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.

Impact of Historic Interest Rate Decline on Defined Benefit Plans

How will defined benefit pension plans be impacted by historic year-to-year interest rate declines? The U.S. has experienced over a 100 basis point decrease on 30-year treasury rates and significant decreases across treasury bonds of all durations from year-to-year. After a slight uptick in rates during the fourth quarter of 2019, interest rates have plummeted in the first quarter of 2020. The low interest rate environment, coupled with recent volatility in the market arising from concerns over the Coronavirus, has pension plan sponsors, CFOs, and actuaries alike, taking an in-depth look at the financial impact.

Historic Interest Rate Decline on Defined Benefit Plans and options to consider.

How Will Your Company be Impacted by Historic Interest Rate Decline?

Under U.S. GAAP and International Accounting Standards, pension liabilities are typically valued using a yield curve of corporate bond rates (which have a high correlation to Treasury bond rates) to discount projected benefit payments. Current analysis shows that the average discount rate has decreased approximately 100 basis points from the prior year using this methodology.

Due to the long-term benefit structure of pension plans, their liabilities produce higher duration values than other debt-like commitments, that are particularly sensitive to movement in long-term interest rates. The general rule of thumb is for each 1% decrease in interest rates, the liability increases by a percentage equal to the duration (and vice versa). The chart below, produced using Findley’s Liability Index, shows the percentage increase in liabilities for plan’s with varying duration values since the beginning of 2019.

Pension Liability Index Results - 2/29/2020

Assuming all other plan assumptions are realized, the larger liability value caused by the decrease in discount rates will drive up the pension expense and cause a significant increase in the company’s other comprehensive income, reflecting negatively on the company’s financial statements.

Considerable Growth in Lump Sum Payment Value and PBGC Liabilities

Additional consequences of low treasury bond rates include growth in the value of lump sum payments and PBGC liabilities. Minimum lump sum amounts must be computed using interest rates prescribed by the IRS in IRC 417(e)(3) which are based on current corporate bond yields. PBGC liabilities are also determined using these rates (standard method) or a 24-month average of those rates (alternative method). For calendar year plans, lump sums paid out during 2020 will likely be 10-20% higher for participants in the 60-65 age group, than those paid out in 2019. For younger participants, the increase will be even more prominent.

In addition, if the plan is using the standard method to determine their PBGC liability, there will be a corresponding increase in the liability used to compute the plan’s PBGC premium. In 2020, there will be a 4.5% fee for each dollar the plan is underfunded on a PBGC basis. Depending on the size and funding level of the plan, the spike in PBGC liability may correspond to a significant increase in the PBGC premium amount.

What If We Want to Terminate our Pension Plan in the Near Future?

For companies that are contemplating defined benefit pension plan termination, there will be a significant increase in the cost of annuity purchases from this time last year. The actual cost difference depends on plan-specific information; however, an increase of 15-25% from this time last year would not be out of line with the current market. This can be particularly problematic for companies who have already started the plan termination process. Due to the current regulatory structure of defined benefit pension plan terminations, companies must begin the process months before the annuity contract is purchased. The decision to terminate is based on estimated annuity prices which could be significantly different than those in effect at the time of purchase.

Actions You Can Take to Mitigate the Financial Impact

Contributions to the plan in excess of the mandatory required amount will help offset rising PBGC premiums since the premium is based on the underfunded amount, not the total liability. Additional contributions would also help offset the increase in pension expense.

The best advice we can offer at this time is to discuss these implications internally and with your service providers. Begin a dialogue with your investment advisors about the potential need to re-evaluate the current strategy due to market conditions. Contact your plan’s actuary to get estimated financial impacts so you can plan and budget accordingly. If your plan has recently begun the plan termination process, you may need to reconvene with decision-makers to make sure this strategy is still economically viable.

Questions? For more information, you can utilize Findley’s Pension Indicator to track the funded status of a variety of plan types each month. To learn more about how this historic interest rate decline may impact your plan specifically contact your Findley consultant, or Adam Russo at adam.russo@findley.com or 724.933.0639.

Published on March 3, 2020

© 2020 Findley. All Rights Reserved.

