US Corporate DB Pension Funding Falls $11 Billion in July

Funded rate of 100 largest DB corporate plans drops to 87.9% during month.

The funded status of the 100 largest corporate defined benefit pension plans fell $11 billion in July as the funded ratio dropped to 87.9% from 88.4% at the end of June, according to consulting firm Milliman.

The Milliman 100 Pension Funding Index (PFI) showed that the funded status deficit grew to $216 billion from $205 billion at the end of June due to a drop in the benchmark corporate bond interest rates used to value pension liabilities. However, the decline in funded status was partially offset by moderate investment returns.

“July delivered a one-two punch to corporate pensions, with the Fed’s quarter-point interest rate cut and drop in the monthly discount rate,” said Zorast Wadia, co-author of the Milliman 100 PFI. “Investment returns overall this year have helped buoy funding—but with the market volatility seen over the past few days, August may turn out to be more ‘bust’ than ‘boom’ for these pensions.”

Between the end of June and the end of July, the projected benefit obligation (PBO) increased $15 billion, raising the Milliman 100 PFI liability value to $1.783 trillion from $1.768 trillion. The increase was due to an eight basis point decrease in the monthly discount rate, which declined to 3.37% for July from 3.45% in June. July’s discount rate is the third-lowest discount in the 19-year history of the PFI, Milliman said, and only July 2016 and August 2016 saw lower discount rates at 3.33% and 3.32%, respectively.

July’s 0.56% investment return raised the Milliman 100 PFI asset value by $4 billion to $1.567 trillion, and for the past 12 months ending in July, the cumulative asset return for the pensions has been 6.42%, while the Milliman 100 PFI funded status deficit widened by $107 billion. Discount rates experienced a 74 basis point decrease over the last 12 months, falling to 3.37% at the end of July from 4.11% at the same time last year.

Milliman projected that if the companies in the Milliman 100 PFI were to achieve the expected 6.6% median asset return, and if the current discount rate of 3.37% were maintained during 2019 through 2020, the funded status of the surveyed plans would increase to a ratio of 89.3% and 93.0% by the end of 2019 and 2020, respectively. For purposes of the forecast, Milliman assumed 2019 and 2020 aggregate annual contributions of $50 billion.

Under an optimistic forecast with interest rates rising to 3.62% by the end of 2019 and 4.22% by the end of 2020, with annual asset gains of 10.6%, the funded ratio of the plans would climb to 94% by the end of 2019 and 109% by the end of 2020. However, under a pessimistic forecast that includes a discount rate of 3.12% at the end of 2019 falling to 2.52% by the end of 2020, with annual returns of 2.6%, the funded ratio would drop to 85% by the end of 2019, and 78% by the end of 2020.

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