The first quarter of 2022 brought significant movement in two of the main components that impact the discount rate calculations for corporate defined benefit plans: nominal interest rates increased and credit spreads widened.
"The impact of that is discount rates for most corporate DB plans have probably gone up well over 125 basis points so far this year," said Michael Hall, a managing director at Russell Investments in Seattle. "And for a number of our clients, just this year, that number has gone up 150 basis points."
A 1% change in the discount rate can raise or lower plan liabilities as much as 10%, or more for less mature plans, Mr. Hall said, "So where they stand today is thankfully better funded than they were at the beginning of the year, and a lot better funded than they were at the beginning of last year."
U.S. corporate plan funding increased to an estimated 97.4% as of April 30, according to a report from Wilshire Advisors, up from 95.4% at the end of 2021. That improvement has come despite corporate plans returning a median -6.9% in the first quarter, according to data from Northern Trust Corp.
Mr. Hall said it's also important to note the dollar amount of projected liabilities, in addition to the funding ratio percentage, when discussing corporate defined benefit plans. As an example, Mr. Hall said about half of the Russell 1000 companies disclose defined benefit plan obligations, and the average dollar amount of unfunded liabilities among those companies was about $530 million in 2020. In 2021 disclosures, the average dollar amount dropped to about $200 million.
"Here's some simple math," Mr. Hall said, "$530 million turns into $200 million for about 500 companies. So $300 million, on average, times 500 companies comes out to about $170 billion less in unfunded liability for those 500 companies in the Russell 1000 that have pension disclosures."
Mr. Hall said looking at dollar amounts on the asset side of funded status is equally important. Reducing the equity portfolio while moving along a fixed-income glidepath could increase management fees as the equity investments grow smaller causing them to move into a higher fee structure as a result with less scale.
Market volatility can also impact the plan's assets, and factor-based low-volatility strategies can be useful in providing diversification while efficiently managing the plan's capital, he said, as well as ultralong Treasury bonds that offer efficiency in managing the volatility of the interest-rate component of the plan's liability.
In addition to low-volatility global equity beta strategies, Mr. Hall said non-dollar emerging markets debt, high-yield debt and private credit could also fill roles on the growth side of a policy portfolio. "Shorter-duration private credit may give you both diversification and more yield, and not get in the way of the time horizon that you're managing," he said.
Mr. Hall said some sponsors are also looking at longer-duration private credit, which can be used to match the time horizon of the plan's liabilities or could be used when transferring assets to an insurer as part of a risk transfer transaction, if that opportunity arises.