward spot rates. Thirty-seven of the largest 100 plan sponsor companies will record fiscal year 2016 pension expense using an accounting method change linked to the spot interest rates derived from yield curves of high quality corporate bonds. The move to spot rates will result in pension expense savings.

Actual returns well below expectations. Actual plan returns were 0.9% for the year—just a fraction of the expected 7.2%.

Impact of updated mortality assumptions. Pension obligations at the end of 2015 were further reduced to reflect refinements in mortality assumptions. While we are unable to collect specific detail regarding the reduction in PBO, a 1% to 2% decrease has been anecdotally reported. Additional revisions to mortality assumptions may be published in the fourth quarter of 2016.

Cash contributions reduced by almost $9 billion. Approximately $40 billion was contributed in 2014, with that number falling to $31 billion in 2015. The likely cause of the decline: the continuation of interest rate stabilization (funding relief) courtesy of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.

Pension Risk Transfers continue. The estimated amount of pension risk transfers collected from the accounting disclosures was nominally higher in 2015 ($11.6 billion) compared with 2014 ($11.4 billion). It seems likely these transactions may increase in 2016, spurred by the significant increases during 2015 in premiums payable to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC); the extension of these premium rate increases was also courtesy of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.

Equity allocations reach a record low. By the end of 2015, equity allocations had dropped to 36.8%, the lowest in the 16-year history of this study. In recent years, the companies in the study generally shifted toward fixed income investments. However, unlike 2014—when plans with higher allocations to fixed income outperformed plans with lower allocations—2015 saw plans with higher allocations to fixed income experience the same rate of return as those with lower allocations.

Under the radar. The 2016 Pension Funding Study also reports on the funded status of Other Postemployment Benefits (OPEB) Plans.

To download the study, click here.

Milliman infographic: Pension liabilities

When the discount rate increases the projected benefit obligation (PBO), or pension liability, decreases, and vice versa. This relationship explains the volatile nature of pension liabilities and demonstrates why liabilities-driven investment strategies, which manage funded status and limit volatility of pension liabilities and asset returns, are useful.


To read the entire Corporate Pension Funding Study, click here.

Milliman Hangout: 2015 Pension Funding Study

The funded status of the largest 100 corporate defined benefit plans declined by $131.3 billion in 2014 as measured by the 2015 Milliman 100 Pension Funding Study (PFS). Plan liability increases overwhelmed robust asset investment gains and annual contributions declined to $39.8 billion from $44.2 billion in 2013. PFS coauthors John Ehrhardt and Zorast Wadia discuss the results of the study with Amy Resnick, executive editor of Pensions & Investments, in this Milliman Hangout.

To read Pensions & Investments’ coverage of the study, click here.
To download the 2015 Milliman 100 Pension Funding Study, click here.

Discount rates deepen pension funding deficit and make 2014 a banner year for liability-driven investing

Ehrhardt-JohnMilliman today released the results of its 2015 Pension Funding Study, which analyzes the 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans. In 2014, these pension plans experienced a funded status decline despite a 10.9% investment return, with plan liabilities for these 100 plans increasing by $189.2 billion and assets increasing by $57.9 billion. This resulted in a $131.3 billion increase in the funded status deficit, representing a funding ratio decline of 6.1%.

Pension plan sponsors may be feeling whiplash after the last three years. In 2012, plans with the heaviest investment in fixed income experienced superior returns. In 2013, we saw the opposite: Plans with heavy equity allocations fared the best. Now with these latest results, we’ve again reversed ourselves, as plans with the highest fixed income allocation once again outpaced the field despite a strong year for equities. This whiplash is the result of discount rates that hit a record low this year, and continue to define pension funding status.

Study highlights include:

Asset allocations shift toward fixed income. Equity allocations in the pension portfolios dropped to 37.3% by the end of 2014, the lowest in the 15-year history of this study. The companies included in this study have generally shifted toward higher allocations in fixed income investments.

Risk transfer trend continues. Some plan sponsors engaged in pension risk transfer activities, including two well-publicized pension buyouts conducted for two of the Milliman 100 companies (Bristol-Myers Squibb and Motorola).

New mortality assumptions increase pension liabilities by 3.4%. The magnitude of these increases is contingent on age, gender, and other demographic characteristics of each plan’s participants. Based on the footnote disclosures at year-end 2014, the new Society of Actuaries mortality tables led companies to update mortality assumptions, increasing pension liabilities by approximately $38.3 billion, or 3.4%, at least among those plans that disclosed the impact.

Contributions decline during 2014. The $39.8 billion in contributions during 2014 were the lowest level since 2008 and marked a $4.4 billion decrease from 2013 contribution levels. The lower-than-expected contributions were likely due to plan sponsors changing their contribution strategies in light of the Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2014 (HATFA) interest rate stabilization legislation, enacted in August 2014.

Pension expense increases. Robust investment gains in 2013 were partially offset by the impact of lower contributions and increasing discount rates during 2013, producing a net increase of $4.8 billion and resulting in a total of $37.1 billion in pension expense. Pension expense hit an all-time high at $56.1 billion in 2012.

What to expect in 2015. The passage of HATFA may result in lower contributions on par with those seen in 2014. However, for plans already engaged in liability-driven investing (LDI), higher contribution levels can be expected. The lower discount rates at the end of 2014 are expected to lead to significant 2015 pension expense increases because discount rates for the coming fiscal year are set at the start of the fiscal year. This does not factor in any possible plan de-risking activity.