J.P. Morgan Predicts Gloomy Year Ahead For Pension Plans

According to its Fall 2012 issue of Pension Pulse, published by the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Strategy Group, 2013 is going to be "grim" for pension funds after a less than jovial 2012. Citing a drop in funded status for many U.S. plans this year, "despite a 14% stock market rally," trouble spots are unlikely to disappear any time soon, putting continued pressure on the size of liabilities.

To tame the beasts in the form of "funded status volatility, unfavorable changes in the index used to value pension liabilities and longevity assumptions that increase liability values," employers continue to explore de-risking transactions such as offering lump sums and buyouts. Contrary to popular belief, the authors point out that even companies with underfunded plans like lump sum arrangements. The appeal is in part motivated by tax rules that allow "certain plans to use backdated discount rates to value lump sum payouts" that are higher than current discount rates.

Although the evidence suggests an increased demand on the part of plan sponsors to de-risk, J.P. Morgan professionals reference a ceiling of about $70 billion more over the next four or five years before industry capacity is reached for pension risk transfers. Of course, any time that demand increases and supply remains static, prices will rise as a result. At the margin, that could encourage some organizations from de-risking.

The report goes on to describe a "surreal discount rate" situation as the result of some bank securities being downgraded below AA in June of 2012. The net effect - a change in the discount rate curve that "reduced the weight of financials" - left only ten issuers to make up 75% of the market value of the index. Arguably, this increases the "inherent concentration risk" which in turn could increase the volatility of the index, thereby sending employers off on a measurement roller coaster ride. Shareholders could then feel the pinch if companies have to add cash to a plan as funding levels sink.

Adding insult to injury, the authors describe a change in actuarial assumptions that could significantly push the costs upward for companies that sponsor pension and Other Post Employment Benefits ("OPEB") programs. Their assertions are that (1) "changing actuarial assumptions are likely to increase pension liabilities by 2% to 5%" and (2) uncapped post-retirement health care benefits could go up by 6% to 9%.

Taken individually or together, the various pressures on retirement plan liabilities suggest a busy year ahead for ERISA fiduciaries and their support staff.

Public Pension Plans Owe $2.73 Trillion

According to a just released study by the Pew Center on the States, state pension plans in aggregate owe nearly $3 trillion in pension benefits, of which about $400 billion is unfunded. Unfortunately, for some state residents, the financial pain is not evenly spread throughout the nation. Consider some of the findings.

  • "Only a third of the states have consistently set aside the amount their own actuaries said was necessary to cover the cost of promised benefits over the long term.
  • Twenty states had funding levels of less than 80 percent at the end of FY 2006—below what most experts consider healthy.
  • Several states have seen particularly troubling drops in their pension funding levels. Some of the biggest drops have occurred in Hawaii, Kentucky, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington."

Hold onto your hats.

The study further reports that post-employment healthcare benefits have a price tag of about $381 billion with only 3 percent of this total liability having been funded to date. "None of the five largest states—California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois—had put aside money for non-pension benefits as of FY 2006." and 11 states, including California, New York, New Jersery and Connecticut owe more than $10 billion to plan participants.

Ouch!

As this blog has pointed out repeatedly, there is no free lunch. Putting off the inevitable is going to be painful for employees, retirees and taxpayers.

Now imagine you are a resident of a state with post-employment funding woes. Your taxes go up to pay for someone else to retire at the same time that you are struggling with your own situation. That's exactly what is happening for millions of people, causing great angst for all.

Read "Promises with a Price" in full text. If you missed it, the October 2007 issue of Governing (by the same authors of this new Pew report) addresses anemic pension governance standards at the state level in "The $3 Trillion Challenge." Part of that article includes a sidebar with yours truly on suggested questions to ask as part of a governance check-up for a particular plan. Read the Q&A with Susan Mangiero.

Also check out our earlier blog post entitled "Tea Party Redux: State Pensions in Turmoil." Written a year ago, the message is still the same. Ask your state legislators for their proposed solution to the retirement funding crisis.