US pension plans’ funded status erodes in first half of 2012, Mercer reveals
The aggregate deficit in pension plans sponsored by S&P 1500 companies grew $59 billion in the first half of 2012, to $543 billion, according to new figures from Mercer. This deficit corresponds to an aggregate funded ratio of 74 percent as of June 30, 2012 compared to a funded ratio of 75 percent as of December 31, 2011, at which point the aggregate deficit was $484B.
Although US equity markets rose by 4 percent during June as measured by the S&P 500 total return index, discount rates used to measure the pension liability fell by 24 to 32 basis points during the month, as measured by the Mercer Pension Discount Yield Curve. The yield curve hit an all time low for the second consecutive month, due primarily to Moody’s action downgrading the credit ratings of 15 major banks on June 21. Because a number of the banks lost their AA credit ratings, they are now excluded from yield curves used to set pension accounting discount rates.
Sponsors did see some relief, however, as the passage by Congress of the Highway and Student Loan bill included a provision that will reduce the funding requirements for corporate plans by establishing a corridor around the 25-year average of interest rates used to determine liabilities in the calculation of minimum contribution requirements. Plans that would otherwise fall below key funding thresholds will now have more time to improve the funding levels and avoid restrictions on their ability to pay some accelerated benefit forms, such as lump sums.
“While these lower near-term contribution requirements will, rightly, be welcomed by many plan sponsors, the reduction in funding could lower overall funded status of US pension plans in the short term,” said Jonathan Barry, a partner in Mercer’s Retirement Risk and Finance business. Mercer estimates that the relief could be in the range of $40 to $50 billion for S&P 1500 plan sponsors for 2012 and could total well over $100 billion through 2014. “All things being equal, that reduction in funding will reduce overall funded status from what it would otherwise have been had funding stabilization not been passed,” said Mr. Barry. “We suggest that plan sponsors take the opportunity to review their pension contributions in light of both the new rules and their broader pension risk management framework. The increase in PBGC premiums that come with the new legislation certainly give sponsors an incentive to keep their plans well funded.”
Mercer estimates the aggregate combined funded status position of plans operated by S&P 1500 companies on a monthly basis. This is based on projections of their reported financial statements adjusted from each company’s financial year end to June 30 in line with financial indices. This includes U.S. domestic qualified and non-qualified plans and all non-domestic plans. The estimated aggregate value of pension plan assets of the S&P 1500 companies at December 31, 2011, was $1.45 trillion, compared with estimated aggregate liabilities of $1.93 trillion. Allowing for changes in financial markets though the end of June 2012, changes to the S&P 1500 constituents and newly released financial disclosures, the estimated aggregate assets were $1.55 trillion, compared with the estimated aggregate liabilities of $2.09 trillion as of June 30, 2012.