Longevity Trends and Pension Costs

When it comes to estimating defined benefit ("DB") plan costs, it is critical to use inputs and assumptions that make sense. Longevity is one such important factor that demands attention. Getting good answers to questions about life span differences among age, income and health cohorts is necessary for decision-makers. The assessment of how to redesign a plan, transfer risk and/or modify investment strategy depends on knowing what variables determine the size of the liability.

Studies such as the one just released by the National Association of Pension Funds ("NAPF") and Club Vita (a Hymans Robertson Company) can be helpful to the extent that they shed light about how long participant groups are expected to live. In a November 27, 2014 joint announcement, its "unique" research is described as likely to result in companies having to report higher pension liabilities. Based on an assessment of data about 2.5 million pensioners and one million deaths, authors conclude that "the pace of longevity increases varies significantly within DB schemes and for different groups of DB pension scheme members." One inference is that the life span gap between men and women in the "hard pressed" economic category versus those who are "comfortable" is narrowing. A second finding is that a typical defined benefit plan liability is likely to rise by one percent.

As the researchers correctly point out, access to granular details about the sensitivity of the cost-demographic lever can be utilized by DB plan trustees when deciding if and how to restructure via a buy-out, liability-driven investing strategy or something else. Click to read "The NAPF Longevity Model" (November 2014).

Peanuts and Pensions

In case you missed it, Kraft Foods Group Inc. ("Kraft") reported a fourth quarter 2013 increase in profit and a $1.11 per share accounting gain, due in part to its pension plan. Higher discount rates and bigger returns on its portfolio were cited factors, with a nod to the company's use of "some of the cost savings to boost marketing behind brands like Jello-O dessert and Planters peanuts." See "Kraft Net Soars on Pension-Related Gain" by John Kell (Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2014). Other news, straight from its earnings call, describes the use of roughly $600 million of the company's free cash flow to add contributions to the pension plans in 2013. The result is a rise in the funded ratio to 96 percent at calendar year-end, up from 77 percent one year earlier. Expected contributions for 2014 will run around $200 million, with $60 million of that number representing required cash to fund Kraft's Canadian pension plans. See "Q4 2013 Earnings Call Transcript," February 13, 2014 and "Kraft Foods Group Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2013 Results," February 13, 2014. Noteworthy is that Kraft commenced a liability-driven investment ("LDI") strategy, to be phased in over multiple years, (and I am paraphrasing here) as a way to more appropriately line up "pension assets with the projected benefit obligation to reduce volatility" by moving towards an 80% fixed income, 20% equity securities mix. See page 62 of the latest Kraft 10-K filing.

This alert from Kraft is yet another example of the link between pension management and corporate finance. There are lots of other companies that have made similar declarations about the relationship between employee benefit plan economics and company operations. As I wrote in "Pension risk, governance and CFO liability" by Susan Mangiero (Journal of Corporate Treasury Management, 2012), private sector plan sponsors are acutely aware of the economic and legal aspects of offering ERISA plans to their respective work force. A dollar paid by shareholders for benefits could be seen as a cost that takes away from growing the enterprise or an investment in happy workers who add to the bottom line. Either way, the Treasury and Investor Relations teams are increasingly involved in discussions and related action steps to address the management of retirement plans. This is no coincidence. Liquidity, enterprise risk management, valuation, shareholder relations, talent retention and capital adequacy are a few of the numerous touch points that bring together the worlds of Human Resources ("HR"), the board and C-level officers such as the CEO and the Chief Financial Officer. This trend is unlikely to go away any time soon. To the contrary, expect more interactions across company functions and around the world.

To read a related blog post, see "Pension Risk, Governance and CFO Liability," PensionRiskMatters.com, March 4, 2012.

Financial Executives Address De-Risking and ERISA Benefit Programs

According to "Balancing Costs, Risks, and Rewards: The Retirement and Employee Benefits Landscape in 2013" (CFO Research and Prudential Financial, Inc. - July 2013), numerous changes are underway. The opinions of senior financial executive survey takers validate the continued twin interest in expanding defined contribution plan offerings and managing the liability risk of existing defined benefit ("DB") plans. The strategic import of benefits as a way to attract and retain talent is recognized by "nearly all respondents in this year's survey." Regarding the restructuring of traditional pension plans, this report states that nearly four out of every ten leaders have frozen one or more DB plans yet recognize the need to manage risk for those plans as well as for active plans. Liability-driven investing ("LDI") programs are being adopted by "many companies". Transfer solutions are being "seriously" considered by roughly forty percent of companies represented in the survey. Almost one half of respondents agree that a return to managing its core business could be enhanced by doing something to address pension risk.

None of these results are particularly surprising but it always helpful to take the pulse of corporate America with respect to ERISA and employee benefit programs. I have long maintained that the role of treasury staff will accelerate. There are numerous corporate finance implications associated with the offering of non-wage compensation. As I have added in various speeches and articles echoing what numerous ERISA attorneys cite (and I am not an attorney), plan sponsors must carefully weigh their fiduciary responsibilities to participants against those of shareholders in arriving at a particular decision.

