US Corporate Pension Funding Level Rises to 91.4% in April

Improvement boosted by strong investment returns during the month.

The 100 largest US corporate defined benefit pension plans’ funded status increased $29 billion to 91.4% in April from 89.7% at the end of March, spurred by strong investment gains and a rise in the benchmark corporate bond interest rates used to value pension liabilities, according to consulting firm Milliman.

April’s healthy 1.09% investment gain increased the plans’ aggregate asset value by $13 billion to $1.536 trillion at the end of April. Meanwhile, the plans’ aggregate deficit fell to $145 billion from $174 billion at the end of March, a result of an increase in the benchmark corporate bond interest rates.

“Overall, 2019 is starting out quite well, with above-expected asset returns in each of the first four months of the year,” Zorast Wadia, co-author of the Milliman 100 PFI report, which tracks the 100 largest defined benefit pension plans, said in a release. “Discount rates making their way north of 4.0% again would further add to the optimism around pension funding.”

The projected benefit obligation for the plans decreased $16 billion during April to $1.681 trillion due to a seven basis point increase in the monthly discount rate in March.

Over the last 12 months, the cumulative asset gain for the pensions has been 5.19%, and the funded status deficit has grown by $5 billion. Milliman said the main reason the funded status deficit worsened was because of a decline in discount rates over the past 12 months. During that period, discount rates fell to 3.85% at the end of April from 4.03% at the same time last year. The funded ratio of the Milliman 100 companies slightly decreased over the past 12 months to 91.4% from 91.6%.

The report said the funded status of the surveyed plans would increase if the pensions were to earn the expected 6.6% median asset return, and if the current discount rate of 3.85% were maintained through 2020. Milliman said this would result in a projected pension deficit of $105 billion, and a funded ratio of 93.7% by the end of 2019, and a projected pension deficit of $43 billion, and a 97.4% funded ratio by the end of 2020. This is assuming 2019 and 2020 aggregate annual contributions of $50 billion.

Under an optimistic forecast with interest rates at 4.25% by the end of 2019, and 4.85% by the end of 2020, combined with annual asset gains of 10.6%, the funded ratio would climb to 101% by the end of 2019, and 117% by the end of 2020. However, under a pessimistic forecast with a discount rate of 3.45% at the end of 2019, and 2.85% by the end of 2020, and with just 2.6% annual returns, the funded ratio would fall to 87% by the end of 2019, and 80% by the end of 2020.

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