2017 Pension Lump Sums Are Looking More Affordable

How quickly things change! A month ago we were anticipating very expensive 2017 lump sum costs for defined benefit (DB) pension plans due to continually low interest rates. However, rates have been on a strong rebound since the election and now 2017 lump sums are looking much more affordable.

The IRS recently released the November 2016 417(e) interest rates which are used by many DB plans as the reference rates for lump sum payments. These three segment rates are 20 to 35 basis points higher than the October 2016 rates, though overall they are still lower than the November 2015 rates.

This post shares a brief update of the impact these rates could have on 2017 lump sum payout strategies.

Glass Half Full: 2017 Lump Sum Costs Are Going Up, But Less Than Expected

The table and chart below show the possible difference in lump sum values at sample ages assuming payment of a $1,000 deferred-to-65 monthly benefit. The calculations compare the November 2015 rate basis to the November 2016 basis.

Although the projected 2017 lump sum costs are still higher than 2016, the increases are only half of what we were expecting a month ago. It remains to be seen if rates continue their upward trend, but the reduction in anticipated lump sum cost increases may encourage more plan sponsors to embrace pension risk transfer (PRT) strategies like lump sum windows for terminated vested participants.

The November lump sum rates aren’t the end of the story for 2017 PRT opportunities either. If rates continue to increase, then plan sponsors will want to consider using a different reference period for the temporary lump sum window to reflect the higher rates. Even if rates don’t rise anymore, 2017 will likely be the last year to pay lump sums without reflecting new mortality assumptions in 2018.

2016 Pension Accounting Preview: a Positive Outlook

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.

Pension Lump Sums Likely More Expensive in 2017

Lump sum windows and other pension risk transfer strategies continue to be popular among many defined benefit (DB) pension plan sponsors. Paying lump sums to terminated vested participants can reduce long-term plan costs and risks by permanently eliminating these liabilities. However, the cost of the lump sum payments is heavily influenced by the underlying interest rate and mortality assumptions.

The IRS recently released the October 2016 417(e) interest rates. Although many DB plans will likely use the November or December rates as their 2017 lump sum payment basis, the October rates are good indicators of what 2017 lump sum costs might look like. This post shares a brief update of the impact these rates could have on 2017 lump sum payout strategies.

Lower Interest Rates Will Increase Cost of Lump Sums

So, what’s the story for 2017? The table and chart below show the possible difference in lump sum values at sample ages assuming payment of a $1,000 deferred-to-65 monthly benefit. The calculations compare the November 2015 rate basis (used by most plans for 2016 lump sums) to the October 2016 basis.

lump-sums

november-2017-ls-rate-update-table

The dollar increase in lump sum value is relatively consistent around $10K to $12K. This translates to a 5% cost increase at the very late ages, versus a nearly 30% cost increase at younger ages. Note that if we adjust for the fact that participants will be one year older in 2017 (and thus one fewer years of discounting) then this increases the costs by an additional 5% at most ages.

 

Interest rates dropped significantly in the first half of 2016 and have only recently begun to rebound. This increases lump sum costs because lump sum calculations increase as interest rates decrease, and vice versa. Below is a comparison of the November 2015 and October 2016 417(e) lump sum interest rates. Note that the second and third segment rates are 70+ basis points lower than last year.

415e-interest-rates

What else should plan sponsors consider?

  1. If you’re still considering a lump sum payout window, you’ll want to carefully weigh the additional costs of the 2017 lump sum rates compared to 2016. However, there’s still the chance that rates could rise substantially before year-end.
  2. Even with lower interest rates pushing up lump sum costs, there are still incentives to “de-risk” a plan now. These include (a) large ongoing PBGC premium increases and (b) the potential for new mortality tables to further increase lump sum costs (likely in 2018).
  3. In addition to lump sum payout programs, plan sponsors should consider annuity purchases and additional plan funding as ways to reduce long-term plan costs/risks. Some plan sponsors are also pursuing a “borrow to fund and terminate” strategy.

