With a better ability to understand their current position and regular updates on how the position is changing, plan executives can then seize opportunities to derisk.
With deficits of U.S. plans falling (decreasing to $375 billion from $408 billion in 2016) and funded ratios improving (the estimated aggregate funded ratio of pension plans sponsored by S&P 1500 companies increased to 84% from 82% year-on-year as of Dec. 31), there is incentive for plans to "strike while the iron is hot."
Combine this with recent changes to U.S. accounting standards introduced by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, which could play a role in helping to lower the barrier to derisking, and we can expect a significant impact on risk-transfer behavior and appetite in the foreseeable future.
Under the new accounting rules, organizations are required to separate the service cost component from the other financial components of net benefit cost for presentation purposes; thereby altering where different components of pension income and costs appear in accounting disclosures. The standard takes effect for public business entities for annual periods beginning after Dec. 15, 2017. For other entities, the amendments take effect for annual periods beginning after Dec. 15, 2018.
Such changes to the accounting model — i.e., the movement (aside from service cost) of pension assets and liabilities away from operations reporting — could impact the way in which plan sponsors view their investment strategy, including their approach to derisking. With expected return on assets income no longer being included in operating earnings, this could act as a catalyst for sponsors to reassess their hibernation vs. termination strategy — and potentially result in a more significant shift toward derisking and moving assets into longer-term fixed-income holdings.
Although these accounting changes might not remove the barrier to derisking for some companies, it should lower the barrier and result in more opportunities to reduce or transfer risk. Add to that the fact that some sponsors might also choose to accelerate plan funding, in order to take advantage of tax relief at current rates, this may further reduce the funding gap in the short-term and add to the impetus to derisk.
Certainly, the developments in the pension market and accounting and reporting space are putting the possibility of derisking in the spotlight, and pension plans should re-examine when termination might become the desired path for them. Indeed, there will come a point when, no matter your size, eventually you will need to transfer the residual.
For many plans the journey remains the same, but there may now be a better route to optimizing long-term risk and costs. By harnessing tools that enable insight into accurate, up-to-date data, pension plans can optimize their derisking strategy — making informed decisions about the right time to derisk — and stay on course to smoothly touch down at their intended destination.