Pension Lump Sums Much More Expensive in 2015

Over the past few years, many defined benefit (DB) plan sponsors considered 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 2014 417(e) rates, which will be the 2015 reference rates for many DB plans. This post shares a brief update of the impact these rates could have on 2015 lump sum payout strategies.

Low Interest Rates Will Increase Cost of 2015 Lump Sums

So, what’s the potential impact on 2015 lump sums? The table and chart below show the possible difference between comparable 2014 and 2015  lump sums at sample ages assuming payment of a $1,000 deferred-to-65 monthly benefit. Note that the 2014 lump sum estimates are based on November 2013 interest rates, while 2015 values are based on November 2014 rates.

November 2014 lump sum chartNovember 2014 lump sum tableNote: If we adjust for the fact that participants will be one year older in 2015 (and thus one fewer years of discounting), then this increases the costs above by roughly another 5% at most ages.

What’s Causing Lump Sum Costs to Increase?

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), while higher rates towards the end of 2013 made 2014 lump sums more affordable. This is because lump sum values increase as interest rates decrease, and vice versa.

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 brief comparison of the November 2013 rates (for 2014 payouts) versus the November 2014 rates (for 2015 payouts).November 2014 segment rate tableAs we can see, the first segment rate increased slightly while the second and third segment rates decreased substantially since last November. The overall large decrease in interest rates is why lump sums will be more expensive in 2015.

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 2015 lump sum rates compared to 2014.
  1. Even with lower interest rates pushing up lump sum costs, there are still incentives to “right-size” 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 significantly in a couple of years.
  1. 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

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.