DB Plan Sponsors Should Prepare Now for Higher Year-End Liabilities

The combination of lower discount rates and new mortality tables will dramatically increase pension plan liabilities and decrease DB plans’ funded status for December 31, 2014 financial reporting. Using the November 2014 Citigroup Pension Liability Index (CPLI) and Citigroup Pension Discount Curve (CPDC) as proxies, pension accounting discount rates are down by almost 90 basis points since December 31, 2013.

Fortunately, many plans have experienced solid investment returns so far during 2014. This will take some of the sting out of the liability increases, but it likely won’t be enough to entirely offset the effect of lower interest rates and the new mortality tables. The higher liabilities will affect both the year-end funded status of the plan and also the 2015 pension expense calculation.

Discount Rate Analysis

In the chart below we compare the CPDC at three different measurement dates (12/31/2012, 12/31/2013, and 11/30/2014). We also highlight the CPLI at each measurement date. The CPLI can be thought of as the average discount rate the CDPC produces for an “average” pension plan.

Citigroup comparison 11302014

The orange arrows in the chart highlight the trend in yield curve movement and show how rates are almost back to their 2012 lows at all points along the spectrum. This means that nearly all plans will feel the negative effect of lower discount rates.

Net Effect on Balance Sheet Liability

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 12/31/2013, where we assume a 10% increase in pension liability during 2014. We then compare the funded status results under two asset scenarios: (1) Assets 5% higher than 12/31/2013 and (2) Assets 8% higher than 12/31/2013.

11302014 bal sheet liability example

In both cases, the funded status of the plan decreases. There’s also a magnified increase in the unfunded balance sheet liability because it’s such a leveraged result. This amount increases by 30% and 18%, respectively, in the two sample scenarios.

Conclusions

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

  • Don’t forget that the new Society of Actuaries mortality tables will be recommended for use at year-end and will likely further increase plan liabilities.
  • Additional pension plan funding (above the IRS minimum requirements) may be appealing in 2014 and 2015. Not only will it increase the plan’s funded status, but it will also help lower your pension plan’s PBGC variable rate premiums.
  • Your plan’s specific cash flows could have an enormous impact on how much the drop in discount rates affects your pension liability. If you’ve just used the CPLI in the past, it’s worth looking at modeling your own projected cash flows with the CPDC or an alternative index or yield curve to see how it stacks up.
  • 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 early in 2015.

Public Pension Plan Funding Policy – The Time is Here

“Every state and local government that offers defined-benefit pensions [should] formally adopt a funding policy…,” according to the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) best practice recommendations. Guidelines for Funding Defined Benefit Pensions (2013) (CORBA)

SOA and GASB Provide Guidance

Blue Ribbon Panel. Last month, a blue ribbon panel formed by the Society of Actuaries went one step further to endorse risk measures, disclosures and actuarial assumptions as well as guidelines regarding plan governance and benefit changes. These recommendations come at a time when public pensions have come under mounting criticism since the “great recession” and it’s imperative that public plan sponsors be able to demonstrate that their plans are sustainable in the long-term.

GASB 67/68. Furthermore, it’s critical that public sector plan sponsors follow a written funding policy now that GASB 67 and 68 explicitly separate pension funding and pension accounting,. These accounting standards are effective for plan years beginning after June 15, 2013 and June 15, 2014, respectively. For many plan sponsors this means the fiscal years ending June 30, 2014 (!) and June 30, 2015.

Funding Policy Checklist

The place to begin is to gather the facts, actuarially and politically. Here is a checklist of items to assist in providing a basis for developing an effective funding policy:

  1. Assemble a history of plan benefit levels and changes.
  2. Develop a history of contribution levels by members and sponsors.
  3. Compare benefit levels, locally and nationally, to determine appropriateness.
  4. Consider the political history of plan changes.
  5. Identify the politically “hot” topics.
  6. Review legal constraints on plan changes.
  7. Analyze collective bargaining agreements and recent changes.
  8. Calculate the plan’s current funded status.
  9. Determine sustainable funding goals.
  10.  Evaluate options for achieving goals.