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More Pension Lump Sum Cashout De-risking Activity Expected in 2019

Pension plan sponsors looking for significant cash savings and de-risking opportunities have another favorable environment to pull the participants’ lump sum cashout lever this year. But that lever includes several options and considerations. In 2019, the interest rate environment is favorable which gives pension plan sponsors an opportunity to provide lump sum payments to participants while improving the funded status of the plan. So why wait to offer this cashout opportunity when you have this significant benefit staring you right in the face?

Lump Sum Cashout Opportunity in 2019

Lump Sum Cashouts Defined

A Lump Sum Cashout program occurs when a defined benefit pension plan amends its plan to allow terminated vested participants to take a lump sum payment of their benefit and be cashed out of the plan entirely. The program is typically offered as a one-time window but can also be made a permanent feature of the plan with potentially significant financial impact. Plans generally may offer this type of program only if their IRS funded percentage is at least 80% both before and after the program is implemented.

Many pension plans have offered, or at least considered, Lump Sum Cashout programs over the last several years to minimize their financial risk. Plan sponsors that have implemented these programs have been rewarded with significant cash savings as well as risk reduction

Advantages of Implementing Lump Sum Cashout Today

1. Favorable Lump Sum Interest Rate Environment

In 2019, the lump sum interest rate environment is favorable for most employers thanks to a significant interest rate increase during 2018 when lump sum interest rates are locked in for 2019 calendar year plans. These higher rates will result in smaller lump sum payments when compared to 2018 (15-20% decrease).

2. Improved Funded Status

Another advantage of the current interest rate environment is that lump sums will be less than most other liability measurements related to the plan. In other words, interest rates used for 2019 calendar year plans to determine accounting liabilities are lower than lump sum rates. Therefore employers will be paying benefits to participants using a value less than the balance sheet entries being carried for those benefits. These lower lump sum payments will then help employers improve the funded status of the plan in addition to de-risking or reducing the future risk. This interest rate arbitrage is not expected to exist in 2020 since defined benefit lump sum interest rates have continued to decrease since the beginning of 2019.

3. PBGC Premium Savings

The most significant benefit of offering a Lump Sum Cashout Program is the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) premium savings. The PBGC continues to increase the annual premiums that pension plans are required to pay to protect the benefits of their participants in the pension plan. The per participant portion of the premium (flat rate) is now up to an $80 payment per participant in 2019. This is more than a 200% increase since 2012. The variable rate portion of the premium is up to $43 per $1,000 underfunded which is an increase of almost 500% since 2012.

HOW TO CALCULATE THE PBGC PREMIUM
Flat Rate (per participant) + Variable Rate = PBGC Premium

These rates are expected to continue to grow with inflation each year. Therefore it is ideal for pension plan sponsors to reduce their participant count sooner rather than later so they can save on these future premiums. In total, some defined benefit plan sponsors could see annual PBGC premium savings of over $600 for each participant who takes a lump sum distribution.

Can You Offer a Lump Sum Cashout More than Once?

Employers that have previously offered a lump sum cashout to participants should be aware that this doesn’t exclude them from pursuing a de-risking program again. In general, as long as plan sponsors wait 3-4 years between similar programs, they can offer the same program to plan participants again. This gives participants who have terminated since the original program an opportunity to take their pension payment. A second round offering also gives participants from the first program a second chance to take a cashout while de-risking the plan for the plan sponsor.

Other Considerations When Planning for a Lump Sum Cashout

There are some concerns that plan sponsors will also want to consider such as:

  • Potential increases to contribution requirements;
  • One-time accounting charges that could be triggered;
  • Potential increase to annuity purchase pricing upon plan termination. Note that a permanent lump sum feature may increase pension plan termination annuity pricing and cause some insurers to decline to bid.

In summary, 2019 is an ideal year given the lump sum interest rates. The current interest rate arbitrage provides pension plan sponsors a low cost opportunity to de-risk the pension plan and save significantly on future PBGC premiums. As with any de-risking opportunity, there are several considerations that should also be discussed. The defined benefit plan’s actuary should be consulted so they can properly evaluate the impact of offering such a program.

Some plan sponsors use lump sum cashouts as part of their pension plan termination preparation strategy. This Findley white paper provides tips to map your route to pension plan termination readiness.

Questions? Contact the Findley consultant you normally work with, or contact Amy Gentile at amy.gentile@findley.com, 216.875.1933.

Published on June 7, 2019

© 2019 Findley. All Rights Reserved.

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