Many defined benefit (DB) plan sponsors are aware that interest rates dropped significantly in the first half of 2016 but staged a remarkable rise since the November election. Combined with relatively strong equity returns, 2016 year-end pension disclosures may not be as bad as expected 6 to 8 weeks ago.

Discount Rate Analysis

Using the November 2016 Citi Pension Liability Index (CPLI) and Citi Pension Discount Curve (CPDC) as proxies, pension accounting discount rates are down by about 20 basis year-to-date. Although they’re not quite up to 2015 year-end levels, the rebound (from almost 90 bps lower than last year) is welcome relief to pension plans.

In the chart below, we compare the CPDC at three different measurement dates (12/31/2014, 12/31/2015, and 11/30/2016). We also highlight the CPLI at each measurement date. The CPLI can be thought of as the average discount rate produced by the curve for an “average” pension plan.

nov-2016-citigroup-curve

Net Effect on Balance Sheet Liability

The other half of the pension funded status equation is the plan asset return. Like discount rates, it’s been a bumpy year but it appears to be ending in the right direction. Domestic stock indices are doing well and a balanced portfolio is likely at or above its expected return.

Depending on the starting funded status, the change in pension liabilities and assets can have a leveraging effect on the reported net balance sheet asset/liability.

Below is a simplified illustration for a plan that was 80% funded on 12/31/2015. We assume a 5% increase in pension liability during 2016 and then compare the funded status results under two asset scenarios: (1) Assets 5% higher than 12/31/2015 and (2) Assets 8% higher than 12/31/2015.

illustration-of-change-nov-16

In the first scenario, the plan’s funded percent remains constant at 80% even though the dollar amount of pension debt increases by about 5%. In the second scenario, the funded status actually improves slightly both on a percent and dollar basis.

Conclusions

So, what should plan sponsors be considering over the next month as we approach year-end? Here are a few ideas.

  • The 2016 Society of Actuaries mortality table updates will likely be recommended for use at year-end. Those tables should decrease pension liabilities slightly for most plans.
  • Don’t forget to measure settlement accounting if you completed a lump sum window in 2016! Some small and mid-sized plans may not be familiar with this requirement, and it can significantly increase your 2016 pension accounting expense.
  • Using the Citi above-median yield curve could increase discount rates by roughly 12 basis points.
  • Now may be a good time to consider strategies that lock in some of this year’s investment gains. These could include exploring an LDI strategy to more closely align plan assets and liabilities, or offering a lump sum payout window for terminated vested participants in 2017.