Friday, June 29, 2012

Pension Funding Relief On the Way?

While the Supreme Court was front and center making the big news of the day and the House of Representatives was busy finding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, the US Senate appears to have come to an agreement on a bill that would provide for more highway funding and for a better deal for students and prior students on student loans.

I know, what does this have to do with pension funding. Well, leave it to your Congress, because when they do stuff like this, I deny any linkage to them. Buried not so deep in this bill is so-called pension funding stabilization. You remember the pension reform law to end all pension reforms, the disastrous Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA), don't you? Well, it hasn't ended pension funding reforms yet and it doesn't look like it's close to doing so.

So, what is pension funding stabilization? Well, in a nutshell, PPA was supposed to do all of these things:

  • Force companies to use current (or almost current) discount rates to value their liabilities
  • Provide incentives for companies to get their plans better funded
  • Get all plans essentially fully funded on a mark-to-market basis within 7 years
That was 2006. Things were rosy. The economy was booming. Interest rates were very low, but surely they were going to get at least a little bit higher.

Find the flux capacitor, Doc Brown. Where's the DeLorean? Let's go back to the future.

A few things have happened since 2006, including various types of pension funding reform. But, they haven't been enough. And, now, Congress in its infinite wisdom is working on legislation that, in my humble opinion, is very wrong.

Before I explain why it's wrong, let's look at the key provision of pension funding stabilization. Currently, companies (and their actuaries) in performing their pension funding calculations get to use an average of rates over the last 24 months. While this isn't quite a spot rate, rates have been in the same general range over the last 24 months, so it's far from abhorrent. And, putting in market-based funding was a cornerstone of PPA. 

Nearly six years after PPA's passage, however, we are in for a change. Should the bill become law, companies will get to average their rates over 25 years. That's a lot of years. 25 years ago was 1987. Rates on 30-year Treasuries, were, if memory serves me (because I am writing this remotely and am not in a position to look it up), in excess of 9% (for at least part of the year). What does 9% have to do with prevailing interest rates today? In fact, even if you believe that pension liabilities should be discounted at an expected long-term rate of return on plan assets, where can you get a consistent return of 9% these days?

If Congress wants to give pension funding relief, the way to do it is to still make companies pay for the cost of current year accruals, but let them pay off their unfunded liabilities on a basis slower than seven years. Instead, they are going to get to full funding on a basis that makes no sense.

Why is Congress doing this? Funding highway improvements and student loan writeoffs takes money. Pension contributions generally result in corporate tax deductions. So, the pension funding stabilization gets scored as a revenue raiser because the asinine rules of Congress look at only 10 years. As you and I know, the cost of a pension is the cost of a pension and no silly rules can change that. This means that those tax deductions are merely deferred. So, in reality, the government is once again spending money on stuff it has no way to pay for. 

Stupid bill!

Yes, stupid bill.

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