Category Archives: Pensions

Lump-sum Pension Payments: Who Are the Winners and Losers?

Source: Olivia S. Mitchell and Elizabeth Kennedy, Knowledge@Wharton, April 2, 2019

The U.S. Treasury department’s move last month to allow private companies to pay lump-sum pension payments to retirees and beneficiaries, instead of monthly payments, is good news for companies that do not want to be saddled with long-term pension obligations – particularly for private sector employers who have underfunded pension plans.

However, lump-sum pension payments may not work out well for retirees who opt for them. While a debate has ensued on the merits and risks of lump-sum pension payments for employees, there are also wider concerns about the long-term impacts on the entire economy when retirees do not have sufficient financial resources to support themselves. Those concerns are assuming a new importance because of the rapid growth of the so-called gig economy with temporary workers and freelancers who don’t enjoy employer-sponsored retirement benefits.

The Treasury department’s latest move reverses an Obama-era pledge to bar employers from offering lump-sum payments. The fear was that those receiving a lump-sum payment might be shortchanged and also might be tempted to spend the money sooner. Around 26.2 million Americans receive pensions right now, though that number has been declining as businesses favor 401(k) plans instead…..

OPEB Brief: The Credit Impacts Of OPEB Obligation Bonds

Source: S&P Global Ratings, March 11, 2019
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Other postemployment benefit (OPEB) underfunding of obligations is pervasive across U.S. state and local governments, and costs are likely to continue to rise rapidly. Although, compared with pensions, these obligations may have some more flexibility in how they’re provided, we recognize that funded levels are almost universally lower than those of pensions and could quickly become a challenge to budgets if not addressed. With the implementation of Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) Statements Nos. 74 and 75, many governments are seeing large new OPEB liabilities on their balance sheets that are growing due to insufficient contributions (see “Credit FAQ: New GASB Statements 74 And 75 Provide Transparency For Assessing Budgetary Stress On U.S. State & Local Government OPEBs,” published March 14, 2018, on RatingsDirect). In response, governments are looking to OPEB obligation bonds (OOBs) as a way to address funding concerns. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the OOB, issuance could have rating implications.

Pension Brief: Are Asset Transfers A Gimmick Or A Sound Fiscal Strategy?

Source: S&P Global Ratings, February 19, 2019
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(Editor’s note: This publication marks the start of a series of short comments on credit matters of interest in the municipal retirement space. This first “Pension Brief” follows up on our publication one year ago surveying pension reform initiatives across the states (“Recent U.S. State Pension Reform: Balancing Long-Term Strategy And Budget Reality,” Feb. 9, 2018). ….)

…. To face persistent and growing pension challenges, some U.S. state and local governments have looked to develop creative solutions to help mitigate expanding liabilities and bolster wanting asset levels. ….

Illinois Budget Proposal Places Risky Bets On Asset Transfers and Graduated Income Tax

Source: S&P Global Ratings, February 22, 2019
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S&P Global Ratings believes that Illinois’ (BBB-/Stable) executive budget proposal precariously balances the current budget, but punts measures to address fiscal progress to future years. It prioritizes service solvency at the expense of lower pension contributions and does not make meaningful progress toward tackling the $7.9 billion bill backlog or projected out-year deficits….

State and local government — US: Market volatility underscores risk of high pension investment return targets

Source: Thomas Aaron, Timothy Blake, Moody’s, Sector In-Depth, February 20, 2019
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Equity market losses in late 2018 will translate into larger than expected pension cost hikes in 2021 for many governments because of equity-heavy investment allocations within their pension systems’ assets. Despite the long-term investment focus of US public pension systems and favorable returns in the past two fiscal years, recent market losses highlight the uphill credit challenge facing governments that rely on high-return/high-risk pension assets to cover a large portion of their pension benefit promises.

