Defined Benefit Pension Plan Contributions: To 2021 and Beyond

While so many people across the country are looking forward to the end of this calamitous year – believing that 2021 will offer remedies for a global pandemic and an ailing economy, plan sponsors now should be plotting a strategy for the upcoming year and beyond. The Federal Reserve’s recent statement of “lower interest rates for longer” impacts defined benefit plan sponsors as they determine an approach to plan contributions – not just for 2021, but likely the next few years. Navigating a possible multi-year stretch of lower interest rates will be challenging for defined benefit pension plan sponsors, particularly for organizations feeling the effects of a pandemic-induced recession.

Forecast to Move Forward

This is an unusual recession, where the economic impact of the pandemic is varied. A number of industries are suffering, while others are seeing strong growth.  Certain manufacturers, supermarkets and online retailers, video conferencing firms and other companies enabling remote work have reported robust sales in recent months. The hospitality and entertainment industries, auto manufacturers and their suppliers, and numerous sectors of retail and manufacturing industries have been especially impacted through this pandemic.

Steering safely forward will require forecasting and guidance from the plan’s actuaries, and the first discussion with your actuary should focus on how the organization is currently faring. Organizations that have been hurt financially are likely to experience a “double whammy” as the company’s income drops and required contributions to their defined benefit pension plan increase.

Defined Benefit Pension Plan Contributions Forecast Chart

2020 Plan Contributions vs 2021 Cash Flow

Key to the contribution strategy conversation is determining how much the organization can afford to contribute. Some plan sponsors may choose to defer required 2020 plan contributions to January, 2021, while those companies having a good financial year may opt to contribute on the normal schedule, and may also contribute more than the required amount.

The decision to defer 2020 plan contributions, effectively at least doubling their contribution requirements in 2021, should be made only after weighing the pros and cons. Deferring may give the company time to come up with the funds needed, but the deferral may strain the organization’s cash flow with a large lump sum contribution coming due at the beginning of next year and other plan contributions required through 2021. Forecasting the organization’s financial picture is essential and it’s important to get answers to these questions in determining the contribution strategy:

  • When will the company’s cash flow improve?
  • How will our business be affected if another partial shutdown occurs and the economy continues to falter over the next nine months?
  • Should the organization finance its plan contributions now to either accelerate or avoid deferring future funding?
  • If plan contributions are deferred, can the lump sum contribution and other plan contributions be paid later from cash flow, through borrowing, or a combination?
  • Beyond the contribution impact, are there other impacts to the plan or the organization, such as PBGC premiums, by deferring or prepaying the plan contributions?

Look Beyond 2021

For most calendar year defined benefit plans, 2020 contributions will be lower than those required for the 2019 calendar year. Strong asset returns in 2019 resulted in that bit of good news, but plan sponsors should expect contributions to be higher for 2021 and beyond.

Economists are forecasting that the ripple effects of the pandemic on the economy will be widespread, taking several years to fully recover.  In light of an expected gradual recovery and the Fed’s message of ‘lower for longer’ interest rates, plan sponsors should anticipate having to manage their plans through a period of lower investment earnings and higher contributions, and understanding the reasonable range of contributions to expect is important.  Having a five- to ten-year contribution forecast that incorporates the economic outlook for the next several years will provide valuable insight on future contribution levels and help companies develop a longer-term funding strategy.

With low interest rates, plan sponsors have slowed down their annuity purchases from previous years, but some companies may consider offering a lump-sum window to their eligible participants to continue shrinking their obligations for their plans. These de-risking initiatives can create additional costs, so it’s important to understand the impact of these initiatives on future plan contributions before taking action. 

In addition, implementing a lump-sum window, not only needs to be fully explored with your actuarial team and legal counsel, the plan sponsor will also need to fully communicate the offer to participants to achieve the desired results. Support staff should be available to answer questions and assist participants with completing and submitting paperwork, if needed. During the pandemic, support should be virtual through call centers, microsites and other electronic meeting solutions.

