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.

Print the article

Pension Financial Impact of Record Low Treasury Bond Rates

Featured

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.

Print the article

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.

Print the article

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? Contact the Findley consultant you normally work with, or contact Sheila Ninnenam at sheila.ninneman@findley.com, 216.875.1927.

Published July 10, 2019

© 2019 Findley. All Rights Reserved.

Print the article

Market Volatility Shows Importance of Pension Plan Termination Planning

Equity markets have rallied in early 2019 and the losses from December 2018 have all but been erased. Interest rates haven’t recovered to the November, 2018 high, but the funded status for most pension plans has rebounded. Findley’s April 2019 Pension Indicator shows how the funded status of pension plans has improved since year-end 2018.

Pension Indicator April 2019 rolling 12 months. Funded percentage changes, liability index, and investment mix.
April 2019 Findley Pension Indicator

With all of this volatility, plan sponsors that started planning for a plan termination in early 2018, and monitored the improving funded status of the plan, may have taken some steps to help mitigate the impact of a market downturn. In this case, a plan sponsor which hedged the assets to better match the liabilities prior to December experienced only about a 2% reduction in the plan’s funded status during December. In addition, even though a hedged plan following an LDI investment approach hasn’t seen a great improvement in funded status from the market rebound, it still has a better funded percentage than plans with other investment strategies.

The lesson is most plan sponsors probably don’t really know how close (or far) the plan is or was to being financially ready for a plan termination. And, as the adage goes, “failure to plan is a plan to fail.”

Planning is Fundamental to Success

To help plan sponsors understand this volatility and how to manage it, Findley has developed a process to help plan sponsors prepare for a plan termination. (See Findley’s article “Mapping Your Route to Pension Plan Termination Readiness”). The plan termination process itself requires many steps, but there are also steps that a plan sponsor can take prior to beginning a plan termination to be better prepared. Whether plan termination is 1, 5, or 10 years away, planning is critical.

Findley's Interactive Pension Plan Term Modeler. Defined Benefit plan assets, contributions, and short fall graph.

Findley’s Interactive PlanTermTM Financial Modeler

Taking a closer look at plan’s financial readiness, there are a few topics plan sponsors should explore:

  • the plan’s investment strategy,
  • the benefits of de-risking strategies, and
  • a formalized contribution policy.

Reviewing these financial topics early and monitoring them periodically can help plan sponsors achieve plan termination financial goals in a more orderly and predictable way.

Knowing the time horizon, identifying data issues, and reviewing the plan document are other areas to include in your readiness planning. Findley’s Rapid MapTM process helps plan sponsors take a project management approach to all of these aspects of getting ready for a plan termination.

In Perspective

If you are contemplating plan termination, consider taking advantage of this early 2019 rebound. Planning early for a plan termination can have a positive long-term effect on the point in time when your plan is ultimately ready to terminate. Take steps now to put a process in place to regularly monitor your plan’s funded status. Spending time now can reap rewards and potentially mitigate the negative outcomes from future market downturns.

Questions? Contact the Findley consultant you normally work with, or Larry Scherer at Larry.Scherer@findley.com, or 216.875.1920.

Published on May 13, 2019

© 2019 Findley. All Rights Reserved.

Print this article