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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Multiemployer Pension Plans Could See Significant Change

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Major changes in the operation and management of multiemployer pension plans may be coming. On November 20th, U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), released a white paper on a proposal that if passed, would dramatically change the playing field for multiemployer pension plans.

Grassley (Finance Committee chairman) and Alexander (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee chairman) released the 12-page white paper which illustrates various components to help plans fulfill the financial obligations to their retirees. These are outlined below.

PBGC Premium Structure Would Be Reformed

The PBGC estimates the multiemployer system will be bankrupt by 2025. In order to help stabilize the system, and to provide for increased benefits, PBGC multiemployer premiums would be increased from the current $29 per participant to $80 per participant.

In addition, plans that are more at risk of failing would be required to make additional payments based on the amount of their shortfall.

The proposal also introduces “copays” to active participants and retirees. Since the members of a poorly funded pension plan stand to benefit the most from the PBGC guarantees, the proposal would require a “copayment” of up to 10% of their monthly benefit. Older retirees and disabled participants would be exempt.

PBGC Multiemployer Insurance Guarantee Would Increase

The proposal calls for the minimum benefit for participants in multiemployer pension plans to be increased significantly. The current maximum benefit for a participant with 30 years of service in a multiemployer pension plan is just over $1,000/month, compared to over $15,000/month for a similar participant in a single employer plan. The proposal would increase the guarantee to a more reasonable value, but likely still far below the single employer guarantee.

Expanded Partition Authority Would Address Orphaned Participants

Partitioning is a way to separate participants who have been “orphaned” by employers who have left the plan without paying their full share of contributions. The proposal would expand a plan’s ability to transfer the liability for these orphaned participants to the PBGC.

In essence, the proposal creates a “healthy” plan that continues to be operated as before, and a “sick” plan that requires assistance from the PBGC. This reduces the overall plan liability because once a plan is partitioned, the benefits for the members of the “sick” plan are decreased to the PBGC guarantee limits.

Mandated Actuarial Funding Assumptions Would Be More Conservative

Although single employer pension plans have been required to use mandated funding assumptions for many years, the multiemployer actuaries have been free to use their best estimate of long-term rates of return.

The proposal would gradually transition the funding assumptions to more conservative funding assumptions and would likely include changes to the methodology used to determine required contributions.

Revised Zone Certifications May Result in Additional Restrictions

Multiemployer pension plans are categorized or “certified” by zones based on their financial health. The current system of zone certifications would be revised and restrictions on benefit changes would be increased. Plans would be required to prepare additional projections to determine how they would stand up in times of significant economic or demographic change.

New upper-tier zones would be created for very healthy plans. Fewer restrictions would be placed on the very healthy plans, but they would still need to demonstrate long-term health and an ability to handle unexpected economic or demographic changes.

Calculation of Withdrawal Liability Could Be Simplified

Withdrawal liability is the required payment made by employers who wish to withdraw from underfunded pension plans. The rules for determining the amount of the payments are extremely complex and often utilize different assumptions from those used for actual plan funding.

The proposed calculation rules would be simpler and more transparent and would determine the withdrawal liability using the same methods and measures used by the plan for funding and reporting purposes. This would allow contributing employers to better understand their overall liability to the plans, and would reduce unforeseen obligations.

Federal Funding Would Be Required

Due to the pending insolvency of the PBGC and the amount of substantial additional stress that will be placed on the system when several large multiemployer funds become insolvent within the next few years, additional federal funds will be needed to support the system. The proposal calls for a “transfer of a limited amount of federal taxpayer funds to PBGC” in order to ensure sufficient funds are available to provide the federal guaranteed minimum benefits.

For additional information, the white paper can be found at this link, Multiemployer Pension Recapitalization and Reform Plan White Paper.

The Senate Finance committee is currently accepting public comments on the proposal, which can be submitted to the following email, MultiemployerReform2019@finance.senate.gov.

Questions? Contact the Findley consultant you normally work with, or Keith Nichols, Keith.Nichols@findley.com, 724.933.0631.

Published November 25, 2019

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© 2019 Findley. All Rights Reserved.

