Pension Risk Transfer Review for 2019
By Mark Johnson, Ph.D., J.D.
Pension plan sponsors in the U.S. continued to pursue a strategy known as “pension risk transfer” in 2019. According to the Secure Retirement Institute (formerly LIMRA SRI), 2019 year-to-date pension buy-out sales totaled $16.7 billion through the third quarter, which is a 4% increase over 2018.
The primary reasons for the popularity of pension risk transfers in 2019 remain unchanged from earlier years, with a focus on the four financial management goals listed below.
1. “Derisk” the corporate balance sheet by transferring pension obligations to third parties (typically life insurance companies) who assume responsibility for payment and administration of future pension payments to plan participants and their beneficiaries.
2. Provide greater financial security to plan participants.
3. Eliminate the rapidly increasing costs assessed by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. (PBGC). In 2007 the PBGC charged $31 and $8 per participant for single-employer plans and multi-employer plans, respectively. By 2019 the comparable PBGC premiums stood at $80 and $29, respectively.
4. Acknowledge that plan participants are living longer, as documented in 2019 updates to actuarial mortality tables published by the Society of Actuaries.
Top 2019 Pension Risk Transfer Actions
The following companies took the lead in the size of their 2019 pension risk transfer efforts.
Bristol-Myers Squibb announced plans in December 2018 to fully terminate the Bristol-Myers Squibb Retirement Income Plan using a combination of lump sum payments and the purchase of a group annuity contract from Athene Holding Ltd. As reported in the company’s 10-Q for the quarter ended September 30, 2019, the company paid $1.3 billion to pension plan participants who elected to receive a lump sum payment, and purchased a $2.4 billion contract from Athene to transfer the remaining pension obligations.
Baxter International Inc. entered into an October 4, 2019 agreement with Prudential Insurance Company of America and State Street Global Advisors Trust Company to purchase a non-participating single premium group annuity contract. The transaction is projected to reduce liability for the Baxter International Inc. and Subsidiaries Pension Plan by $2.4 billion and affects 17,200 plan participants, as reported to the SEC in an 8-K dated October 4, 2019.
Lockheed Martin Corporation purchased a $1.8 billion group annuity contract from The Prudential Insurance Company of America in January 2019, affecting approximately 32,000 retirees.
Weyerhaeuser Company announced plans in August 2018 to reduce pension liabilities by $1.5 billion—while still meeting all pension obligations—through the combined use of lump sum payments and a risk transfer action. On January 23, 2019, Weyerhaeuser Company purchased a group annuity contract from Athene Annuity and Life Company and State Street Global Advisors Trust Company. The transaction affected approximately 28,500 Weyerhaeuser retirees and beneficiaries, as reported to the SEC in an 8-K filed on January 23, 2019.
In a 2018 article titled “Pension Risk Transfers Remain Strong in 2018,” we reviewed similar pension risk transfers made last year by International Paper Co., FedEx Corp., AK Steel Holding Corp., and the TJX Companies, Inc.
Pension Plan Sponsors Continue to Close Pensions to New Employees
In an effort to further reduce future pension obligations, large plan sponsors are also closing existing defined benefit plans to new employees and/or reducing benefits.
General Electric announced in November 2019 that it plans to freeze pension benefits for up to 20,000 U.S. employees with salaried benefits, effective January 2021. The move is expected to save between $4 to $6 billion. The GE pension plan has been closed to new entrants since 2012.
FedEx Corp. announced in November 2019 that it will close its defined benefit pension plan to new hires in 2020. Instead, the shipping giant plans to offer enhanced 401(k) benefits to qualifying workers, including an employer match of up to 8%, starting in 2021.
The FedEx move follows a similar action by shipping rival United Parcel Service, Inc. which closed its pension plan to new employees in three years ago in 2016 according to Wall Street Journal reports.
FedEx transferred responsibility for $6 billion in pension obligations to MetLife in a 2018 action affecting up to 41,000 plan participants and beneficiaries.
Pension plan sponsor actions to close defined benefit plans to new participants are also known as “hibernating” risks or “freezing” the plan, according to a recent white paper by Mass Mutual titled “Key Decisions for De-Risking Your Pension Plan.” Risks remain even in closed plans, however, in the form of interest rate risk and market volatility.
The Wall Street Journal reported in a November 18, 2019 article that “the majority of the 100 largest corporate pension plan sponsors have implemented some sort of freeze” on pension benefits for new employees.
ERISA and pension expert Mark Johnson welcomes questions from litigators and pension managers about pension risk transfer matters.
About Pension and ERISA Expert Mark Johnson
Mark Johnson, Ph.D., J.D., is an experienced pension and ERISA expert. As a former ERISA Plan Managing Director and plan fiduciary for a Fortune 500 company, Dr. Johnson has practical knowledge of plan documents as well as an in-depth understanding of ERISA obligations. He works as an expert consultant and witness on 401(k), ESOP and pension fiduciary liability; retiree medical benefit coverage; third party administrator disputes; individual benefit claims; pension benefits in bankruptcy; long term disability benefits; and cash conversion balances. He can be reached at 817-909-0778 or www.erisa-benefits.com.
ERISA Benefits Consulting, Inc. by Mark Johnson provides benefit consulting and advisory services and does not engage in the practice of law.
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