Example

We recently assisted a large Midwestern city in developing a comprehensive funding policy that linked future benefit changes to achieving a targeted funding level. In addition, the city Council adopted guidelines for amortization periods and for direct smoothing of actuarially-determined contributions. Indeed, funding policy, investment policy and pension benefit policy must be linked and reinforce one another.

The time is here for every plan sponsor to develop or review their pension plan funding policy to make sure that it is actuarially sound.

Preview of 2014 Lump Sum Interest Rates

As mentioned in our July lump sum interest rate post, many defined benefit (DB) plan sponsors are considering lump sum payouts to their terminated vested participants as a way of “right-sizing” their plan. The ultimate goal is to reduce plan costs and risk. The IRS recently released the November 2013 417(e) rates, which will be the 2014 reference rates for many DB plans. This post shares a brief update of the impact these rates could have on 2014 lump sum payout strategies.

Background
DB plans generally must pay lump sum benefits using the larger of two plan factors:

(1)  The plan’s actuarial equivalence; or
(2)  The 417(e) minimum lump sum rates.

Since interest rates have been so low over the past few years, the 417(e) rates are usually the lump sum basis. In particular, 2013 lump sums were abnormally expensive due to historically low interest rates at the end of 2012 (the reference rates for 2013 lump sum calculations). This is because lump sum values increase as interest rates decrease and vice versa.

Effect of Interest Rate Changes
For calendar year plans, the lookback month for the 417(e) rates is often a couple of months before the start of the plan year. Here’s a comparison of the November 2012 rates (for 2013 payouts) versus the November 2013 rates (for 2014 payouts).

November 2013 segment rate table

As we can see, all three segments have increased substantially since last November. So, what’s the potential impact on lump sum payments? The table and chart below show the difference in lump sum value at sample ages assuming payment of deferred-to-65 benefits using the November 2012 and November 2013 417(e) interest rates.

November 2013 lump sum chart

November 2013 lump sum table

Note: If we adjust for the fact that participants will be one year older in 2014 (and thus one fewer years of discounting), then this decreases the savings by about 5% at most ages.

Lump Sum Strategies
So, what else should plan sponsors consider?

1. If you haven’t already considered a lump sum payout window, the 2014 lump sum rates may make this option much more affordable than in 2013.

2. With the scheduled increase in PBGC flat-rate and variable-rate premiums due to MAP-21 (plus the proposed additional premium increases in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013) there’s an incentive to “right-size” a pension plan to reduce the long-term cost of PBGC premiums.

3. In addition to lump sum payout programs, plan sponsors should consider annuity purchases and additional plan funding as ways to reduce long-term plan costs/risks

Pension Discount Rates – September 2013 Preview

After several years of painfully-low pension discount rates, we’ve seen a modest rebound in 2013. Using the Citigroup Pension Liability Index (CPLI) and Citigroup Pension Discount Curve (CPDC) as proxies, pension accounting discount rates are up by about 80 basis points so far this year.

This is great news for pension plan sponsors, especially if rates continue their upward trend. Add in strong year-to-date equity returns, and we may finally see a reduction in unfunded pension balance sheet liability for fiscal year-end 2013.

Analysis
In the chart below we compare the CPDC at four different measurement dates (12/31 2010 to 2012, and 8/31/2013). 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.

Citigroup comparison 08312013

Rates have increased at all points along the spectrum since 12/31/2012. The orange arrows highlight the trend in yield curve movement. The increase in rates all along the yield curve means that all types of plans (e.g., frozen and open) should benefit if interest rates continue to increase through year-end.

Net Effect on Balance Sheet Liability
Many plans had strong investment returns during the first half of the year, with some fluctuations over the past couple of months. If those early investment gains can be preserved (or increased) until year-end, then this will further improve the pension funded status (assets minus liabilities). Depending on the starting funded status, the change in pension liabilities and assets can have a leveraging effect on the reported balance sheet liability.

