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Despite robust investment returns, 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans saw their funded status decrease by $21.7 billion in 2016

Milliman has released the results of its 2017 Pension Funding Study, which analyzes the largest corporate pension plans sponsored by 100 U.S. public companies. In 2016, these pension plans experienced a $21.7 billion decrease in funded status, the result of a $54.0 billion increase in the projected benefit obligation (PBO) that was only partially offset by a $32.3 billion increase in the market value of plan assets. As a result, these Milliman 100 plans finished off the year with a funded ratio of 81.2%, down from 81.9% the year before. But the $21.7 billion deterioration and incremental drop in funded status mask a year that experienced volatility across the board for pension plans.

The last year was quite the tug-of-war for these pension plans. Investment performance exceeded expectations, with the 100 largest U.S. pensions experiencing returns of 8.4%—compare that with 0.8% the year prior. But the volatile interest rate environment saw the discount rate plummet by 30 basis points. In 2016, these dynamics resulted in a funded ratio that oscillated back and forth for most of the year before the postelection bump. The end result was a funded ratio of 81.2%—not that far off from where we’ve been at the end of 2015 and 2014.

Study highlights include:

Analysis of asset gains. The 8.4% investment returns experienced by these pension plans was well above the 7.0% return expectation set for 2016. Meanwhile employers’ 2016 plan contributions were up 38% from the year prior. One possible reason for the higher plan contributions is that they improve funded status, resulting in lower Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) premium expenses.

Impact of updated mortality assumptions. Further decreases in future life expectancy for the second year in a row result in significant reductions in projected benefit obligation (PBO) for several Milliman 100 companies.

Use of spot rates increases by 24%. Forty-six of the largest 100 plan sponsor companies will consider recording the fiscal year 2017 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.

Pension risk transfers continue. The estimated sum of pension risk transfers to insurance companies (“pension lift-outs”) and settlement payments increased from $11.6 billion in FY2015 to $13.6 billion in FY2016.

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