Conclusion

As 2020 draws to a close, charting a course for DB plan contributions over the next few years is a wise decision that plan sponsors can make. Forecasting contribution levels, developing a contribution strategy, and implementing the plan are integral to moving forward as we experience “lower rates for longer”. Findley’s actuaries and consultants can offer guidance in developing defined benefit pension plan contribution strategies to navigate the return to normal.

Questions regarding what your plan’s contributions requirements for 2021 and beyond? Contact Tom Swain in the form below.

Published October 8, 2020

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Copyright © 2020 by Findley, Inc. All rights reserved.

Powerful Insights from Interactive Forecasting of Defined Benefit Pension Plan Results

With the current volatility in long-term bond rates and in the investment market, plan sponsors should examine the impact of the market on the future of their defined benefit pension plan.

The market downturn due to COVID-19 severely impacted the funded status of defined benefit pension plans, and the ramifications could project out many years into the future.

Challenge

Financial experts at any organization will agree that one of the problems with defined benefit pension plans is the volatility of cash funding requirements due to the sensitivity of the plan measurements to changes in the market. Many plan sponsors seek strategies to keep cash requirements as level as possible.

The difficulty for many stakeholders at organizations that sponsor defined benefit pension plans lies in understanding how the various factors are interrelated so that there is confidence in decisions made to improve the defined benefit pension plan’s financial position.

The following case study illustrates the power of interactive modeling on understanding the extent that different variables, like cash contributions, long-term bond rates, and asset returns, affect the future outlook for the defined benefit pension plan.

Case Study

The plan sponsor of a frozen defined benefit pension plan has been closely following the funded status of the plan. Based on annual forecasts, they developed a strategy with their actuary to contribute $5 million per year to be well enough funded to consider a plan termination in seven years.

Powerful Insights from Interactive Forecasting of Defined Benefit Pension Plan Results

The market downturn due to COVID-19 significantly changed this forecast. The actuary updated the current forecast to recognize the decrease in the market value of assets, lower bond rates for valuing liabilities, and lower expected rate of return for 2020 and 2021.

The updated forecast showed that the required contributions were no longer level and more than doubled compared to their original strategy due to overriding minimum funding rules, and the plan termination time horizon had extended to twelve years.

Solution

The plan sponsor worked with their actuary and asset advisor to model various “what if” situations quickly using an interactive modeling tool. Visually seeing the impact of future changes in the various economic variables on the defined benefit pension plan, helped to develop an approach for usage of available cash and to formulate next steps to monitor the defined benefit plan’s financial position.

Powerful Insights from Interactive Forecasting of Defined Benefit Pension Plan Results

Interactive Forecasting Results

Different variables were changed in several variations of the projections, and some great information was obtained:

  • If looking at contributions alone and trying to achieve level amounts, doubling the contributions to $10 million only shortens the plan termination funding time horizon to eleven years.
  • When considering level contributions of $7.5 million, there are a few years in the projection period when those contributions are not enough, but the plan termination funding time horizon remains at twelve years, and they would have saved some cash, especially in the short term.
  • If contributions are increased to $7.5 million, AND there is some economic recovery in 2021, then level contributions can be achieved.

Instead of needing to (somewhat blindly) decide to double contributions and to continue that for the foreseeable future, the interactive forecast showed that even a modest economic recovery has more of a long-term effect on the defined benefit pension plan’s results and plan termination time horizon than large additional cash contributions alone. Increasing planned contributions somewhat, and regrouping and using the interactive forecasting tool with updates periodically is the best short-term strategy for them.

Without the interactive tool, it would not have been apparent that waiting for some economic recovery was the right approach for now. It also would not have been clear that contributing higher amounts (within reason) in the hopes of getting things back on track actually does nothing to achieve that goal. That kind of insight is valuable when working on organization-wide approaches for allocation of cash, while also being responsible about trying to put future strategies like defined benefit pension plan termination back on track.

