Higher Discount Rates Will Help 2013 Pension Disclosures and 2014 Expense

The final results are in and pension plan sponsors should be pleased with final year-end discount rates – at least compared to the FY2012 rates. Using the Citigroup Pension Liability Index (CPLI) and Citigroup Pension Discount Curve (CPDC) as proxies, pension accounting discount rates are up by about 90 basis points this year.

This is great news for pension plan sponsors. The higher discount rates will have a very beneficial effect on pension liabilities. This in turn will affect both the year-end funded status of the plan and also the 2014 pension expense calculation.

Analysis
In the chart below we compare the CPDC at four different measurement dates (12/31 2010 to 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 12312013

The orange arrows in the chart highlight the trend in yield curve movement and show how rates have increased at almost all points along the spectrum since 2012. This means that pretty much all plans, even closed/frozen plans with shorter durations, should experience the benefit of higher discount rates.

Net Effect on Balance Sheet Liability
Many plans also had strong investment returns during the year. 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 70% funded on 12/31/2012 and we assume a 10% decrease in pension liability during 2013. We then compare the funded status results under two asset scenarios: (1) Assets 5% higher than 12/31/2012 and (2) Assets 15% higher than 12/31/2012.

12312013 bal sheet liability example

In both cases, the funded status of the plan improves measurably. There’s also a magnified decrease in the unfunded balance sheet liability because it’s such a leveraged result. This amount decreases by 45% and 68%, respectively, in the two sample scenarios.

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

  • 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.
  • Additional plan funding (above the IRS minimum requirements) may be appealing in 2014. Not only will it increase the plan’s funded status, but it will also help lower your pension plan’s PBGC variable rate premiums. These are scheduled to increase significantly starting in 2015 as a result of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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.

Evaluating PBGC Premium Options in Advance of Big Increases

Which door to choose?Each year, defined benefit (DB) pension plan sponsors must pay pension insurance premiums to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). In light of large PBGC premium rate increases in 2013 and future years, plan sponsors should carefully evaluate their options before proceeding with their next premium payment.

Background

There are two components to annual PBGC premiums:

1. Flat rate premium based on the number of participants

2. Variable Rate Premium (VRP) based on the plan’s unfunded vested liabilities

As a result of last year’s Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), PBGC premium rates are scheduled to increase sharply over the upcoming years. Below is a table showing a summary of upcoming PBGC rate increases.

MPGC rate table 2013

Potential Strategies to Manage PBGC Premiums

Pension plan sponsors generally don’t like to pay PBGC premiums because it is money that could otherwise be spent on increased funding for the plan. With this in mind, here are some important issues to consider before proceeding with your next PBGC premium filing:

1. Unfunded liabilities for the VRP can be calculated using “standard” PBGC interest rates (snapshot rates) or “alternative” rates based on a 24 month average of the snapshot rates. Once you choose a method, you have to stick with it for at least 5 years. Since 2008 was the first year that plan sponsors could elect the “alternative” method, 2013 is the first year that they can make an election to switch back to the “standard” rates (though it likely won’t be advantageous to do so).

2. Over the long-term, both interest rate methods should produce similar VRP amounts even though the smoothed alternative interest rates will lag the standard rates. When interest rates are falling, VRPs based on the alternative interest rates should be lower than those using standard rates. The opposite will be true in a rising interest rate environment.

3. Sponsors of small pension plans (fewer than 100 participants) that haven’t completed their 2012 PBGC premium filing can actually lock-in beneficial VRPs for two years. Their 2012 premiums aren’t due until April 30, 2013 so they can estimate their 2012 and 2013 premiums under both the standard and alternative methods and see which one is the most economical.

4. Before switching interest rate methods just to get lower 2012 and/or 2013 VRPs, plan sponsors should be aware that it’s less expensive to be underfunded now than in 2014 or later years. That’s because the VRP premium rate is doubling in the next two years (see table above), which could wipe out any short-term VRP savings this year.