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

  • Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. We’re still several months away from year-end for most plans and a lot can change between now and then. However, there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic.
  • Now maybe 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 early in 2014.
  • Even though increased discount rates tend to lower the present value of pension liabilities, your plan may still have an overall liability increase. This could result from active participants continuing to accrue new benefits in the plan, or from the fact that benefits will have one fewer year of interest discount at 12/31/2013 compared to 12/31/2012.

Your plan’s specific cash flows could have an enormous impact on how much the drop in discount rates affects your pension liability. If you’ve just used the CPLI in the past, it’s worth looking at modeling your own projected cash flows with the CPDC or an alternative index or yield curve to see how it stacks up.

Lump Sum Interest Rate Update – June 2013

Many defined benefit (DB) plan sponsors are considering lump sum payouts to their terminated vested participants as a way of reducing plan costs and risk. This post shares a brief update of the interest rates used to calculate deferred vested lump sums and the impact it could have on potential lump sum payout strategies.

Background
DB plans generally must pay lump sum benefits using the larger of two plan factors:

(1)  the plan’s actuarial equivalence; or
(2)  the 417(e) minimum lump sum rates.

Since interest rates have been so low over the past few years, the 417(e) rates are usually the lump sum basis. This means that lump sums are at historically high levels since lump sum values increase as interest rates decrease (and vice versa). Plan sponsors need to consider whether the recent increase in 417(e) interest rates will materially decrease lump sum values and make it worthwhile to postpone a lump sum program until 2014 if it means that lump sums will be “cheaper” then.

Effect of Preliminary Interest Rate Changes
For calendar year plans, the lookback month for the 417(e) rates is often a couple of months before the start of the plan year (e.g., the November rates). Here’s a brief comparison of the November 2012 rates (for 2013 payouts) versus the June 2013 rates (i.e., what rates might look like for 2014 payouts).

June 2013 segment rate table

As we can see, all three segments have increased since last November. So, what’s the potential impact on lump sum payments? The table and chart below show the difference in lump sum value at sample ages assuming payment of deferred-to-65 benefits using the November 2012 and June 2013 417(e) interest rates.

June 2013 lump sum chart

June 2013 lump sum table

Note: If we adjust for the fact that participants will be one year older in 2014 (and thus one fewer years of discounting), then this decreases the savings by about 5% at most ages.

Lump Sum Strategies
So, what should plan sponsors consider?

1. If you’re in the process of implementing a 2013 lump sum payout window for terminated vested participants, you may want to consider the potential savings of waiting until 2014 to pay benefits.

2. There’s no guarantee that interest rates will remain higher until your plan locks-in its lump sum rates later this year. Rates could go up or down, so you’ll need to consider whether you can handle the risk and cost if interest rates go back down and lump sum values increase.

3. Even if you’ve started the process of preparing for a 2013 lump sum window, it’s not a wasted effort if you decide to wait until 2014. Work spent tracking down missing participants, finalizing accrued benefit calculations, and drafting plan amendments needs to be done anyways. However, you’ll want to set a firm “go” or “wait” deadline so there’s enough time to complete the project in 2013 if you desire.

Expect Lower Discount Rates (and Higher Liabilities) for 2012 Pension Disclosures

Pension discount rates continued to drop during 2012 and plan sponsors should prepare for yet another potential upward spike in balance sheet liabilities for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2012.

Using the Citigroup Pension Liability Index (CPLI) and Citigroup Pension Discount Curve (CPDC) as proxies, pension accounting discount rates may decrease by roughly 35 basis points. This could present yet another increase in the pension liability compared to FY2011 (when many thought rates couldn’t get any lower). Fortunately, many plans also experienced strong investment returns during 2012 so the combined effect on the net balance sheet liability may be muted.

Analysis

In the chart below we compare the CPDC over the past four years at different dates (12/31/2009, 12/31/2010, 12/31/2011, and 12/31/2012). We also highlight the CPLI at each measurement date. The CPLI can be thought of as the discount rate produced by the curve for an average pension plan.