To discuss interactive projections for a defined benefit pension plan, plan sponsors should reach out to their actuary. Alternatively, contact Colleen Lowmiller in the form below, and with just a little information, Findley’s actuaries can put together interactive forecasting information to assist with strategy sessions.

Published on August 27, 2020

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Copyright © 2020 by Findley, Inc. All rights reserved.

Three Compelling Reasons to Consider Pension Plan Mergers

If you have more than one pension plan you are administering, consider a pension plan merger to potentially reduce plan administrative, Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), and future plan termination fees. Sound too good to be true? Read on.

While the total number of pension plans may have dwindled over the past few decades, several companies still sponsor not only one, but multiple pension plans for participants within their organization. Most typically this is the result of a decision made years ago when the retirement plans were created or acquired – either to intentionally separate participants with different benefit formulas such as Hourly Plans for union employees earning a service related benefit, Salaried Plans for employees earning a pay related benefit, or as a result of an acquisition where the plans benefitting employees are not original employees of the parent company.

While there may have been reason to keep the plans separate in the past, it might be time to reevaluate and consider whether a pension plan merger might be beneficial.

“It might be time to reevaluate and consider whether a pension plan merger might be beneficial.”

What is a Pension Plan Merger?

A pension plan merger is the consolidation of one or more pension plans into a single, previously existing pension plan. 

Consider Company X who maintains 3 pension plans: 

  • Plan A benefits all Hourly, union employees
  • Plan B benefits all Salaried employees
  • Plan C benefits all participants acquired by Company Y

A pension plan merger is the transfer of all retirement plan assets and liabilities from Plans A and/or Plan B into Plan C (or some other similar combination) and as a result, Plan A and/or Plan B would cease to exist.

Pension Plan Merger Example

Going forward, annual requirements remain only for the consolidated plan. Because the merger cannot violate anti-cutback rules, there is no negative impact to the retirement plan participants. Protected benefits such as accrued and early retirement benefits, subsidies, and optional forms of benefits cannot be reduced.

Why Should We Consider Merging Pension Plans?

Reason #1 : Reduced Administrative Fees

Each qualified pension plan has several annual requirements, regardless of size. Combining plans can reduce total administrative fees by minimizing the redundancy of the annual actuarial, audit, and trustee work:

  • Annual valuations: Funding, accounting, and ASC 960
  • Government reporting: IRS Form 5500 and PBGC filings
  • Participant notices: Annual funding notices
  • Annual audit: Plan audit for ASC 960 and financial accounting audit
  • Trustee reports

Merging plans can streamline many processes, reducing fees for these services compared to operating separately.

Reason #2 : Potential PBGC Savings

Plan sponsors with both an underfunded and overfunded plan can reduce PBGC premiums by sharing the excess retirement plan assets of an overfunded plan with one that is underfunded. Annual premiums are due to the PBGC (Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation) for protection of participant benefits in the event the plan sponsor is unable to fulfill their pension promises. Plans that are fully funded pay only a flat rate premium based on headcount. Underfunded plans pay an additional variable rate premium (VRP) based on the total unfunded liability for the plan (capped by participant). Merging an underfunded and overfunded plan can create a combined fully funded plan, eliminating the variable portion of the cost or premium due to the PBGC as shown:

Consider Company X who maintains 2 pension plans: 

  • Plan A has 580 Hourly participants with a PBGC shortfall of $10 million as of 1/1/2019
  • Plan B has 1,160 Hourly participants with a PBGC excess of $10 million as of 1/1/2019
  • Plan A merges into Plan B with 1,740 participants and no shortfall as of 1/1/2019
Impact of Pension Plan Merger on PBGC Premiums

By merging Plan A into Plan B, the shortfall is eliminated and PBGC premiums due are dramatically reduced with considerable financial impact.