How could this strategy backfire? Consider a plan that switches to the alternative VRP method in 2013 in order to lower their unfunded liability by $1M. This would decrease their 2013 VRP by $9K (i.e., $9 per $1,000 in unfunded liability).

Now suppose that interest rates increase before 2014. The standard interest rate method would immediately use those higher interest rates to calculate 2014 VRPs. The alternative rates would lag and be lower than the standard rates, which would produce higher unfunded liabilities. Let’s suppose that the alternative method 2014 unfunded liability is now $1M higher than using the standard method. This means that the alternative method 2014 VRP would be $12K higher (i.e., $12 per $1,000 unfunded liability since the VRP rate increases in 2014) and you end up with a net loss of $3K on VRP for the two plan years.

Next Steps

What’s a plan sponsor to do? The 5-year commitment to the “standard” or “alternative” interest rate method means you can’t guarantee lower PBGC VRPs using one or the other. However, you should evaluate your options each year. If cash is tight and interest rates are on the move, it may be worth choosing one method or the other for some short-term PBGC premium savings with the knowledge that doing so could expose you to higher premium rates in upcoming years.

Steering Clear of Pension Benefit Restrictions

Negative asset performance and declining valuation interest rates during 2011 will cause some pension plans to face benefit restriction issues for the first time in 2012.   Potential repercussions include limits on accelerated distributions (lump sums), restrictions on plan amendments increasing the value of benefits, mandatory benefit accrual freezes and restrictions on unpredictable contingent event benefits (UCEBs).

Many sponsors want to do all that they can to avoid these benefit restrictions.   Regulations allow four options to do so:

  1. Waiving credit balance – If there is any credit balance (carryover balance or prefunding balance) on the valuation date, the easiest way to improve the funding status is to waive the balance.  In fact, this action is required in certain cases.  The trouble is, for most underfunded plans, the credit balance is not big enough to be of much help.  It can also reduce future funding flexibility.
  2. Posting security – Sponsors can also post funds in escrow outside of the plan and count it as an asset for purposes of determining if benefit restrictions apply.  This option comes with plenty of strings attached, and would not truly improve the funding status of the plan.
  3. Additional current year contribution – A third option is to make an additional contribution for the current year (a “436 contribution”).  A 436 contribution needs to be made before the date the restriction would otherwise start.  This option can avoid restrictions on UCEBs, amendments and accruals, but not limits on lump sums.
  4. Additional prior year contribution – The fourth and perhaps most attractive option is to make an additional contribution for the prior year.  Here are a few things plan sponsors considering this solution should know:
    • The contribution does not need to be made before the valuation date.  For example, a plan sponsor that is concerned their January 1, 2012 funded status may trigger benefit restrictions would not need to make an additional contribution by December 31, 2011.  This is important because it allows time for the plan’s actuary to measure the preliminary funded status, determine if a contribution is needed to avoid restrictions, and to calculate the amount of such a contribution.
    • The January 1, 2012 funded status generally needs to be certified by March 31, 2012.  Ideally, additional contributions would be made by this date because the actuary can not certify the status based on contributions that haven’t already been made.  However, an actuary can issue a “range certification”.  For example, the actuary can certify that once the contribution is made, the funded status will be between 80% and 100%.  This prevents restrictions and allows the sponsor to have until the normal contribution due date (the earlier of September 15, 2012 and the date the 2011 tax return is filed) to fund any additional contribution for 2011.
    • The contribution increase may be more affordable than it first appears.  That’s because any additional contribution for the prior plan year is included in the assets for determining the minimum contribution on the next valuation date.   Making an additional 2011 contribution of $1,000,000 may reduce the 2012 minimum contribution by about $160,000.
    • WARNING:  If, for any reason, the additional contribution isn’t made so the final funded status is outside of the previously certified range, there are serious consequences.  Potential consequences include retroactive benefit restrictions and plan disqualification.  Therefore, the sponsor needs to be absolutely sure that they will be able to make the contribution prior to requesting a range certification.

Since benefit restrictions can be complicated and costly to implement, it makes sense to avoid them – especially if they can be avoided by paying down unfunded liability that needs to be funded sooner or later.