Citigroup comparison 12312012

Rates on the long end of the spectrum dropped slightly since 12/31/2011, while short and medium-term rates had a more pronounced decrease. This means plans whose liabilities are “front-loaded” (i.e., significant portion of benefits expected to be paid in the next 15 years) will see larger liability increases. Examples are plans with high concentrations of retirees or those that have been frozen or closed to new entrants for many years.

Net Effect on Balance Sheet Liability

If asset performance was strong during 2012, then this will moderate the situation since the net shortfall (assets minus liabilities) is reported as the balance sheet liability.

Below is a simplified illustration for a plan that was 80% funded on 12/31/2011 and we assume a 5% increase in pension liability during 2012. We then compare the funded status results under two asset scenarios: (1) Level assets since 12/31/2011 and (2) Assets 5% higher than 12/31/2011.

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

12312012 bal sheet liability example

Conclusions

So, what’s a plan sponsor to do when faced with a big increase in pension accounting liability? Here are a few ideas.

  • Your plan’s specific cash flows could have an enormous impact on how much the drop in fixed income rates affects the pension liability. If you’ve just used the CPLI in the past, it’s worth looking at modeling your own projected cash flows with the CPDC to see how it stacks up.
  • Additional plan funding (above the IRS minimum requirements) may be appealing in 2013. Not only will it increase the plan’s funded status, but it will also help lower your pension plan’s PBGC variable rate premiums.
  • If you’ve implemented an LDI strategy for a portion of the pension trust portfolio, then the drop in discount rates should be accompanied by a corresponding increase in your asset value. If you haven’t adopted an LDI investment strategy yet, now may be a good time to revisit this policy.
  • There are some alternatives to the CPDC and CPLI as a basis for setting accounting discount rates, such as “above-median” versions of these rates. Check with you actuary or auditor to see what your options are.

Low Pension Discount Rates = Big Accounting Liabilities for FY2011

Pension discount rates have plummeted over the past few months and plan sponsors should prepare for a potential upward spike in balance sheet liabilities for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2011.

Using the Citigroup Pension Discount Curve (CPDC) as a proxy, pension accounting discount rates could decrease by 100 basis points (or more). This will mean a big increase in the pension liability and net balance sheet liability for many plans.

Analysis

In the chart below we compare the CPDC over the past two years at different dates (12/31/2009, 12/31/2010, 6/30/2011, and 12/31/2011). We also highlight the Citigroup Pension Liability Index rate (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.On the short end of the spectrum, rates continued to drop between FYE2009 and FYE2011. The bigger issue may be the dramatic drop in rates on the long end of the spectrum (e.g., years 15 and beyond) since 6/30/2011.

A large portion of many pension plans’ obligations are discounted at these long-term rates, so they could have a significant impact on the accounting liabilities. This is particularly true for retiree medical plans where assumed health inflation means that considerably higher costs are projected in the later years.

Net Effect on Balance Sheet Liability

If asset performance was weak during 2011, then this will exacerbate the situation since the net shortfall (assets minus liabilities) is reported as the balance sheet liability.

Below is a simplified illustration for a plan that was 90% funded on 12/31/2010 and we assume a 10% increase in pension liability during 2011. We then compare the funded status results under two asset scenarios: (1) Level assets since 12/31/2010 and (2) Assets 5% lower than 12/31/2010.

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

Conclusions

So, what’s a plan sponsor to do when faced with a big increase in pension accounting liability? Here are a few ideas.

  • Your plan’s specific cash flows could have an enormous impact on how much the drop in fixed income rates affects the pension liability. If you’ve just used the CPLI in the past, it’s worth looking at modeling your own projected cash flows with the CPDC to see how it stacks up.
  • If you’ve implemented an LDI strategy for a portion of the pension trust portfolio, then the drop in discount rates should be accompanied by a corresponding increase in your asset value. If you haven’t adopted an LDI investment strategy yet, now may be a good time to revisit this policy.
  • There are lots of alternatives to the CPDC and CPLI as a basis for setting accounting discount rates. Check with you actuary or auditor to see what your options are.