Reason #3 : Plan Termination on the Horizon

Similar to the administrative savings of merging two ongoing pension plans, there will likely be reduced fees related to the process at termination. The final step in distributing retirement plan assets will be the agreement between the insurance company taking over the responsibility for all future benefit payments of remaining participants. Merging plans will consolidate the transaction and increase the number of participants affected, potentially resulting in annuity purchase cost savings to offset the underfunded liability  at final distribution. If plan termination is on the horizon, especially for two small to mid-size pension plans, a plan merger may prove to be a valuable first step with potential positive financial impact.

We Want to Merge our Pension Plans…Now What?

In most scenarios, the process is fairly straightforward. There will be a few adjustments required to the valuation process in the first year, but going forward will operate as usual. Participants will be notified of the change, but there will be no difference to the way that their benefits are calculated or administered.  

The plan sponsor will also be required to do the following:

  • Execute a plan amendment describing the plan merger
  • Modify the plan document to reflect the new consolidated plan
  • File Form 5310-A with the IRS no later than 30 days prior to the merger

Regardless of the size of the plan, a plan merger may be a step in the right direction toward simplifying the administration and cutting costs for many organizations sponsoring more than one pension plan.  Merging multiple pension plans is most often one example in the pension world where less is more. Finally, there are instances where a merger may result in increased costs (PBGC premiums) or may present other challenges.

Each situation is unique so don’t make any assumptions without consulting your actuary. And don’t overlook the importance of a communications strategy to inform participants of any changes which take place.

Questions? For more information, contact the Findley consultant you normally work with, or contact Debbie Sichko at debbie.sichko@findley.com, 216.875.1930.

Published on August 15, 2019

© 2019 Findley. All Rights Reserved.

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Terminating an Overfunded Pension Plan? Who Gets the Excess?

If a single employer overfunded pension plan is terminating and its participants and beneficiaries are on track to receive full benefits, the plan sponsor will likely ask if the excess is theirs. In other words, will the surplus revert to the plan sponsor? The answer is maybe.

To determine how excess plan funds can be exhausted, which may include a reversion to the plan sponsor, there are 7 possibilities to consider. As always, the place to start with any retirement plan issue is to answer the question: what does the plan say?

Terminating an Overfunded Pension Plan

Possibilities to Consider if the Terminating Plan Document does not Permit a Reversion

A plan document may state that no part of the plan’s assets can be diverted for any purpose other than for the exclusive benefit of participants and beneficiaries. The plan may also indicate that the plan cannot be amended to designate any part of the assets to become the employer’s property. If an overfunded pension plan has these provisions, it is tempting to assume the only choice is to allocate the excess among participants and beneficiaries. However, even in the face of these explicit provisions, there may be other provisions that permit an employer to recover or use a portion of the excess assets.

Possibilities 1 and 2 – Return of Mistaken and Nondeductible Contributions

Plan documents generally indicate that if an employer makes an excessive plan contribution due to a mistake, the employer can demand the surplus is returned. The employer is required to request this from the trustee within one year after the contribution was made to the trust. In addition, plans generally provide that a contribution is made on the condition that the employer receives a corresponding tax deduction. In the unlikely event that the deduction is not permitted by the IRS, the contribution can be returned to the employer within one year following the IRS’ final determination that the tax deduction was not allowed.

An example of a contribution mistake may be an actuarial calculation error. In a 2014 Private Letter Ruling, the IRS considered a surplus reversion when a terminating single employer plan purchased an annuity contract. The excess assets were created when the purchase price selected to fully fund plan benefits actually came in at a lower price than estimated. Using reasonable actuarial assumptions, the plan’s actuary had advised the employer to contribute a higher amount than was ultimately calculated as necessary by the insurance company. In this case, the IRS permitted the return of the mistaken excess contribution. 

Possibility 3 – Have all Reasonable Plan Expenses Been Paid from the Trust?

Many plan documents provide that plan expenses can be paid from the trust. In some instances, appropriate and reasonable plan termination expenses will go a long way to exhaust excess assets. Reasonable plan termination expenses include determination letter costs and fees, service provider termination charges and termination implementation charges such as those for the plan audit, preparing and filing annual reports, calculating benefits, and preparing benefit statements.