State and local government – US: Retiree benefits drive growth in fixed costs, posing greater challenges than debt

Source: Benjamin J VanMetre, Grayson Nichols, Thomas Aaron, Rachel Cortez, Alexandra S. Parker, Moody’s, Sector In-Depth, February 5, 2019
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Fixed costs — the combination of debt service, pension contributions and retiree healthcare— continue to rise for many US state and local governments. While retiree benefits (pensions and healthcare) will continue to drive this trend, the growth level is heavily dependent on unpredictable factors such as pension investment performance and workforce demographics. Debt service costs, on the other hand, are largely stable and unlikely to increase materially,continuing the trend of the last decade. Still, total fixed costs create budgetary challenges for some governments, potentially affecting their ability to deliver core services, a dynamic also known as “crowd-out” risk…..

ReDefined Contribution Plans: 2018 Defined Contribution Language Study

Source: Invesco, 2019
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From the executive summary:
Despite the great strides plan sponsors have made over the past 30 years in providing participants with in-depth education, guidance and tools, many are still challenged in their ability to engage, inform and motivate employees to save for retirement. Participant communications continues to be named a top-three “area of focus” in 2018,1 as plan sponsors of all sizes continually seek to refine their existing programs.

Based on more than 10 years of in-depth research, focused on the language used when communicating with investors, we believe a disconnect remains between what plan sponsors say and what participants hear. To that end, our 2018 ReDefined Contribution Plans defined contribution (DC) language study focused exclusively on the language of DC plans, specifically testing how participants reacted to various language as it related to their understanding of, and interest in, key aspects of DC plan design and investments.

Together with Maslansky + Partners, we conducted a national survey of more than 800 large-plan participants of various genders, income levels and ages (broken out by millennials, Generation X, and boomers).

We then reviewed our key findings within the construct of our four key principles of credible communication, designed to help plan sponsors communicate more effectively and build trust with participants.

Retirement Security: Alternate Price Indexes for Cost-of-Living Adjustments Present Tradeoffs

Source: U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), GAO-19-218R: Published: Jan 28, 2019. Publicly Released: Jan 28, 2019.

From the summary:
Cost-of-living adjustments can help ensure that federal benefits keep pace with inflation. Using a consumer price index to adjust benefits can help ensure that recipients have enough purchasing power to get what they need.

Social Security and other federal retirement programs generally use one of the four consumer price indexes maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

We looked at what switching indexes would mean for people’s benefits and federal spending. For example, people who retire earlier or have lower incomes would feel the largest effects of any change.

2018 NCPERS Public Retirement Systems Study

Source: National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems and Cobalt Community Research,January 30, 2019

From the press release:
Fueled by strong investment returns, public retirement systems continued to strengthen their funding levels and fine-tune their assumptions, according to an annual study by the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems.

The 2018 NCPERS Public Retirement Systems Study underscores the success of efforts by pension trustees, managers, and administrators to make steady improvements that enhance the sustainability of pension funds, said Hank H. Kim, executive director and chief counsel of NCPERS. ….

…The 2018 study draws on responses from 167 state and local government pension funds with more than 18.7 million active and retired memberships, actuarial assets exceeding $2.5 trillion and market assets exceeding $2.6 trillion. The majority—62 percent—were local pension funds, while 38 percent were state-wide pension funds. NCPERS conducted the eighth annual study in September through December 2018 in partnership with Cobalt Community Research.

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Illinois (State of) – Pension funding improves, but lags other states due to weak contributions and high payouts

Source: Ted Hampton, Thomas Aaron, Timothy Blake, Moody’s Investors Service, Issuer Comment, State government – Illinois, December 18, 2018
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Illinois’ (Baa3 stable) pension funding slightly improved under our adjustments in the year ended June 30, 2018, despite higher unfunded liability figures that the state reported December 7 (see Exhibit 1). Rising interest rates that lowered liabilities, combined with favorable investment returns, drove down the state’s adjusted net pension liability (ANPL) by an estimated 2%-5% in the year. Nonetheless, Illinois’ recent pension funding gains lag those of other states, largely because of its weak contributions and rising payouts.