For a copy of the study, click here.

Interested readers may also want to check out the reference items listed below:

If you have further comments or questions, click to email Dr. Susan Mangiero.

Pension De-Risking: Compliance and ERISA Litigation Considerations

On January 16, 2013, this blogger - Dr. Susan Mangiero - had the pleasure of speaking with (a) Attorney Anthony A. Dreyspool (Senior Managing Director, Brock Fiduciary Services) (b) Attorney David Hartman (General Counsel and Vice President, General Motors Asset Management) and (c) Attorney Sam Myler (McDermott Will & Emery) about compliance "must do" items and litigation vulnerabilities. Sponsored by Strafford Publications, "Pension De-Risking for Employee Benefit Sponsors" attracted a large audience of general counsel, outside ERISA counsel and financial professionals. In addition to numerous talking points shared by all of us presenting, we had lots of attendee questions about issues such as balance sheet impact, case law and annuity regulations.

Click to download the slides for "Pension De-Risking for Employee Benefit Sponsors."

In my opening comments, I described some of the factors that are being discussed as part of conversations relating to whether a plan sponsor should de-risk or not. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Low interest rates;
  • Higher life expectancies;
  • Increased PBGC premiums;
  • Company's debt capacity;
  • Intent to go public or sell to an acquirer;
  • Available cash; and
  • Knowledge and experience of in-house ERISA fiduciaries.

Attorney Hartman urged anyone interested in de-risking to allow ample time of between six to eighteen months in order to file documents, research and create or modify policies and procedures as needed. He also advised companies to make sure that participants are fully apprised of their rights and to explain the merits of any particular transaction. For companies that may want to redesign a plan(s) for hourly workers, more time may be needed, especially if collective bargaining agreements are impacted.  His suggestion is to inform plan participants about state guarantees that apply in the event of an insurance company default. When retirees are emotionally attached to getting a check from their employer, care must be taken to allay any concerns that future monies will come from an outside third party. Keep in mind that the market may be moving at the same time that a deal is being put together. Regarding the transfer of assets, Attorney Hartman stated the importance of finding out early on what an insurance company is willing to accept. An independent appraiser may be required to determine the appropriate value of certain assets.

I talked about the various risks that can be mitigated via de-risking versus those that are introduced as the result of some type of defined benefit plan transfer or derivatives overlay strategy. The point was made that there is no perfect solution and that facts and circumstances must be taken into account. I added that litigation may arise if a plaintiff (or class of plaintiffs) question any or all of the following items:

  • Whether executives are unduly compensated as the result of an earnings or balance sheet boost due to de-risking;
  • Timing of a transaction and whether interest rates are "too low" at the time of a deal;
  • Completeness (or lack thereof) of information that is provided to participants;
  • Amount of fees paid to vendors;
  • Use of an independent fiduciary;
  • Level of asset valuations;
  • Use of an independent appraiser;
  • Extent to which due diligence was conducted on the structure of deal; and/or
  • Level of vetting of "safest available" annuity provider.

Attorney Dreyspool emphasized that ERISA fiduciaries must demonstrate procedural prudence. This could entail an assessment of factors that include but are not limited to:

  • Amount of cash out;
  • Which participants will be impacted;
  • How the plan is to be terminated; and/or
  • Alternative transactions that a plan sponsor might have adopted instead.

He gave a long laundry list of items that must be considered when vetting an insurance company, should a transaction involve an insurer. While not exhaustive, factors to review include the following:

  • Quality and diversification of insurer's investment portfolio;
  • Size of insurer relative to proposed contract;
  • Level of insurer's capital and surplus;
  • Lines of business of the insurer and other indications of its exposure to risk;
  • Structure of the annuity contract;
  • Guarantees supporting the annuities, like separate accounts;
  • Availability of protection through state associations; and/or
  • Size of the guarantee.

The audience was encouraged to review DOL Advisory Opinion 2002-14A (dated December 18, 2002) and ERISA Section 404(a).

Attorney Myler presented litigation slides prepared in part by senior ERISA litigator Nancy G. Ross (also with McDermott Will & Emery). He explained the civil enforcement law relating to contract claims, asserting that a lawsuit could focus on what a participant was promised versus what they received. He differentiated between settlor functions and fiduciary acts as a cornerstone of any lawsuit that could be brought against a member of a company's investment committee and/or any of the service providers involved in a particular de-risking transaction.

There seems to be no shortage of case precedents with respect to disputes already making their way through the court system. Attorney Myler discussed Kuntz v. Reese, Call v. Ameritech Management Pension Plan, Laurenzano v. Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Lee v. Verizon Communications Inc., inter alia.

Indeed, it is worthwhile listening to review the in-depth comments made by all speakers. The topic is broad and important with no doubt more activity to occur in the U.S. and elsewhere.