GE pension changes: should my company be looking to do the same?

On October 7, General Electric (GE) announced a series of decisions around their salaried pension plan:

  • For participants continuing to accrue benefits, further accruals will be stopped at the end of 2020. (New employees hired after 2011 were not eligible for the pension plan.)
  • A lump sum buy-out proposal to 100,000 terminated but not yet retired participants will be offered.
  • Benefits in a supplemental plan for certain executives will also freeze.

Inevitably, whenever one of the largest pension plans in the country makes an announcement like this, it can cause executives at other companies to question if a similar decision makes sense for their plan.  The action item here most germane to other plan sponsors, and the focus of the remainder of this article, will be to focus on the middle bullet point.  Offering lump sums to non-retired, terminated participants has become a popular strategy among pension plan sponsors the last couple years as a way to reduce headcount without paying a premium to an insurance company to off-load the obligations.

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.  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. Improved Funded Status

An advantage of the current interest rate environment is that lump sums will be less than most other liability measurements related to the plan. Employers will be paying benefits to participants using a value less than the balance sheet entries being carried for those benefits in most cases. 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.

2. 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.

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 pension plan sponsors could see annual PBGC premium savings of over $600 for each participant who takes a lump sum distribution.

Other Considerations When Planning for a Lump Sum Cashout

There are some concerns that pension 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 pension plan termination. Note that a permanent lump sum feature may increase pension plan termination annuity pricing and cause some insurers to decline to bid.

The pension plan’s actuary should be consulted so they can properly evaluate the impact of offering such a program.

Some pension plan sponsors use lump sum cashouts as part of their pension plan termination preparation strategy. This Findley article provides tips to map your route to pension plan termination readiness. Already have a frozen plan and been considering a termination in the near future? For a complete A-Z walkthrough, check out our guide below.

Questions? Contact the Findley consultant you normally work with, or contact Amy Gentile at amy.gentile@findley.com, 216.875.1933 or Matt Klein at matt.klein@findley.com 216-875-1938.

Published on October 8, 2019

© 2019 Findley. All Rights Reserved.

Pension Financial Impact of Record Low Treasury Bond Rates

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How will defined benefit pension plans fare as a result of the 30-year U.S. Treasury bond rates falling below 2.00% for the first time in U.S. history? This 100 basis point drop from the beginning of the year and the fact that U.S. Treasury bond rates of all durations are down significantly from the beginning of the year, have pension plan sponsors, CFOs, and actuaries alike, taking an in-depth look at the financial impact.

How Will Record Low Treasury Bond Rates Impact Your Company’s Defined Benefit Plan?

Due to the long-term benefit structure of pension plans, their liabilities produce high duration values that are particularly sensitive to movement in long-term interest rates. For instance, a standard frozen pension plan may have a duration of 12 which indicates that a decrease in the discount rate of 100 basis points would produce a 12% increase in liabilities. 

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

Pension Financial Impact of Record Low Treasury Bond Rates

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 also be a significant increase in the cost of annuity purchases. The actual cost difference depends on plan-specific information; however, an increase of 10-20% from the beginning of the 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. Their decision to terminate is based on estimated annuity prices which could be significantly different than those in effect at the time of purchase.

Consider Growth in Lump Sum Payment Value and PBGC Liabilities

Additional consequences of record 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). If current interest rates hold, lump sums paid out during 2020 will likely be 10-15% higher than those paid out in 2019 for similarly situated participants. In addition, there would be a corresponding increase in the liability used to compute the plan’s PBGC premium. In 2020, there will be an estimated 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.

Actions You Can Take to Mitigate the 2020 Financial Impact

There is potential to help mitigate the financial impact for 2020 by taking action now. Since lump sum payments are projected to increase significantly in 2020, offering a lump sum window to terminated vested or retired participants during 2019 could be a cost effective way to reduce the overall liability of the plan.

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 falling interest rates may impact your plan specifically contact your Findley consultant or Adam Russo at adam.russo@findley.com or 216-875-1949.

Published on August 22, 2019

© 2019 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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