Multiemployer pension reform advocates continue to pursue what they consider a critical missing piece in new legislation: a regulatory green light to do more alternative plan designs.
These advocates would like congressional approval for composite plan models that would give plan trustees more tools for maintaining a balance between plan benefits and assets, such as reducing the rate of future accruals and trimming certain benefits, changes that now require lengthy regulatory approval. While reforms passed by Congress in December helped the most distressed plans, many more plans would benefit from variable models, said Dana Thompson, assistant director of legislative affairs for the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association, Chantilly, Va.
Having new approaches sanctioned by Congress would give more pension funds the confidence to experiment, but some plans already are showing the way.
With variable, or adjustable, pension funds, the basic idea is that investment risk is shared by employee and employer. If investment returns drop, benefit accrual targets can be adjusted downward the next year. Another variation uses traditional accrual and benefit formulas, but part or all of the benefit rises or falls along with investment returns.
Participants in the $20 million Greater Boston Hospitality Employers/Local 26 pension fund get the greater of a floor defined benefit or a variable benefit that rises once investment returns exceed 5.5%. Returns above 10% are put into a reserve for future down years.
Local officials considered a variable plan because their defined contribution plan “wasn't working. It wasn't creating any meaningful benefits,” said Richard Hudson, principal consulting actuary in New York at Cheiron Inc. “So far, all the feedback has been very favorable.”
The local's experience convinced the international union, UNITE HERE, to roll out its version in January 2016.
“There's more activity today than there was a year ago and there will be more a year from now,” said Cheiron President and CEO Gene Kalwarski in McLean, Va. In Linthicum, Md., the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots switched to a hybrid plan in 2013 with a fixed and variable component that allows for benefit increases if the new plan's conservative 5% assumed rate of return is exceeded. “It allows participants to share in the risk and rewards of investment returns, while providing a base benefit that participants can count on,” officials of the fund said in a letter to participants. The Masters, Mates & Pilots pension plan had $437 million as of Dec. 31, 2013; the adjustable plan had $6 million as of the same date.