Possibilities to Consider if the Terminating Plan Document Permits a Reversion

The overfunded pension plan may explicitly state that excess assets, once all of the plan’s obligations to participants and beneficiaries have been satisfied, may revert to the plan sponsor. On the other hand, the plan may not explicitly permit a reversion. In that case, the plan sponsor may want to consider amending the plan to allow a reversion well ahead of the anticipated termination.

Possibilities 4 – Take a Reversion

If the first three possibilities do not work or are inadequate to exhaust the surplus, and the overfunded pension plan allows a reversion, there are three more possibilities. In the first, the employer takes all. The employer can take all of the excess funds back subject to a 50% excise tax, as well as applicable federal tax.  Notably, a not-for-profit organization may not be subject to the excise tax on the reversion at all if it has always been tax-exempt.

Possibility 5  – Transfer the Excess to a Qualified Replacement Plan

The opportunity to pay only a 20% excise tax (and any applicable federal tax) on part of the surplus is available where the remaining excess assets are transferred from the terminating pension plan to a newly implemented or preexisting qualified replacement plan (QRP). A QRP can be any type of qualified retirement plan including a profit sharing plan, 401(k) plan, or money purchase plan. For example, an employer’s or a parent company’s 401(k) plan, whether newly implemented or preexisting, may qualify as a qualified replacement plan.

Once an appropriate plan is chosen, the amount transferred into the QRP must be allocated directly into participant accounts within the year of the transfer or deposited into a suspense account and allocated over seven years, beginning with the year of the transfer.

There are additional requirements for a qualified replacement plan. At least 95% of the active participants from the terminated plan who remain as employees must participate in the QRP. In addition, the employer is required to transfer a minimum of 25% of the surplus into a qualified replacement plan prior to the reversion. If all of the QRP requirements are satisfied, then only the amounts reverted to the employer are subject to a 20% excise tax and federal tax, if applicable. 

Possibility 6 – Provide Pro Rata Benefit Increases

If the employer chooses not to use a QRP, it can still limit the excise tax if it takes back 80% or less of the surplus and provides pro rata or proportionate benefit increases in the accrued benefits of all qualified participants. The amendment to provide the benefit increases must take effect on the plan’s termination date and must benefit all qualified participants. A qualified participant is an active participant, a participant or beneficiary in pay status, or a terminated vested participant whose credited service under the plan ended during the period beginning 3 years before termination date and ending with the date of the final distribution of plan assets. In addition, certain other conditions apply including how much of the increases are allowed to go to participants who are not active.

A Possibility That’s Always Available

Possibility 7 – Allocate all of the Excess Among Participants and Beneficiaries

It is always possible to allocate all of the excess assets among participants in a nondiscriminatory way that meets all applicable law. A plan amendment is necessary to provide for these higher benefits.

You may know at the outset of terminating your plan that there will be excess assets. On the other hand, a surplus may come as a surprise. Even if a pension plan is underfunded at the time the termination process officially begins, it is possible that the plan becomes overfunded during the approximate 12 month time period to terminate the plan. In this scenario, the plan sponsor will have to address what to do with the excess assets.

Dealing with the excess assets in a terminating defined benefit plan can be a challenge. There are traps for the unwary, and considerations beyond the scope of this article. Plan sponsors need to determine first how the excess was created, because the answer to that question may determine what happens to it. If there is no obvious answer in how to deal with the surplus, then the plan sponsor needs to look at all of the possibilities. It may be that a combination of uses for the excess plan assets is best. If you think you will find yourself in this situation with your defined benefit plan, consult your trusted advisors at your earliest opportunity so that you know the possibilities available to you.

Questions on your defined benefit pension plan’s possibilities? Need help navigating your options? Please contact Sheila Ninnenam in the form below.

Published July 10, 2019

© 2019 Findley. All Rights Reserved.

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