Corporate pension plan funding levels flat-line in 2016
The stock market may have soared after the news that Donald Trump won the White House and plans to cut taxes and regulations, but the pension funded status of the nation’s largest corporate plan sponsors remains stuck at 80%. This figure is roughly unchanged for 2014 and 2015 when the status rates were 81%, according to a recent analysis conducted by Willis Towers Watson.
In an analysis of 410 Fortune 1000 companies that sponsor U.S. defined benefit pension plans, Willis Towers Watson found that the pension deficit is projected to have increased $17 billion to $325 billion at the end of 2016, compared to a $308 billion deficit at the end of 2015.
“On the face of it, [the 2016 figures of 80%] looks pretty boring. For the last three years the funding levels were measured around 80% and it doesn’t look that interesting,” says Alan Glickstein, senior retirement consultant for WTW. “But one thing to note is that 80% is not 100%. To be that stagnant and that far away from 100% is not a good thing.”
In fact, 2016’s tentative figures, which have yet to be finalized, could have been worse.
According to Glickstein, the 2016 figure hides “some pretty dramatic movements” that occurred during the unpredictable election year. “Prior to the election and due to the significant changes to equities and other asset values after the election, this number would have been more like 75%” if Trump had not won, he says.
“That is the interesting story because we haven’t been as low as 75% really ever in the last 20 years,” Glickstein says.
Fortune 1000 companies contributed $35 billion to their pension plans in 2016, according to the WTW research. This was an increase compared to the $31 billion employers contributed to their plans in 2015 but still beneath the contribution levels from previous years. “Employer contributions have been declining steadily for the last several years partly due to legislated funding relief,” according to Willis Towers Watson.
Despite these dips, total pension obligations increased from $1.61 trillion to $1.64 trillion.
Why are U.S. companies slow to fund their own pension plans, especially when in 2006 and 2007 the self-funded levels were 99% and 106% respectively?
“In prior years, plan sponsors put lots of extra contributions into the plans to help pay off the deficit, and investment returns have been up and the equities the plans have invested in have helped with that we haven’t been able to move this up above 80%,” Glickstein says.
That said, many American corporations are sitting on significant amounts of cash but appear not to be putting money into their retirement plans.
“We have seen companies contributing more to the plans in the past, but each plan is different and each corporation has their own situation. Either a company is cash rich or it is not,” Glickstein says.
“With interest rates being low and the deductions company get for their contributions, for a lot of plan sponsors it has been an easy decision to put a lot of money into the plan,” he says.
“And there are plenty of rewards for keeping premiums down by increasing contributions.”
Further, a new Congress and president could have an impact on corporate contributions especially if new corporate tax codes are enacted.
The broad initiatives of a new administration in the executive branch and legislative branch will have an impact, says Glickstein.
“With tax reforms, the general thrust for corporations and individuals is we are going to lower the rates and broaden the underlying tax base. So for pensions, the underlying tax rates for pensions is probably going to be lower and if [Congress gets] tax reforms done and they lower the corporate rate in 2017, and even make it retroactive,” Glickstein speculates. He predicts that some plan sponsors will want to contribute much more to the 2016 tax year in order to qualify for the deductions at the higher rates while they still can.
“There is a short-term opportunity potentially to put more money in now and capture the higher deduction once tax reform kicks in,” says Glickstein. “And with an 80% funded status, there is plenty of room to put more money in than with an overfunded plan.”