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Big Gains Did Little To Boost Corporate Pension Plans

Decline in interest rates caused plan obligations to grow and offset return on assets. Big Gains Did Little To Boost Corporate Pension Plans

U.S. companies reaped their biggest return on pension plan assets in 16 years last year, but the decline in interest rates caused their pension debt to grow—wiping out gains from investments in stocks and bonds.

For defined-benefit pension plans at Fortune 1000 companies, the ratio of assets to liabilities reached an estimated 87% in 2019, up 1 percentage point from the previous year, according to London-based consultancy Willis Towers Watson PLC.

The minimal improvement in the financial well-being of the plans is striking considering their assets on average returned an estimated 19.8% last year, the highest since 2003. But companies were met with disappointment when the Federal Reserve cut already low interest rates throughout 2019.

“Given how strong the markets were [last] year, you would expect to see a huge increase in funding levels,” Joseph Gamzon, senior director of retirement at Willis Towers Watson, said in an interview. “But we didn’t really see that.”

Low interest rates will likely apply more pressure this year to projections of expected rates of returns for corporate pension plans.

Companies with the largest defined-benefit plans include International Business Machines Corp. , Boeing Co. and General Electric Co. , according to consulting firm Milliman Inc., which compiles data on the 100 U.S. public companies with the largest pension plans. GE, the Boston-based industrial conglomerate, said in October it would freeze its pension plan for about 20,000 U.S. workers to try to reduce its debt.

Future obligations for corporate pension plans piled higher in 2019, increasing by 9% from the previous year to an estimated $1.72 trillion. Pension plan assets at the end of 2019 also grew, by 10%, to an estimated $1.5 trillion, according to Willis Towers Watson, which analyzed hundreds of Fortune 1000 companies with defined pension plans and whose fiscal years ended in December.

Companies now are working to forecast cash flows based on a range of interest-rate scenarios, Mr. Gamzon said.

They are also preparing for required cash contributions after measures that provided temporary relief from higher pension contributions expire. The measures, passed in 2012 by Congress, start to phase out in 2021 and will expire in 2024.

Companies also slashed contributions to pension plans in 2019 largely due to the expiration of a large tax break for accelerating contributions, which had been available before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Employers’ plan contributions plummeted by 52% to an estimated $26.3 billion from the previous year, according to Willis Towers Watson.

Companies have begun taking seriously the prospect of required contributions if the expiring pension relief isn’t extended, said Michael Moran, a pension strategist at Goldman Sachs Asset Management. “It is starting to become a priority issue in how companies think about pension plans,” he said.

 

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